Have Aston Villa found some middle ground?

Aston Villa manager Gerard HoullierAfter watching the limpest of limp performances from Gerard Houllier’s charges at Anfield this Monday, and with the challenges that lay ahead for the club’s new manager piling up by the fixture, it’s difficult to see anything but mid-table obscurity lying ahead for the second city club, after a revival of sorts under previous manager Martin O’Neill.

It may sound odd referring to Villa as a mid-table side, and to be honest, their league positions never really reflected this, but rather crudely, and don’t worry, I’m fully aware of the selectivity of the statistics that I’ve chosen here, prior to O’Neill’s arrival at the club in August 2006 in time for the start of the 2006/7 season and starting at the start of the Millennium, in the 7 proceeding seasons, Villa finished 6th, 8th, 8th, 16th, 6th, 10th and 16th respectively, which give out an average of 10th. In short, about as mid-table as you can get.

The obstacles in front of the club are numerous but not insurmountable, yet with the club’s chairman Randy Lerner withdrawing funds on a huge scale after the mixed results of the relatively free spending era of O’Neill; coupled with the fact that new manager Houllier has inherited a fairly inexperienced and youthful squad with a seeming lack of firepower and the signs are ominous for the immediate future at least.

Villa’s youngsters, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg as well as Nathan Delfouneso do point to a promising future for the club if they all continue their current career ascents, but for the time being, youth provides the backbone of this Villa squad and for a side with ambitions of challenging for a European spot, that is a risky strategy to take.

With inexperience comes inconsistency, and this current Villa side, while not quite displaying the Jekyll and Hyde nature that made Wigan such a confusing side to pinpoint last season, the difference from one performance to the next is noticeable and was very much on display in their aforementioned defeat to Liverpool.

The club currently lie in 16th place, just 2 points above the relegation zone and while their season isn’t doomed just yet to one of an unexpected dogfight at the bottom, with the league unusually tight, a decent festive period could easily see them just outside the top 6 once more, yet it’s not hard to see where they have gone wrong this term.

Houllier stated yesterday that “At the back we need a bit of both – a change of fortune and of form. We’ve conceded 11 goals in four games. It’s not good enough for a team of our standard. We have to get into the games with the idea of keeping a clean sheet because when you keep a clean sheet you give yourself a chance to win.”

Last season Villa were built upon the foundations of a fantastic partnership between James Collins and Richard Dunne at centre half, ably supported by messrs Friedel, Warnock, Cueller and Luke Young. They conceded just 39 goals, the fourth fewest in the league, kept 15 clean sheets, the fourth best in the league and were generally a hard nut to crack all round. This season, however, they have kept just four clean sheets, and have conceded 27 goals already in just 16 league fixtures, fittingly it seems, the fourth worst in the league. It’s clear that the problems that are undermining their league campaign lie predominantly at the back.

This has manifested itself in some very poor away form, not quite of Fulhamesque proportions just yet, but enough for it to be an issue that needs addressing with the club now a soft touch away from Villa Park. They have accrued just four points on their travels in 8 games this season, and have a quite frankly shocking goal difference of -13, not helped by their 6-0 drubbing at the hands of an Andy Carroll inspired Newcastle side.

While things may be going badly at the back, it’s far from a picnic going forward either. Houllier admits Villa also have to improve at the other end of the pitch in terms of converting chances stating: “I won’t tell you what I put our defensive problems down to. I think it is collective really. We need to be better. We obviously need to eradicate some stupid, schoolboy errors at the back which cost goals. But we also need to improve in the final third and we need to be more clinical. We are improving in terms of our passing, movement and preparation although there are some areas where we have to keep improving. We need more of a cutting edge and to be more clinical at times.”

It’s fair to say that Houllier doesn’t have the greatest of attacking options at his disposal. Agbonlahor has been injury prone so far this term, Emile Heskey, for all his strengths, is not a goalscorer and John Carew is agitating for a move away once more. Of course, Agbonlahor and Carew have combined to decent effect in the past and under O’Neill, Villa were hardly a free-flowing outfit but they always had the ability to excite on occasion and in Ashley Young, they truly have one of the league’s most dynamic players capable of winning a game on his own sometimes. 16 league games thus far have rendered just 17 goals, with just 5 coming away from home.

It’s clear that reinforcements are needed up top. At the back, as Houllier correctly states, it is simply down to individual errors and a lack of form, but the Villa back line is a good defence on the whole and they’ll come good eventually, whereas up top, the experience and goals just simply aren’t there. Of course, it doesn’t help that summer signing Stephen Ireland has failed to shine and has topped, rather prematurely if you ask me, flop of the season lists everywhere, but the rumours linking the club with a move for the likes of Robbie Keane and Michael Owen are understandable, they need a predatory type finisher. Pure and simple.

Whether Houllier will be given the money to invest that he so evidently needs is another issue entirely though, and a main source of contention between chairman Lerner and previous manager O’Neill. O’Neill wasted an awful lot of money at Villa, but he did unearth the occasional bargain or value for money deal. Houllier had a similar record at Liverpool, for every Diouf there was a Hyypia, for every McAllister a Sean Dundee, but on the whole, he was fairly successful in the transfer market for Liverpool and while the football was dour, results were good and led to a treble of sorts in 2001.

The league this season is in a constant state of flux, but Villa’s recent form, with four defeats in their last five games, is a prime example of a club heading in the wrong direction and they need to arrest the slide. Following up on O’Neill’s three consecutive 6th place finishes was always going to be an unrealistic target this season given the lack of investment, but a top 8 finish should certainly be achievable with a few tweaks and a tightening up at the back.

As I conceded earlier, the league is ridiculously tight, so much so that Bolton are in a lofty 6th place despite only winning five league fixtures this term, and while anyone truly can beat anyone this season in the league, with poor away form, lack of firepower, a faltering defence and a chairman tightening the purse strings, these truly are testing times for Aston Villa as they try to avoid slipping back into a mid-table club after their seasons in the sun.

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Article title: Have Aston Villa found some middle ground?

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