A 1-0 win against Bolton brought an end to a tough week for both Martin O’Neill and Aston Villa, as the club continued in its pursuit of fourth place, but if John Terry’s comments and the stat that Villa, of top four contenders are the ones to use their squads the least, are anything to go by, you get the feeling that until O’Neill trusts his squad a little more, the fear of burnout will always be present and have the potential to ruin any chance they have of achieving something towards the end of the season.
Villa’s finances are in a somewhat stable state, but O’Neill has been told to curb the spending come the summer, something which doesn’t bode well for the club as they deeply need more strength in depth. O’Neill has now created a squad in his own image and although he has overpaid for certain players, notably the £5m spent on Nicky Shorey, the £6m paid for Luke Young and the £8m on Nigel Reo Coker, it was needed to create a squad capable of challenging at the top end of the league – but what is surprising is that O’Neill seems unwilling to trust these players come match day and his side is in dire of fresh legs, something these three could provide.
John Terry’s comments, and whatever the buffoon says has to be taken with a pinch of salt, did ring true to an extent. He said after Chelsea’s 7-1 demolition job over Villa last week that “We knew Villa would tire after 55-60 minutes and that if we kept passing the ball, spaces would appear and chances would come”. It’s a ringing indictment on O’Neill’s over-reliance on certain players that the Chelsea side were prepared for their opponents to tire, and the match certainly bared this theory out as Chelsea banged in five goals without reply from the 57th minute onwards.
O’Neill as you would expect didn’t take kindly to this saying “It just doesn’t stack up. My own view is that it’s a pretty idle comment. It’s the sort of comment you can make when you have won a game pretty convincingly”, before adding that “If you are looking at the stats, we do them all the time. Interestingly, we are one of the fittest sides in the Premier League.” But surely the fitness of his side is negated by the same eleven being picked week in week out against arguably fresher opponents.
Villa probably have the smallest squad and budget of the challengers for the fourth spot so to an extent they are overachieving, yet you do get the feeling that for all the great work O’Neill has done at Villa, until he rotates to a greater degree, his young side will always tire towards the end of the season. Every side relies on certain players and picks them whenever fit but for all of Agbohnlahor, Petrov and Young’s resilience, they do look like they are running on empty and could do with a rest.
Man City for instance have used 18 players that have made 10 appearances or more for them this term, Liverpool and Spurs have 19 whereas Villa have just 15. Stats can be used to prove almost anything, something O’Neill will testify to, but these rough statistics that encompass both starts and bench appearances provides a sounding board for the fact that their small squad really is being put through the wringer for what has been a long and tough campaign so far.
Critics of O’Neill, most notably Gabriel Marcotti, claim that O’Neill’s success is directly linked to the amount of money he is given to spend, and whilst this does carry some weight, it ignores the extent of the overhaul O’Neill has had to undergo at Villa with concerns to its squad. What can be highlighted however is that of the squad players being ignored, almost all were O’Neill signings.
Young and Petrov have missed just one game apiece this season, Agbohnlahor just three and Milner and Cuellar just two each. Stability in terms of team selection does breed success, but there comes a point when stability turns into predictability and fatigue. They have done well in both domestic cups which hasn’t helped the strain on the squad either but O’Neill needs to place more faith in the under-used Habib Beye, Steve Sidwell and Reo-Coker against the so called weaker teams if they are to stay fresh for the rest of the season.
Last season O’Neill forsake European football in the hunt for a top four place but the sheer amount of games they played caught up with them in the end and Arsenal’s experience told, but it appears the same mistakes are being made once more. Villa have, along with Liverpool, the easiest run ins of the four challenging for 4th place and they have winnable fixtures against Portsmouth, Hull and Blackburn to come. Rotating the squad to a higher degree could bear fruit in these games for the side have already dropped crucial points against Sunderland and Wolves at home the last couple of weeks, something, which perhaps with a fresher squad, would not have happened if their quality had been allowed to tell instead of their tiredness.
Liverpool rely on Torres and Gerrard, Spurs on Lennon and Modric and Man City on Tevez and Bellamy to provide their goal threat and spark, and whilst this theme is not uncommon, injuries or squad rotation have allowed each of these a degree of time on the sidelines to rest, something Villa’s side have not. Squad rotation is integral to clubs that are challenging over several fronts, and over the course of a season, the strain of playing 30+ league games as well as numerous cup outings will tire even the fittest of players out.
Villa’s defence has been key to their success this season no doubt, but it’s their inability to break sides down which has ultimately cost them this term and the 12 draws and relatively average goal haul of 44 in 32 games has seen them stumble when success has been there for the taking with a little bit of fine tuning here and there – until O’Neill realises that squad rotation is a key component of the modern game, Villa will struggle to break into the top four and truly realise their potential.
Written by James McManus