"We needed those big players back," said Paul Lambert after his Aston Villa side ended a five-match winless streak with a vital 1-0 victory at Sunderland on New Year's Day. "When you lose Benteke and Vlaar, that's a big chunk of your side. It's been hard. We have found it hard to cope with those injuries but when we've got everybody fit we're a really good side."
Christian Benteke and Ron Vlaar are certainly important players for Aston Villa. And many teams would struggle without their captain and star striker. But it hints at the ongoing concerns surrounding Lambert's Villa team. After last season's dalliance with relegation, this was supposed to be the campaign in which the young talent would develop into consistent Premier League performers.
That was surely the aim when Villa rewarded Andreas Weimann and Nathan Baker with improved three-year contracts in the summer. "They have got to kick on again," said the Villa boss at the time. "There is no point in doing it for one year and then resting. You have to go again then again and again. Every year you have to step up to the plate and this year will be no different.
"The lads have done great but you have to kick on again and not rest on it. They are young enough lads so they've got so many years ahead of them. The platform is there for them in terms of what they did last season." Instead, both Weimann and Baker are among a group of too many players at Villa Park who have gone backwards.
In and out
Right-back Matthew Lowton is chief among them. He was a key performer for Villa last term and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville even highlighted his sensational strike against Stoke City as the best goal of the season. But after that initial breakthrough following his move from Sheffield United, the 24-year-old Englishman now finds himself in and out of the side.
"He played nearly every game for us last season at a really, really high level and was as consistent as the day is long," Lambert recently told the Birmingham Mail. "All of a sudden he finds he's not playing or starting. The challenge is there for him. It's been thrown at him, you have to step up to the challenge."
Weimann too has struggled to replicate the efforts of his first full season in the Villa first team. After netting a dozen goals in all competitions in 2012/13, the Austria international has one goal in 19 Premier League games. Even Benteke is struggling to replicate his impressive haul of 19 top-flight goals, with just four so far. In eight full seasons at Villa Park, Gabriel Agbonlahor currently has his joint-worst tally at this stage of the campaign.
More worrying than these tales of underperformance is the fear that others simply might not be up to the task. "It doesn't matter if you go into the transfer market or not," said Lambert last month. "The basics of the game are you've got to stop a cross or be better in possession." Unfortunately, there are signs that these fundamentals are beyond certain first-team regulars.
Despite his new deal, Baker has endured a difficult season. Exposed in the 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United in December, he followed it up by suffering the indignation of being 'rolled' by Charlie Adam in the defeat against Stoke City. The Scot is hardly renowned for his speed off the mark and yet even he made Baker look sluggish. It was indicative of the defender's struggles at this level.
Antonio Luna has been no better. Given a torrid time by Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa and all over the place against Manchester United, he even failed to cope at home to Crystal Palace. An impressive beard can only hide so much. As for fellow summer arrival Libor Kozak, he has popped up with four useful goals but looks distinctly limited despite his £7million price tag.
Although raw, these are not kids. Villa are yet to field a teenager this season and Jores Okore is the only player currently under the age of 22 to feature in the Premier League. Players in their early-to-mid 20s can progress but any improvement is unlikely to be dramatic. The danger is that there are many in the squad who'll find themselves in the Championship sooner or later and Villa fans can only hope it will not be in a claret and blue shirt.
And yet, there are some positives. Vlaar's willingness to rush back from injury to make himself available at the Stadium of Light, coupled with a mature performance from Agbonlahor shows that there are senior players capable of taking responsibility. Alongside 29-year-old goalkeeper Brad Guzan, this core group of senior players can carry others with them. Their experience could prove vital and there are signs that Lambert has belatedly recognised the significance.
"If we can give them a helping hand in January with a bit of experience, we'll certainly try and do something," he told Sky Sports after that Sunderland game. With the right acquisitions on the pitch and the right leadership in the dressing room, there can still be hope of a resurgence among those talented young players who showed such promise. And there is still time for Lambert's Villa to make the progress that had been anticipated. All they need is a bit of help.