St. Mary's Musings: What were your season expectations before it started and have they changed since?
Aaron Campeau: I really thought they were going to show some progress this season, which is in hindsight remarkably naive. I wasn't expecting much, mind you; just sweet, sweet mid-table anonymity. That doesn't appear to be in the cards, and though I still think Villa have enough to stay up, it's looking like it's going to be yet another a close one.
SMM: How do you rate Paul Lambert as a manager?
AC: It's a tough question, it really is. I think he's been dealt an incredibly difficult hand in many ways; it's pretty clear at this point that the clear-out of veteran players and focus on rebuilding with youth wasn't entirely his decision, and he's found some pretty solid players for a bargain. But he's also brought in some really, really bad players and the team hasn't shown any real improvement in the quality of their play at all since he's been in charge. <!-- ######## START FLOATED VIDEO SNIPPET ######## -->
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I think that, in the right situation, Paul Lambert could have a great deal of success. He's a lot better tactically than he gets credit for being, and he knows the limitations of his teams. But he's got a mixed record at best in the transfer market and some of Villa's younger players have actually regressed under his watch. There's absolutely no point in letting him go at this point, but if it did end up happening, I can't say it's something I'd lose a lot of sleep over.
SMM: Randy Lerner has been trying to sell the club for a while now. How do you feel this has impacted on Aston Villa?
AC: I think that Lerner recognizing he needed to protect his investment and invest some money into the squad over the summer was beneficial, but it's otherwise been a disaster. I'm increasingly of the opinion that Lerner has been preparing for an eventual sale for a few years now, hence the stripping back of the wage bill, and it's hurt the quality of the squad and stature of the club immensely.
He's seemed to realize that, but the damage has been done and he's going to end up taking a bit of a bath, financially, which is unfortunate. I think Randy Lerner really wanted things to work with Villa, and I think he has genuine affection for the club, but a combination of bad management and things completely out of his control-the financial crisis, the changing financial landscape of the Premier League, changes in his personal life-made that impossible.
SMM: Aston Villa started the season brightly, boasting a great defensive record. Why has that fallen on the wayside?
AC: The start to the season was fun, but it was always unsustainable. You've got to be a really imposing threat on the counterattack to concede 65-50% of the possession, and Vila really hasn't been that at all this season. They gutted out a few results, but that's seemingly the only way they're capable of winning and with the personnel they have it's just not a repeatable strategy. Losing Vlaar, Senderos, Baker, and Hutton has hurt, but it doesn't really matter who's out there; unless you're elite defensively and deadly on the counter, the start Villa had just isn't something that can be depended on.
SMM: Can you put a finger on why Villa aren't scoring any goals (cue an avalanche of Villa goals tomorrow)
AC: It's in many ways similar to the reason their defensive record hasn't been sustainable; Villa's goals have been few and far between, and they've also been somewhat lucky. Villa struggle mightily holding onto the ball and transitioning from defense to attack, which means that they've been largely incapable of scoring without benefitting from an egregious mistake from the defense or finding a way to get the ball behind the defense, seemingly through luck alone. Not having Christian Benteke has been a serious problem, but there hasn't been much about the way they've played this season to think that his presence is going to be a panacea. The problem is the same as it's been for years; and inability to maintain possession and a near total lack of creativity.
SMM: Like Saints, Villa are famed for their youth academy and their ethos to actually play their youngsters. Are there any young Villa players worth looking out for tomorrow?
AC: Jack Grealish is the most obvious name, and he's made a few-though not nearly as many as most Villa fans would like-appearances this season. He's a very tricky winger that provides a lot of what Villa have been missing of late, and it's a bit baffling why he hasn't been given more of a chance this season given how inept Villa's attack has been so far.
Callum Robinson has been absolutely tearing it up on loan for Preston North End, and he's very much a player Villa fans are looking forward to seeing in the first team within the next few years. More immediately, Jores Okore is a seemingly can't-miss centerback prospect that's just recently returned from injury and may find himself in the first team picture very soon thanks to the attrition that's befallen Villa's defense as of late.
SMM: How do you and other fans see Southampton? Should Villa see them as rivals in terms of league position?
AC: I'll speak only for myself here and say that Villa fans see Southampton as an example of what could have been. When the Saints were promoted they were clearly well behind Villa in terms of resources and cachet, but that gap has been eliminated and then some. Southampton have done nearly everything right; they've lost countless key players and suffered through significant turmoil at the top, and they've come out of it even stronger. Villa have lost key players, and they haven't replaced them. They've made poor decision after poor decision at the highest levels of the club. More than anything, they seem unwilling to take any kind of risk and in the end, that's what may well doom them.
At this point, Villa aren't in any way a rival of Southampton. I don't know that I'm entirely sold on the idea of the Saints finishing in the top four, but I'm unconvinced that it's outside of the realm of possibility. At worst, I think Southampton is going to battle for a European place all season and finish very comfortably in the upper-mid table; Villa will be lucky to assure themselves of a return to the Premier League before May.
SMM: What did you make of Southampton's summer exodus? Are you surprised at how they've turned things around?
AC: I am. I was very skeptical that Southampton would be able to replace all of the talent they lost and adjust to a new manager all at the same time, and I even thought they were an outside candidate to become mired in the relegation battle. Maybe it was so many years of seeing Villa struggle to improve, maybe it was a mis-reading of the talent they brought in to replace what was lost, but I was pretty clearly way off.
I don't really mind being wrong, though; it's exciting to see a new club crashing the party at the top of the table, especially one that was promoted so recently. And they've done it without just pouring money into the squad, which is fun as well; I'm not nearly so opposed to the Manchester City/PSG approach as a lot of people are, but that doesn't mean that it isn't more enjoyable when a club shows such rapid improvement through more traditional means. If nothing else, it's a blueprint from Villa to work their way back to respectability.
SMM: If you could sell any of Aston Villa's regular starting XI, who would it be and why?
AC: Probably either Ron Vlaar or Fabian Delph, because they're going to be leaving in the summer for free otherwise and it would be nice to get something for two of the club's best three players. Delph will hurt more to lose for nothing, because he struggled to break through for so long, and just as he's beginning to turn the corner and turn into a very good player, he's going to be gone and Villa won't see a dime for all of their investment. That's no ones fault but their own, because they should have cashed in the second it became apparent they weren't going to be able to re-sign him (which was likely over the summer) but it still hurts quite a bit.
SMM: If you could buy any one of Southampton's starting XI, who would it be and why?
AC: I like a lot of Southampton's players; I wanted desperately wanted Villa to sign Steven Davis when he was available on a free, Dušan Tadić would solve a whole lot of problems, Victor Wanyama is a much better version of at least three of Villa's current regular midfielders, and Nathaniel Clyne is obviously a pretty special player. But if I had to choose one, it would be Morgan Schneiderlin. That's probably not a big surprise and I probably don't need to go into a lot of detail, but he's the quality of player that would instantly erase my fear of relegation, given the need he would fill on this club.
SMM: Finally, how do you see the game going and what is your final score prediction?
AC: Not well! I'm going to say Southampton win 2-0, and that the game doesn't feel anywhere near that close.