Aston Villa seem set on making themselves this season’s early favourites to be the Jekyll and Hyde team of the season. With a degree of uncertainty hanging over many player’s future’s at the club and with Chairman Randy Lerner looking to tighten the purse strings, whether it be Kevin McDonald who takes the helm, or an ‘experienced Premiership manager’ as their statement construed, they are going to have to do the best with what they have already at the club, and Nigel Reo Coker could prove pivotal this term.
With every club in the Premiership having to announce their 25 man squads, the quite frankly tiresome and dull debate as to ascertaining the makeup of each team’s squad can be thankfully put to bed. What was interesting was that Villa chose to name just 22 players out of a possible 25, hence signalling a threadbare squad, something which was obviously an open secret by now anyway.
A lot of managers preach about being down to the bare bones, and it’s a well-worn protectionist routine that often carries little truth when trotted out as reasoning for a side’s failures by a beleaguered manager; however in Villa’s case at least, they do seem to have a very small first team squad.
An emphasis has been placed on youth in their opening games in both the league and in Europe so far this season, which would go some way to explaining the inconsistent nature of the club’s results thus far. With McDonald in charge, and his knowledge of those coming through the academy and at reserve team level unparalleled at Villa, it was to be expected.
Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannon all look real prospects, but a side with the stature of Villa cannot rely on youthful vigour over the course of an arduous season alone and a few wiser heads will need to step up to the plate.
This is where Reo Coker comes in. To call him a wise head would seem a bridge too far for most, for his playing style has always bared a youthful exuberance to it, but it’s in his decision making, the hallmark of any experienced pro, that has always been questionable to say the least, but it’s worth remembering that at 26 years of age he already has considerable Premiership experience, captained a Premiership club in West Ham, and amassed over 250 career appearances; a total not to be taken lightly.
Reo Coker was frozen out under previous manager Martin O’Neill after a rumoured bust-up at the training ground, but in all honesty, he was heading towards the fringes long before that. O’Neill rather sadly, had a penchant for discarding a lot of the players that he himself signed as Villa manager, an odd policy, and while the same can be said of a lot of managers in practice, with a squad the size of Villa’s and with opponents planning on your team running out of steam, (something John Terry noted that his Chelsea teammates worked on in training prior to their 7-1 win at Stamford Bridge last March) to work within the confines of such a small squad, would seem wholly detrimental to the rest of the squad and on results.
With James Milner having departed for a big money move to Man City and Stephen Ireland coming in the opposite direction, Villa’s midfield, while full of craft and guile, would seem to lack the urgency and industry that Milner allied to his technical gifts, was capable of providing so superbly last season. In short, Villa can look a little lightweight. Stiliyan Petrov has been exceptional the last two seasons, but his strengths lie in his passing game and his positional discipline rather than his harrying of the opposition and he can often look jaded and off the pace when asked to perform this role.
Reo Coker only started 10 games last season, and quite rightly so with Milner exceptional in the middle of the park, but with him gone, while Ireland may appear to be a like-for-like replacement going forward, they will be easily caught on the break and off the ball without a robust player such as Milner, or now, Reo Coker in the middle.
He started against Everton in what was an extremely fortunate 1-0 victory over the weekend, but the graft shown by Reo Coker was notable and his performance was outstanding in the aspects you’d expect – work rate, tackling ability, closing down – and he could have a large part to play in any success Villa may go onto have this season. He may not be pretty to watch at times, but behind every great side there is, as Didier Deschamps was rather less affectionately called ‘a water carrier’ and this is a role Reo Coker relishes, and one that he could thrive in if he’s allowed to carry it out on a more regular basis than under the end of Martin O’Neill’s tenure.
Written By James McManus