What occurred after Bradford City's goal to equalise in the second leg last night was a bizarre sight. Many's the time we've seen teams forced onto the defensive and enter panic mode, losing all sense of position and timing and getting a thrashing. Equally, we've seen plenty of teams, in desperation at seeking a goal, let their impetuousness get the better of them and lose all discipline. Last night, from Bradford's goal onwards, was a far rarer breed - a team utterly dominating yet in a state of absolute confused panic, as one writer not a million miles from here summed up,"like an 11-year-old playing FIFA."
Such a scenario can only have been produced by two failings, and both of them lie (largely) at Paul Lambert's door. To enter that state requires deep mental problems in the side as well as a state of tactical indiscipline and confusion. In other words, the manager must have failed in his two principal roles: to motivate his players, and deploy the right ones in the right order for the situation.
Last night, Villa were a comprehensive failure on both accounts. The strategy of flooding the pitch with attacking players and pushing as far forward as possible left Villa with no space to use their superior technique, with the team resorting ridiculously early to piling into the penalty area en masse and artlessly hoofing the ball in, allowing Bradford the luxury of having their entire defensive work consist of heading high balls away. If there is one skill in the entire box of tricks a footballer requires which has the smallest gap in quality between League Two and Premier League, it's heading away high balls, or making clearances. Villa didn't ask anything else of their opponents.
In addition, everything pointing to the mental wellbeing of the squad did not bode well. As the match wore on, Villa's players looked increasingly unaware of what they were supposed to be doing, and at the final whistle, reacted with angry faces. Not dejection, or despair, but simple rage, as in the manner of a team that has just lost a game to a last-minute handball. Villa suffered no such injustice, so the fact they appeared - while it should be stressed this is of course mere speculation on body language - to be blaming something other than themselves.
Despite Lambert's rise over recent years, he has also been dogged with the minor but persistent suggestion that he arbitrarily alienates players. It would certainly explain the odd disappearance of Darren Bent, who has become so shot of confidence that he failed to even attempt to score despite being presented the ball at the back post in the dying minutes of the Bradford debacle. At a club that was undergoing a meteoric rise like Norwich, that could be afforded. For Villa, it could be the difference between promotion and relegation - after all, recall the circumstances in which Bent was signed.
Those same circumstances, of a club buying their way out of trouble, are relevant to Villa once more, except it doesn't appear to be them that are doing the spending just yet. The relegation battle as it stands, consists of between six and nine teams: Queens Park Rangers, Wigan, Reading, Villa, Newcastle and Southampton are definitely in peril, in addition to Fulham quietly slipping into danger and West Ham and Norwich still far from safety. None of those teams has a bleaker short-term future than Aston Villa.
Go through them one by one: Queens Park Rangers are spending highly, adding Loic Remy to their squad and looking into Yann M'Vila among other targets, and their form has upturned since Harry Redknapp took over. Wigan have a much more cohesive squad than Aston Villa and have made a habit of improving their form drastically towards the end of the season. Newcastle look set to add five very good players to their squad in addition to welcoming back key players from injury. Southampton made an encouraging start under Mauricio Pochettino and will probably spend. Fulham are unlikely to go down if they regain any semblance of form, ditto West Ham, and Norwich have a six-point lead over Villa with goalscoring strikers - the ultimate relegation-insurance position, as Villa and Bent would attest - on their shopping list. Only Reading really offer hope, and they've shown great spirit lately in sealing two remarkable comebacks.
Tellingly, Aston Villa also have the lowest goal difference in the whole league. They have had plenty of good halves of late, notably the first one against West Brom, but ask anyone when their last good 90 minutes was and you'll be met with a blank face. That has dogged every boss since Martin O'Neill's resignation, along with a general struggle to retain the ball and an inability to defend set-pieces. In short, they have all the ingredients of a textbook doomed club. Mental fragility Check. An ill-fitting squad? Check. Players that look out of their depth? Check. Once-excellent players looking a shadow of their former selves? check. Long-term problems becoming chronic and finally looking fatal? Check. The last time a club of their size went down, it was Newcastle United, and the similarities are too numerous and obvious to mention. If there is one difference, however, it's this: Newcastle getting relegated was a surprise. If it happens to Villa, it really won't be.