Many have quipped since last season’s all-German Champions League final that it’s time the Premier League took a few tips off the exceptionally-efficiently-run Bundesliga, but there is at least one man in England who is taking the case in point seriously – Aston Villa’s Paul Lambert.
On the surface, the Villa boss is your average middle-order Premier League manager; mid-forties in age, Scottish born, well acquainted with the lower leagues from spells with Wycombe, Colchester and Norwich, and a playing career that included the likes of Celtic, St. Mirren and Motherwell. But there is a slim gap in Lambert’s CV I’m yet to mention, that has changed his whole ethos of the beautiful game and could soon bring success back to Villa Park.
Lambert spent a single year of his playing days in Germany, with none other than Borussia Dortmund. The midfielder made just 44 appearances for The Black Yellows, but in that time helped his side to their first and only Champions League title in 1997, and according to urban legend, marked Juventus playmaker Zinedine Zidane out of the game in the final.
Perhaps a single campaign can’t change your whole footballing philosophy, but Lambert went a step further, taking his coaching badges in Germany rather than England.
And it’s the model from his former club that has brought Dortmund such rapid and consistent success after staring into the face of financial implosion back in 2005, as well as the lessons from earning his coaching badges with a German perspective, that Lambert is applying at Aston Villa.
To take you back to last summer, the Birmingham outfit were at their lowest low since the David O’Leary days. The torrid single year tenure of Alex McGleish had pushed the Villains further backwards rather than forwards, and now the club and the roster suffered a pejorative legacy of a succession of wheeler-dealer, painfully British in philosophy managers.
The situation called for change; a deviation from the norm, a unique selling point, a strategy that would not only make Villa stand out against their divisional rivals, but would furthermore get the club moving in the right direction again. The instigator would be Paul Lambert, lured away from Norwich City by Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner, whom via his transfer policy and self-assured managerial abilities would turn the whole club’s fortunes around.
Rather than turning to the Premier League’s bargain bucket in the 2012 summer window to stave Villa clear from relegation, hiring a collection of has-beens, mediocre talents and mid-to-late-twenty-somethings that had never reached their full potential, as had Lambert’s predecessors, the Scot scouted the lower leagues to invest in a wide berth of young talents, including Jordan Bowery from Chesterfield, Ashley Westwood at a cost of £2million from Crewe, Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United for a fee of £3million and Joe Bennett from Middlesbrough for £2.75million.
At the same time, Villa youngsters Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clarke and Chris Herd were given more prominent roles in the first team, whilst Christian Benteke – Lambert’s only lavish expenditure of the summer – was sourced for £7million from Belgian side Genk.
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The new additions and inward promotions within the squad came at the expense of the old guard, with Emile Heskey, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar, Luke Young, Steven Warnock, Jean Makoun and Alan Hutton all departing on either a permanent or temporary basis, whilst veterans Shay Given and Darren Bent stayed put, but were soon to be usurped from the first team.
There are obvious comparisons with the Dortmund model in acquiring youngsters from the lower tiers that other Premier League outfits had deemed not good enough or simply overlooked. The same tactic has brought the German side back to prosperity and silverware success, with two Bundesliga titles, a Champions League final and DFB Cup triumphs in the last three years, inspired by firstly Jurgen Klopp’s enigmatic personality, and secondly Dortmund’s young cast cherry-picked from clubs of lesser stature for their potential at relatively cheap cost.
But the key for Dortmund has been giving their budding youngsters the opportunity to shine as a core factor in their development, which is exactly what Lambert has done at Villa. Rather than following the more traditional Premier League ideal of bringing in ‘relegation specialists’ – an unflattering description that has accommodated for Nigel Quashie’s top flight career- the Claret and Blues boss put all of his faith in his young roster, despite their obvious inexperience in England’s premier tier.
