Start as you mean to go on, as the old adage goes. This season has been something of a tumultuous one for Villa both on and off the pitch. Things obviously didn’t get off to the best start with the sale of James Milner seemingly the straw that broke the camel’s back and Martin O’Neill brought down the curtain on his four-year spell in charge just five days before the beginning of the season. But where has it all gone wrong?
The case for the defence – Villa’s 6th place finish last term was built upon solid foundations that quite simply haven’t been there this term. Last season, Villa conceded just 39 goals all term, the fourth best defensive record in the league and kept 15 clean sheets to boot. This season however, in just 21 league fixtures they have conceded 38 goals already and have just four clean sheets to their name.
The form of Richard Dunne has also been a concern. Is there a more inconsistent defender in the Premiership? Brilliant one season, diabolical the next. Brad Friedel has been unusually poor by his standards too. Stephen Warnock has also seen a dip in form sure to put him behind Leighton Baines in the England pecking order once more. Individual errors have proved costly and although a settled unit at the back, collectively and individually they’ve been poor this season.
In such an unpredictable league such as this one has been so far, consistency is the key, grinding out results even when you’re not playing well is what keeps the momentum going. Villa, much like Liverpool who are also struggling, have been bloomin’ awful away from home and able to do this. In 10 away games this season, they’ve collected just 5 points and have shipped 25 goals. Contrast this with last season and they finished the campaign with the 3rd best away record in the league. A side that once proved a tough cookie to crack has all of a sudden become a soft touch on their travels.
Of course, O’Neill’s resignation just 5 days before the start of the season didn’t help matters. A somewhat juvenile exit for a man often ruled by his emotions, brought an end to a largely successful reign. Kevin McDonald did his best under the circumstances and one thing the terraces have him to be thankful for was his willingness to blood young talent – namely Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannan – from the off.
One criticism that you could level at O’Neill, is that during his time at Villa, more often than not he spent his money poorly and most of the fringe players, in an already thin squad, were his signings. You can’t operate across multiple competitions time and time again on limited resources, without trusting your youngsters and without spending wisely. As a result, the squad is a smorgasbord of youthful exuberance and players on the wane.
The exit of James Milner, the catalyst for last season’s driven consistency must not go unnoticed either. His replacement, Stephen Ireland, has floundered and is already looking to leave the club this transfer window.
A lack of firepower has proved a problematic issue to solve for new manager Gerard Houllier, with the club’s top goal scorer in the league being Stewart Downing this season with just five goals to his name. It’s clear that too much pressure has been placed on Gabriel Agbohnlahor in the past and that in order for Villa to succeed again, the already beleaguered Houllier needs to bring in reinforcements up top this transfer window to lighten the load on the native Brummie.
Finally, we come to Gerard Houllier, a familiar face to English fans from his time at Liverpool. He has got off to a frankly appalling start as Villa manager. The club now find themselves in 18th place in the league and Houllier, a quiet man, the antithesis of the confrontational and passionate O’Neill, has led the club to just 7 wins in his 21 games at the club, with 10 defeats on his record already. A similar record to the one that got Roy Hodgson sacked from Liverpool it has to be said.
Reported training ground bust-ups between assistant manager Gary McAlister and Richard Dunne and rumoured unrest at Houllier’s training methods hasn’t helped either and has meant that the club have often been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some players, such as Warnock, Carew and Ireland, are all apparently disillusioned with life at the club and are eyeing moves elsewhere.
Suffice to say, when a club as seemingly stable as Villa were going into this season, goes into a sudden freefall, there cannot be just the one reason for their demise, but several. Rather than it simply all being Houllier’s fault, which seems to be the popular trend at the minute on the terraces, to blame the manager, it’s the players that have to take more responsibility for their woeful underperformance thus far and it is ultimately at their door that the blame for the fact that they now find themselves in a relegation dogfight lies.
If Houllier is to last until the end of the season, with pressure already mounting on the terraces, who were sceptical upon his appointment right from the very beginning it has to be said, he is going to have to spend his money more wisely than O’Neill did at times at the club. He’s certainly going to have to spend it more wisely than he did during his last foray into English football with Liverpool.
This transfer window looks to be pivotal in turning the tide and it looks as if Houllier is going to be given some money to deal with Jean Makoun, out of favour at Lyon this season, is a decent if unspectacular holding midfielder and this sort of acquisition looks a step in the right direction. Consolidation, while it might not sound too sexy when put to fans, is the name of the game now.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, this season could be the one where the club sheds some of the dead wood and they’ve already began to blood an extremely promising set of youngsters. If Houllier lasts until the summer, which it looks like he might just do, this poor season could be the start of something much more promising in the future.