A review of the 2012/13 season for Aston Villa.
After a disappointing season in 2011/12, finishing 16th under unpopular former Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish, there was renewed hope for this year, with the appointment of exciting young manager Paul Lambert from Norwich City, where he had worked wonders, winning back-to-back promotions and making them look very much at home in the Premier League.
However, there was a fairly quiet summer in the transfer market, with defender Ron Vlaar and Belgian youngster Christian Benteke the only notable additions to a squad that, in many fans’ opinions, needed significant strengthening after only narrowly avoiding relegation the previous season. Their fears were compounded when Villa started poorly in the league.
After losing their first two games away to West Ham and at home to Everton, there looked like signs of improvement in a 1-1 draw at Newcastle, and they registered their first win of the campaign in their fourth game at home to Swansea, with promising striker Benteke netting his first goal for the club.
It became increasingly clear over the season that Lambert was keen to stamp down his authority at Villa Park, and senior players like Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Darren Bent were increasingly left out of the side in favour of the club’s young players. This looked initially like a poor decision from Lambert, with results remaining poor and no league win again until a 1-0 win at Sunderland in November. They did, however, produce something of a shock in the Capital One Cup, with an impressive 4-2 win away to Manchester City.
One of the most disappointing results came as they produced an excellent performance against Manchester United, going 2-0 up through two goals from ever-improving youngster Andreas Weimann, who was forming a good partnership with Benteke, only to surrender their lead and lose 3-2 to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Things simply were not going Villa’s way, even when they managed to play some good football and look more committed to the cause.
Their form improved as they went five games unbeaten in November and December, holding Arsenal to a 0-0 draw and earning a shock 3-1 win against Liverpool at Anfield, with Benteke really starting to justify Lambert’s faith in him, emerging as one of the league’s most promising strikers and attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in the January transfer window. Signed for only £7million from Genk, he was looking like one of the bargains of the summer and even if they didn’t manage to keep him, it was clear they would probably sell him for a healthy profit if a bigger club came calling.
Villa looked dead and buried after three awful defeats in a row in at the end of December, starting with an 8-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in which they were thoroughly outplayed and humiliated. They followed that up with two home defeats, 4-0 to Spurs and 3-0 to fellow relegation strugglers Wigan.
Lambert’s position came under real scrutiny as Aston Villa were knocked out of both cup competitions in quick succession by lower league opposition. Bradford City beat them in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup and Millwall inflicted a shock on them with a 2-1 win in the FA Cup. Things continued to go against them as another fine display away to Everton was not rewarded with a win, as they surrendered a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3. Again, Benteke was immense and looked like the only player in the side capable of dragging Villa to safety.
After losing close games against Arsenal and Manchester City, Villa desperately needed to win two six-pointers against other teams in the relegation zone. They first won 2-1 at Reading and then came out on top in a thrilling encounter with Queens Park Rangers at Villa Park, with Benteke netting a crucial late winner to give them a bit of breathing space ahead of their rivals. A loss to Liverpool halted their run, but they bounced back with another win against relegation battlers Stoke, winning 3-1 at the Britannia Stadium.
They were overpowered by Manchester United as a 3-0 defeat confirmed their opponents as champions for the season, but a 6-1 thrashing of Sunderland looked to have secured safety. They were made to sweat with a 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea, but Wigan’s defeat to Arsenal a few days later confirmed their survival in the top flight for the 102nd consecutive season.
Best Player: Christian Benteke
Little was known of the young Belgian striker before he signed, but now he’s a Premier League star. The 22-year-old scored 19 times to almost single-handedly fire Villa to safety, and the only bad news is that they will now face a real battle on their hands to keep the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund from coming in with big-money offers this summer. A great signing by Lambert, who showed skeptical fans that he knew what he was doing by playing him instead of the more established Darren Bent.
Worst Player: Charles N’Zogbia
On his day, the French winger is capable of match-winning performances, but he has continued to disappoint in his second season at the club, showing that it is perhaps time for him to move on. Often appearing lazy and incapable of making the right decisions, he will surely be sold this summer as Lambert looks to reshape the squad for a better season next year. Many other big names are likely to follow, as Stephen Ireland has also been a real disappointment, and Shay Given and Darren Bent are clearly not rated by Lambert.
Final Grade: D
They may have achieved survival, but it was a close-run thing, and for a club of Villa’s size that’s not good enough. There were many crushing defeats along the way, most of all when they were on the wrong end of the biggest winning margin in the Premier League this season when Chelsea beat them 8-0. They would be well-advised to stick with Lambert, who can help them climb the table if given time to exact his own influence on the squad, as they have shown in glimpses this season.