It was a huge risk by all means, and until the turn of the year, appeared almost destined to be an ill-fated gamble. An 8-0 defeat to Chelsea, followed by subsequent 4-0 and 3-0 losses to Tottenham and Wigan respectively in December was a particular low point for Villa’s young roster that was yet to be sure of its Premier League worth. But in the second half of the season, Lambert’s juniors secured the results that mattered, with wins against West Ham, Stoke, QPR, Sunderland and Norwich assuring their top flight survival.
And now, the likes of Clark, Westwood, Bennett and Lowton, who all played pivotal roles last season, are all the better for their year of fighting for their lives at the foot of the Premier League table. But Lambert hasn’t stopped there; rather than padding his ambitious and youthful squad with veterans and proven Premier League journeymen to accommodate for their lack of experience, the Villa boss has continued his policy this summer by attracting some of Europe’s most hotly tipped youngsters to Villa Park.
22 year old Nicklas Helenius comes with a strong record of 40 goals in 102 appearances in the Danish top flight with Aalborg BK and was purchased by Villa for just £1.2 million in June, Bulgaria international starlet Aleksander Tonev has been sourced from Lech Poznan for £2.5million, former Sevilla left-back Antonio Luna, aged 22, has joined the Villains at a cost of £1.5million and highly-rated defender Jores Okore, who turned down a move to Chelsea in January, has also joined for £4million from FC Nordsjaelland.
So where can Aston Villa and Paul Lambert go from here? Are we witnessing another Dortmund in the making, or could the German model backfire in England?
Well, in comparison to last season, Lambert can now boast a squad of young talents tried and tested at Premier League level. Despite many individually rising from relative obscurity, last term the Villa squad proved they not only had the ability to compete in the top flight, but most importantly the right mentality. It’s provided the Scot with a solid basis to add new recruits to this summer, with the assurance that even if the second wave of youthful additions aren’t as effective as the first, he still has a reliable starting XI to fall back on.
And a big part of that has been the Birmingham outfit’s ability to keep Christian Benteke. Many youngsters at Villa Park rose to the challenge last season, but none so much as the Belgium international, who finished his inaugural Premier League campaign with 18 goals and four assists in 34 domestic appearances. His future was in doubt earlier in the summer after handing in a formal transfer request, but the issuing of a new contract has assured that Benteke will remain a Villa player for at least another year. The 22 year old is the kind of player who will attract others of parallel quality or potential to Villa Park, and his success story will appeal to youngsters trying to take the next step in their careers.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen with the recent acquisition of Jores Okore, Aston Villa and Lambert’s reputation for giving talented young prospects the opportunity to shine is obviously growing in Europe. The Denmark international turned down the chance to move to Stamford Bridge in the summer citing his fear over a lack of first team exposure, but is now more than willing to join the youthful revolution at Villa Park, where he’s guaranteed consistent game time should his performances justify it. It’s the kind of policy that will attract talented youngsters full of ambition, that will overall be available at a much cheaper cost than their older counterparts.
But for all my positivity, there is still scope for the Birmingham club’s fortunes to take a downward turn. With any player below the age of 24, there is always a concern over their lack of consistency. Rather than pacing themselves throughout the season, youngsters have a tendency to rise and dip in form, whilst, as shown from Villa’s string of drubbing’s to the hands of Chelsea and Tottenham last term, their heads will drop far sooner than the average 28 year old. There’s every chance that the Villa roster, once again finding themselves in a relegation scrap, will be unable to produce the form that saw them escape the drop at the end of last season.
The only remedy for that will be Lambert’s psychological abilities, and as we witnessed last term, they appear to be in healthy supply.
Of course, the other concern is that before any substantial ground is made at Villa Park in terms of league standing, the squad’s most promising personnel will be lured away by the Premier League’s bigger clubs. But with Mario Gotze jumping ship to Bayern Munich this summer and Robert Lewandowski expected to follow suit in a year’s time, it appears even Dortmund haven’t worked out that part of the plan just yet.
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