Sunday, August 16, 2009
EPL 2009/10: Tough Season Ahead For Martin O'Neill and The Aston Villa
The chorus of boos that resounded around Villa Park after Wigan's 2-0 win yesterday signalled that Martin O'Neill's third year in charge of Aston Villa is one that is going to be extremely tough.
Last season, Villa were the team who seemed to be challenging the monopoly of the top four on the coveted Champions League places. Playing the O'Neill way, a well organised Villa outfit proved to be one of the toughest teams to break down in the league.
Up front, the injury prone John Carew was ably flanked by the flying pair Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor. James Milner, Gareth Barry, and Stilian Petrov made up a well balanced midfield that provided guile, steel, and a good work ethic.
There was the makings of a decent team there.
All that needed were a few tweaks, and Villa would have taken another step towards breaking that monopoly.
Instead, everything went pear shaped and Villa dropped from 4th to 6th. And only their good early form stopped them dropping further.
But where did it all go wrong?
The real problems lie in the size of the squad.
Aston Villa have never won a match in the month of March under Martin O'Neill. And while you may be able to point to some kind of superstitious cloud that hangs over the club, the real reason stares you straight in the face.
The season began earlier for Aston Villa than any other club last year, and with a small squad they had pretty much run out of steam by the time March came around.
Last season, Aston Villa used the fewest amount of outfield players in the Premiership, as O'Neill stuck to his tried and trusted.
One other key factor in their collapse was the injury and subsequent retirement of Martin Laursen.
The central defender was the linchpin in the Villa team. While the likes of Ashey Young, Agbonlahor, and Gareth Barry claimed all the accolades, it was Laursen that kept this team running and organised.
The Dane had a wealth of experience after playing in Italy for six years before Martin O'Neill plucked him up for a paltry £3m from AC Milan. And you can see Aston Villa's rise under O'Neill begin to take shape with his signing.
Such was the respect he commanded at the club, that in the summer of 2008, when Gareth Barry publicly flirted with Rafael Benitez over a proposed move to Liverpool. that O'Neill stripped the long time favourite of his club captaincy and handed it to Laursen.
With Lausen guiding Villa, they shot up the table to third. When he got injured in January, they dropped to 6th and only won four games between January and the end of the season.
That bad form has been carried over into this season, but has been magnified by the loss of their other star player, Gareth Barry. While neither Barry or Laursen have been replaced.
The pre-season signings of Stewart Downing and Fabien Delph suggest that Martin O'Neill is sticking with his tried and trusted counter attacking tactic, but it was a tactic that most teams had cottoned onto by the turn of the year last season.
Many O'Neill fans will question the fans booing at the Wigan game, but to understand their stance you have to look at Aston Villa as a club.
Villa are easily one of the biggest clubs in British football. The have an extremely loyal fan base and can guarantee up to 40,000 at every home game. They may not have the same wealth as some of their main competitors, but they are not what you would consider to be a poor club.
Over the last 14 years, Aston Villa have finished in the top eight, 10 times. And under Brian Little they finished 5th twice. So in effect, Martin O'Neill has restored them to their rightful place in the league.
And after last year's flirtation with fourth place, the fans have seen that such a feat is possible and they want more.
As far as the fans are concerned, Martin O'Neill has been given enough time to build his team. Despite losing their two best players, Aston Villa still have a squad that is more than capable of challenging for a Europa League spot.
And the difference between finishing 8th or 9th with 5th or 6th is that O'Neill will have to modify his tactics.
Something he has never done at Leicester, Celtic, or Aston Villa.
Celtic never moved forward in the Champions League because they were too predictable. And against tuned in opposition, their attacks kept breaking down. Aston Villa have now entered that particular plain too.
After losing the influential Laursen, Villa kept playing the same way. A change in tactics was needed to shore up the gaps that losing the Dane had created, but Villa kept playing the only way their manager knows how.
By this stage in the league campaign, everyone knew that Villa would lie deep and hit you on the break through Young and Agbonlahor.
Teams began to stay deeper themselves and the space for the two Villa flyers was neutralised. Without a Plan B, Villa found themselves losing more than winning, and they dropped out of contention for the Champions League place.
Aston Villa then crashed out of the UEFA Cup thanks to CSKA Moscow and the first ripples of discontent with the manager began to ripple across the terraces.
Villa's collapse in the second half of the season is best illustrated by realising that they were 3rd on 51pts after 25 games, and finished the league campaign 6th on 61pts after 38 games.
By signing Delph and Downing, O'Neill has signalled that he maintains to keep up his high speed counter attacking game, but he has not replaced the heart of his team.
With two weeks to go until the transfer window closes, Martin O'Neill has to act quickly. He needs to bring in two Premiership quality players who will slot right into the English game, and into his style of play.
Ricardo Carvalho has been available all summer from Chelsea, and he would be an instant replacement for Laursen, whether he would take the drop though is another thing entirely. Another centre half with great skill for organization is Richard Dunne at Manchester City, but the very fact that he is the only City player who opened last season to be still in the team this year is sure indication that Mark Hughes has plans for him.
As for the hole left by Barry's departsure, Martin O'Neill has been a long time admirer of Tottenham Hotspur's Jermaine Jenas. A similar midfielder to Barry, but with perhaps a better eye for goal but lacking on the defensive side of the game. Villa have already contacted Spurs on his availability, but they may have to part with Ashley Young if Harry Redknapp is to sanction the sale.
One thing in O'Neill's favour here is that both Downing and Delph are left sided players, albeit with Downing out until Christmas.
Players of Laursen's and Barry's quality are not easily found, but if Martin O'Neill is to get the Villa faithful off his back and make that next step up the league that they demand, he will have to find them soon.
Without them, Villa will be floundering in mid-table, and O'Neill could find himself being forced out of a job that had started with great promise.
Aston Villa were always going to find this season a little tougher. The likes of Spurs and Manchester City are expected to battle it out with Everton and Villa for the Europa League positions.
City's advantage over Villa is all too obvious, while Spurs have a very settled squad having not sold anyone this summer and have added some more quality. Everton are always tough under David Moyes, and all of a sudden Aston Villa have found themselves dropping down the pecking order in their own particular section of the league, mainly down to not replacing key players.
If Martin O'Neill does not act over the next two weeks, Villa will find themselves out of Europa League contention by Christmas, and the Villains will be baying for blood.
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