Aston Villa, by the standards they’ve set in recent years, are currently experiencing a worryingly turbulent patch which for many of their supporters is at least connected to their employment of current Manager Alex McLeish as the successor to the health-afflicted Gerard Houllier. He in his turn had previously taken over from Martin O’Neill, the well regarded and successful gaffer of that earlier stable period.
The fact that McLeish’s appointment came in controversial circumstances, (depressingly familiar nowadays in the Premier League), was mainly due to the fact that he came to them from Birminham City , Villa’s historical BlueNose rivals from just down the road. It was also, in part, from his reputation for stodgy defensively minded football. Their results this season suggest that the Villa Park critics of “Big ‘Eck” may have a point, with Randy Lerner, their enlightened (comparatively) Billionaire American owner for once taking what they believe to have been a rare wrong turn.
After all, since his taking control of Villa in 2006 for a reported £62.6 Million, the previous owner of the MBNA Corporation prior to his sale of same to the American Bank for £35 Billion, has generally been considered a sympathetic, almost philanthropic owner, with a genuine feel for the History of one of English Football’s Iconic clubs. The fantastic upgrading of Villa Park and the refurbishment of the Holte Pub are just 2 examples of supporter friendly initiatives. These sorts of schemes, coupled with O’Neill’s achievements, including 3 successive top 6 finishes, have given their fan base an expectation of excellence, and the current management team a lot to live up to.
The Playing Squad.
The ultimate success of course of any team is it’s performance on the pitch, and Villa can still boast a squad that has both youth and experience, strength in depth, and no small number of International and Premiership level players.
Despite losing Brad Friedel to Tottenham, the GK was replaced By Shay Given, RoI’s record cap-winner, long considered even now at 35 one of the Division’s best shot-stoppers. He is covered by the American International Brad Guzan. Also on the books is the experienced Englishman Andy Marshall.
Defensively Villa are solid with a reputation for set piece excellence at both ends of the pitch. In their most recent game, a disappointing 2-0 reversal at Tottenham, they went with a back 4 of Carlos Cuellar, James Collins, Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock.
Cuellar, the Spaniard, is a CB by trade, strong in the air, but vulnerable to pace. Warnock, at LB, ex-Liverpool and England, is again occasionally caught out of position, but this is often because he can be a real asset going forward, and shoots and crosses well.
Dunne and Collins, Captain of the RoI and a familiar Welsh International are an established, experienced partnership. Dunne can be inspirational for them, a real “roll your sleeves up” player who always “puts in a shift”. Collins is Collins.
Most of us have seen him often enough for Wales. He can score from late runs on the end of free kicks, losing his marker.This is also his (defensive) vulnerability.
Other defenders include Alan Hutton, the Scottish International marauding RB (who played in front of Cuellar at Spurs to try to negate Gareth Bale- it failed) : Ciaran Clark, a talented young CB : Eric Lichaj, the American FB:
Shane Lowry, an Irish/Australian youngster, and Nathan Baker, another young Academy graduate and LFB/CB and English to boot.
I’ll come back to Villa’s Academy, which has a fine reputation.
In Midfield they are likely to pick from Stephen Ireland, Jermaine Jenas, Charles N’Zogbia, Marc Allbrighton, Fabian Delph, Stiliyan Petrov, Barry Bannon and Chris Herd. That is one talented bunch, capable both of creativity and highly competitive endeavour.
Bulgaria’s captain, Petrov, has reinvented himself from an attacking midfielder to a defensive holder, but still retains both the experience and talent to score regularly. N’Zogbia, the big money buy from Wigan, has not quite clicked seamlessly into the team but remains an intense talent and a wonderful dribbler – again, one that can score great goals.
Jenas, on loan from Tottenham is a seasoned International of good energy, a sort of Darren Pratley plus a bit. A big bit, no disrespect to Prats. Allbrighton is a pacey widester (mainly right) who also shoots and crosses well: Chris Herd and Barry Bannon, fellow graduates again have been rewarded by Herd’s regular incusion as a midfield enforcer/creator and Bannon, the skillful Left footed schemer being capped by Scotland recently.
He can shoot, too. Rather well.
