It became pretty apparent to most Villa fans last season that the squad was not big enough to cope with the rigours of both chasing a fourth place finish and achieving success in Europe. Starting in the Intertoto Cup back in mid July, the squad seemed to tire after occupying a top four place in February, finally finishing the season in sixth place. Injuries, such as to key player and captain Martin Laursen, could not be covered sufficiently by squad players. It was a situation that manager Martin O’Neill attempted to rectify in the summer through the signings of Stewart Downing, Stephen Warnock, Richard Dunne and James Collins.
The start of the season has been very promising, lying 6th in the table, only two points behind a top four place, and now with no Europa League to worry about, the Birmingham side can solely focus on the holy grail of achieving a Champions League spot. The reduction of games from being out of Europe will no doubt release strains on a squad which buckled last season and I have no hesitation in saying that Villa will not fall back again from such a promising position like they had last February.
The challenge ahead of Villa this season is still not going to be an easy one however, there are many teams including Tottenham and Manchester City vying for that fourth spot. The result against Tottenham on Saturday gives Villa a greater indication at how hard the coming months ahead are going to be to keep pace with fellow Champions League challengers. O’Neill expressed this feeling even before the match against Spurs:
Tottenham are very strong. They have a chance to challenge that top four because they have the wherewithal to do it. . . It will be a tough ask this season again but it’s our aim. That’s what we want to do as we’d love to be playing Champions League football eventually. . . We love a challenge and we get excited by it all but the fact is the top four have been the top four because they have been the four best sides through the course of the season. Teams can have little runs at it but Everton are the only team to have broken it in the last six years. I just think from our point of view, consistency over a lengthy period of the season is vital.
This consistency is no doubt going to be key; consistency at the back and up front to continue form which will put pressure on the top four and teams around them. There is no doubt that Martin O’Neill has done a tremendous job since he came to the club three years ago. With the assistance of Randy Lerner, he has built up a club, which had finished 16th under previous manager David O’Leary, to the cusp of the biggest competition in club football. He has created a group of young talented English players, the envy of many in the country, and is building a great foundation for future successes. Unlike fellow Champions League contenders Spurs and Manchester City, Villa do not spend £20m on one player. It is a wise business model created by Lerner to not overreach in terms of the club’s finance, to not break the bank and pile up a wage bill on a bunch of less than hungry players. The achievements of O’Neill’s Villa so far are founded on the hard work, energy and skill of young English players, but in my opinion, there is still some way to go in getting the right mix between youth and experienced players.
The capture of Richard Dunne in the summer was a welcome addition to the squad, he gives the squad experience and a commanding presence at the back, but I believe that O’Neill could be still yet more ambitious in his signings. To achieve a top four position one key position that I feel O’Neill is missing is a creative midfielder. Tottenham controlled the game against Villa on Saturday demonstrating neat, attacking football, something that I would like to see from Villa sides too. With so much young English talent at O’Neill’s disposal this shouldn’t be out of their reach, and I believe it needs that commanding presence in central midfield to take the reins and direct proceedings, assisting the development of the young players. To improve technically and to breed a big game mentality is what O’Neill is heavily focused on:
We need to improve technically, which is obviously very important. I want the whole side to be comfortable on the ball. I want players to not be overly concerned about receiving the ball under pressure. Look at Chelsea – they are so strong. I think they have a great mentality, work ethic and they are physically very strong. Now they have been there for four or five years, it is almost burned into them that winning football games is what it’s all about. We need that winning mentality too – that is so, so important. I can’t stress it enough.
Building that mentality may not be as hard as people think. As these young players develop, the belief in their own abilities will improve, this could happen very quickly if they go on a great run to finish fourth this season. A priority for O’Neill in order to achieve this aim is to improve technically, and to bring somebody in January who can control games and the midfield will no doubt accelerate this process, hopefully in doing so achieving Villa’s core aim of playing Champions League football next season.