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Sunday 24 March 2013

Paul Lambert: ‘It’s a big challenge and I love the pressure’

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert assesses the season so far and hails his young squad

  • Paul Lambert is enjoying the challenge of his first season at Villa Park

  • Christian Benteke has scored 13 Premier League goals since his arrival from Genk

  • Ashley Westwood has made 22 appearances since signing from Crewe in the summer

  • Martin O'Neill (right) allowed Lambert to do his coaching badges in Germany while at Celtic

  • Lambert (centre) lifts the Champions League trophy as a Borussia Dortmund player in 1997

Despite being just three points above the relegation zone in the Barclays Premier League, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert is relishing the challenge of guiding his youthful side to safety.

Lambert, who made an impressive managerial debut in the English top flight with Norwich City last season after a glittering playing career that included winning the 1997 UEFA Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, took charge of the Midlands club last summer and has invested in young talent from outside the Barclays Premier League.

Ashley Westwood, Joe Bennett, Matthew Lowton and Jordan Bowery all came from the Football League in the summer and, with former Genk forward and top scorer Christian Benteke in fine form, Lambert believes his team are playing well enough to pick up the points required to secure safety in the Premier League.

Speaking to Yahoo! Sport, Lambert also talked about learning his trade as a coach in Germany whilst playing under Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill at Celtic, the belief in his young players and coming across Benteke, who has “pulled up trees” since his arrival in August 2012, while scouting his strike partner at Genk.

How would you assess Aston Villa’s season to date?
Paul Lambert:
Tough, but I think every season is hard. Even if you’re doing really well, you’ve still got to earn every win. I think we should have more points than we do because we played well in some games and came away with nothing. We’ve also been leading by two goals in some games but still couldn’t see it through. However, there are still a lot of games to be played and points to be played for.

"With the way the lads are playing at the moment I can see us picking up some really good wins"
Paul Lambert

How are you approaching the rest of your matches this season and do you have a points target in mind?
We don’t have a points target as such because you can never be sure how well a team is going to do. With the way the lads are playing at the moment I can see us picking up some really good wins. In respect of a points target I’m really not sure what is going to be enough to keep any of the teams up.

You’ve said morale in the squad is still high despite the relegation battle you’re in, what can you do as a manager to ensure there is always a positive atmosphere at the club?
That is something we have always tried to do whether we have won, lost or drawn. We always try and keep things upbeat and don’t dwell too much on a loss but instead try and keep a level playing field, this way everyone can keep enjoying their football.

There is nothing worse than coming into a workplace which is negative, that’s when you can start to lose the players. The important thing is not to feel sorry for yourself, you have to stay positive.

Relishing the challenge

What are you enjoying most about the Aston Villa job?
I love the challenge of it. The size of the club underlines just how big a challenge it is and I love the pressure of that. It is a great club to be associated with and the fans have been great, they’ve stuck with us and that has been a huge help.

"I don’t have a problem playing young players at all. If you’re good enough then I’ll throw you in"
Paul Lambert

When you pick the team do you start with a tactical system and fit players into that, or do you choose the players and adjust the system accordingly?
 The players make the system. There is no point in picking players that are not comfortable with the system. We always have a rough idea of what we’re going to play on a Saturday, by the Thursday prior to the game. To be fair the players can adjust to different systems, but the onus is always on the players.

Relegation battle

How do you introduce players into the first team during a relegation battle and how difficult is it to leave experienced players out of the side?
You know that when you bring in young players they don’t have a fear or feel the pressure as much as when they get a bit older. I don’t have a problem playing young players at all. If you’re good enough then I’ll throw you in. Everyone has to have an opportunity to perform.

It is tough to leave an older player out but you always have to make the decision which is right for the football club. You hope when you do leave someone out that they understand and are professional about it. I do always try and tell the experienced ones beforehand that I’m going to leave them out so it’s not a shock to the system when the team is read out.

Christian Benteke has been one of your major positives this season. How did you come to sign him and how much has he impressed you?
We signed him because I thought we needed a striker like him at the football club. I felt we needed a target man so we looked around and saw Christian playing at Genk. He actually played with a strike partner that we looked at beforehand. We were looking across several different leagues at people but went back to watch Christian again and things moved from there.

We watched him more and one of the scouts saw him playing for Belgium and we decided to take a chance. Nobody really knew too much about him before he arrived, but since he has I think his performances have been exceptional. Plus he is also playing in a really good Belgian national team, is still only 22 years old and probably won’t hit his peak until his late twenties.

Last summer you brought in several players from the lower leagues: Bowery; Bennett; Lowton; Westwood. How much quality is there in the Football League that people aren’t aware of?
It’s a difficult one to answer because people presume that unless you come from the top leagues you’re not good enough but Christian proves that is not true as he came from Genk. People might have looked at that and said the Belgian league isn’t good enough. Benteke came in and pulled up trees and then people mentioned that he was playing in an excellent national team but his club side were nothing like that.

There are different ways to perceive it. You need to give people opportunities like Ashley Westwood who hasn’t wasted a ball for us this season. He has a great skill in being able to keep the ball moving. Similarly, Fabian Delph came from Leeds, who were a League One team, and he has done great for us. Bennett has done well, too.

As I’ve said before, if you’re good enough I’ll pick you irrespective of age or where you were playing. People shouldn’t allow themselves to think that coming from a lower league means you are an inferior player. You might buy a player from a league that is considered strong and they might not be up to it either. You just have to rely on your own judgement.

You decided to get your coaching badges in Germany in the 2004/05 season, rather than Scotland or England. Why was that?
I knew it was really tough to do it over there and it was harder than I had expected actually. I loved doing it but it’s probably the hardest thing I have ever done outside of playing abroad. The course lasted virtually an entire year and I started it during my last season at Celtic. Martin O’Neil was fantastic and let me go and do it, which meant I was commuting to Germany Sunday through Thursday.

At the end of the year I think you had to pass seven exams, and they weren’t all football related. There was medicine and psychology for example. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 30 or 40, once you know you have to prepare for exams, it can become a bit nerve racking. I met a lot of good people when I was in Germany and we became a really close group. There were about 18 of us including some big former players who had won the World Cup. Everything was in German too, so it was really tough but it was a great experience.

What was it about the German system in particular that appealed to you?

PL: I really liked the way they went about it - the organisation and the psychology of their game, they simplified everything. The discipline and the respect they had for each other and for their football club was vast. Because I played there I always wanted to know exactly how they did it, why the Germans are so mentally strong. In order to find out you need to go and spend time in the country to see how it all works. Once you are in the dressing room every day and speaking with them, you understand how mentally strong they are.

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Key Points

  • Paul Lambert believes Aston Villa are playing well enough to secure safety in the Premier League
  • The former Dortmund star is relishing the challenge at Villa and has great faith in his young players
  • Christian Benteke has "pulled up trees" in an impressive debut season