By Paul Gardner
There is a hallowed phrase in English soccer -- “You win nothing with kids.” A phrase that must have echoed thunderously around the ears of Aston Villa coach Paul Lambert Sunday as he surveyed the wreckage of his young team after that 8-0 demolishment by Chelsea.
Entering the game, Lambert had every reason for optimism. A week ago, the identical starting team had beaten Liverpool 3-1 ... at Anfield, no less. An outstanding performance accomplished with a swagger you don’t expect from a bunch of boys.
Well, maybe not exactly boys. The average age of the team that Lambert fielded against Chelsea was 23 years and 5 months. Not teenagers then, but still well below the age of teams that pull in the trophies. A look at World Cup-winning teams tells the story. The 2006 final featured the two oldest teams in the tournament -- the winners Italy (average age 29 years, 7 months) and France (29/11). Spain, the 2010 winner, included two youngsters -- Pedro (22/11) and Busquets (21/11) which brought their average age down to 27 years and 3 months.
So Lambert’s Aston Villa is a team for the future, then -- maybe we have to wait two or three years to see it at its full potential. But that is not how things happen. The possibility of Lambert’s team remaining intact for the next three years is zero. Indeed, the likelihood of Lambert remaining the Villa coach for another three years is pretty slim.
Realistically, Lambert is on a loser here. His evident expectations are simply not born out by the facts of soccer life. Possibly, this lovely notion of a team of home-produced youngsters sticking together and maturing into a pro championship team is successful somewhere.
The most likely example would surely be Barcelona -- but a look at its current first-team roster reveals that around a third of their players were bought - most of them as adults - from other clubs.
One of the themes that underlines that “you don’t win with kids” thinking is the notorious fickleness of young players -- indeed, of youngsters generally. That leads to inconsistency, unreliability. How else to explain Villa’s remarkable win at Anfield, then the disastrous implosion at Chelsea just one week later? The difference between a 3-1 win at Anfield and an 8-0 wipe-out at Chelsea takes some explaining -- but it seems to me that it cannot all be put down to the age of the players.
For a start, Villa’s 23-year-olds took care of Liverpool’s 26-year-olds -- but then caved in to Chelsea, whose average age was only one year higher than Liverpool’s.
Experience comes into it, obviously. Chelsea’s boys, including the two youngest starters -- Victor Moses at 22 and Eden Hazard at 21 -- have plenty of first-team experience. They play like pros. Even the 18-year-old Brazilian Lucas Piazon who appeared as a late sub, was instantly at home, serving up a superb assist for Ramires’ first goal and generally oozing confidence (maybe a little too much so -- his penalty kick was saved by the 28-year-old Brad Guzan).
But the Villa youngsters told a different story. Enthusiasm they had, in plenty -- at least at the beginning of the game. And of course, work rate. But no smoothness. Their play had the forced speed that we see here in college soccer. Some of it, in the first half, looked quite impressive ... but it was short-lived and rarely led to anything decisive. Rarely? Never, actually. Villa had no shots on goal in the first half -- this despite clear signs of uncertainty in the Chelsea defense.
Villa’s attacking moves tended to start at 90 mph and maybe get up to 95 mph -- before they invariably collapsed under the high pressure that high speed brings with it. In short, the technical caliber of the Villa youngsters was not up to what they were trying to do. After two or three or maybe four passes, the sequences tended to disintegrate as the passes went astray and were collected by Chelsea.
Forward Christian Benteke, so lethal against Liverpool, had a frustrating time of it, repeatedly getting flagged for offside as he raced for passes that weren’t delivered.
A slight pause in any of those sequences, the intervention of a player who could hold the ball for a second or two, who could, in that fraction of time, re-shape a play that was running out of control, would have made a difference. But there was no such player in a Villa shirt.
Liverpool -- as one could see -- had a bad day against Villa - but the credit went to the Villa players for taking the hint, and joyfully tearing into the lethargic Merseysiders. Chelsea -- humbled by Brazil’s Corinthians in the World Club Cup - was anything but lethargic. It turned on the offense, full blast, and simply blew Villa away.
Tactics? Yes, they had something to do with this. Villa started -- under the coach’s orders, no doubt -- as though it could take up where it left off at Anfield, bossing the home team about all over the field. Fernando Torres, with a superb header, upset those calculations after only two minutes. He should have done, that is; the warning was there, that Chelsea would not lie down Liverpool. Villa went on trying to play its frantic attacking soccer, its adrenaline-inspired rushes downfield having to be quickly reversed as the ball was coughed up to the Chelsea midfielders -- who knew a good deal more about the niceties of attacking soccer than Villa did. Villa did not heed the warning, its style, its tactics never changed, it was 3-0 down at half time, and the final 8-0 scoreline was kind to it. It could have been 10-0.
In the end, it was not the age or the experience or the tactics that made Chelsea so dominant. Its players -- including its youngsters -- were superior to Villa’s by a wide margin. Superior technique, superior game awareness. That was enough -- the fitness and the enthusiasm of Villa’s boys counted for nothing against the sheer soccer canniness and cleverness of Chelsea’s play.
Eight-zero scorelines don’t happen too often -- I doubt that Villa will be crushed like this again any time soon, and I don’t expect Chelsea to get that many goals again this season. But the message of the game was clear for both teams. If you’re going to rely on young players, they have to be exceptional. Villa has no exceptional young players. Chelsea does.
Within that conclusion, there is a further omen -- one that the English FA and its technical honchos might be interested in. The majority of Villa’s youngsters are English or Scottish or Irish. All of Chelsea’s youngsters are imports.