Fabian Delph is a hard tackling, highly rated box to box midfielder signed from Dirty Leeds a couple of years ago but still to have a breakout season for them.
Stephen Ireland remains an enigma.
Capable of brilliance and domination, the ex Man City player of the season is again one who has never quite really lived up to that high standard for Villa. He can drift in and out of games, often to great effect, often to no effect whatever. Dangerous, still.
Up front, they generally choose from 5, dependent on McLeish’s inclination to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1.
Darren Bent, the main goalscorer, is probably Fabio Capello’s current first choice for England. He has fabulous PL goalscoring numbers which started in his Charlton days and have taken in both Sunderland and Tottenham, where, according to ‘Arry’s famous quote he once missed a chance that “Sandra (Redknapp-Mrs ‘Arry) would have scored”.
An out and out box-sniffer, goal-poacher, call him what you will- he generally gets 20+ per season.
The second main forward is Gabby Agbonlahor, who seems this year to have muscled up. Immensely strong, blisteringly fast, another scorer of “cracking” goals, he will also run all day for the side. And then some.
Sometimes in the team, sometimes out of the team, English Football’s “How many caps?” guy, Emile Ivanhoe Heskey, is still muscularly plying his trade and weaving his lonely furrow. McLeish saw fit to use him in a wide left berth at Tottenham, redolent of Sven’s use for England some years ago, and to equal effect- ie, minimal. Still, players who play with him are never less than grateful if only for taking the spotlight and flak off them.
They are covered by Nathan Delfouneso, the again quick England U21 player and goalscorer, and Andreas Weimann, yet another 19yr old Austrian Villa Academy graduate.
That Academy then.
Very highly regarded, Villa’s Academy, run by the excellent Kevin McDonald, coached too by Gordon Cowans, continues to produce. There are at least nine graduates in the squad described above. Let’s hope that one day we can produce at that level.
Since the loss of James Milner, Stewart Downing , Gareth Barry and the pacey Ashley Young in recent years Villa are still able to feed in quality youngsters.Tempted away by the 2 Manchester giants and Liverpool, these four players perhaps give a clue to how top modern Internationals view both their own place in the scheme of things and in-game perceptions of Villa’s status. Not quite as “big” as their eventual destination Clubs, Villa have struggled to keep their ambitious talents.
Nevertheless, this IS a Club that can proudly boast a European Cup victory, League Titles and FA Cup Final wins, earlier versions of the Carling Cup too, and a reputation as a founding member of the Football League that is hard to match.There are others with a more illustrious past, but not many.
Tactically, as I’ve suggested, Villa’s shape tends to be a “horses for courses” approach that principally veers from 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and it’s variants, including a “diamond” 4-2-3-1 in some games. Given the horrendous Press they received from what has generally been considered a poor performance at Tottenham, I would guess that McLeish sees us as an opportunity to be slightly more attacking this time around. Having seen his Birmingham line ups in past days however, my gut feeling that he’ll be loath to abandon a smash-and-grab, tight defence, set piece centric mindset.
For all of my suggestion of a slightly rocky present, we Swans should have no doubt that we’re in for a very hard game. I’ve not included in this piece any mention of how we will set up.
The key for us last week turned out to be BR’s brave decision to replace Wayne Routledge with Joe Allen, a decision SAF no less highlighted in this piece from Tuesday’s Guardian when he said this ……..”We dominated the game in the first half and they made a really good change at half time, they brought on a more recognised midfield player and started to get stuck in and win more possession,….”.
I suspect therefor that there may be not that many changes for us. We are playing well, but it remains to be seen whether a different game, and another difficult opponent, drives us to get back on track with a home win. If Steven Caulker is fit, he may get a bench spot, although he didn’t play in the Reserves 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Cobham on Monday. Similarly Kemy Agustien, who did play in that game, for maybe a muscular late game option.
I’m pretty confident anyway that our excellent Manager, BR will do what he thinks is the right thing and this Sunday, as part of Sky’s Super Sunday early broadcast, we’ll get to enjoy another fantastic Premiership day – as we did last week against Man Utd- but this time, with the result in our favour!
Onward Swansea City.
This article was written by Peter Thomas