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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Was O'Neill a genius?

Wherever he goes players, coaches and chairmen have loved Mr O'Neill.  He is definitely a very intelligent man, proved by his law degree and often evident in interviews.  He is also very principled an believes in a certain style of management - one that affords him as much control as possible at a football club.  In this regard, the influence of a certain Brian Clough is very apparent (despite having a pretty tough time whilst playing at Nottingham Forest).  I am not trying to write Martin O'Neill's biography (which is a good read by the way) but the question has been posed as to why Gerard Houllier, a successful manager himself, finds his Aston Villa team in the bottom 3, whereas his predecessor finished 6th with virtually the same team.

Firstly, one major consideration is James Milner.  When Villa signed him I was delighted - I believed then, and perhaps still do, that he is the next Steven Gerard.  Man City aren't doing him any favours, but at Villa he was the main creative attacking force - something very lacking at the moment.  It's hard to say whether the sale of Milner was the reason O'Neill left - it seemed to be on the cards for a while - but what is clear is that Stephen Ireland isn't an adequate replacement.

O'Neill did have a knack for making average players look good, and good players look great.  Last season Dunne and Collins formed an excellent defensive partnership.  Dunne has been a solid performer in the Premiership, but Collins was barely getting a game at West Ham.  Agbonlahor and Young looked like star players last season, but the lack of England appearances perhaps show that they are not (yet?) able to perform to the highest level on a consistent basis.  So is Houllier unable to get the best out of players?  There have certainly been a lot of reports of unrest at Villa, particularly amongst 'senior' players.  There were 'bust-ups' with O'Neill though, Barry and Reo-coker most notably.  Perhaps these were dismissed because O'Neill was more established at the club.  When O'Neill left, several players talked about how boring training was and how they didn't really get on with O'Neill.  Young players in particular didn't seem to get much of a look in.  The younger players are apparently very happy under Houllier - they are getting plenty of match time, and often look very impressive.  Houllier also won several trophies at Liverpool - something Liverpool managers since have not been able to replicate.

Perhaps O'Neill was better tactically, or used subs better?  It is widely believed that whilst O'Neill is regarded as an excellent man-manager, tactically he doesn't always get it right.  Villa fans last season were often frustrated by a lack of flexibility or simply a lack of options used by O'Neill - in particular in the use of subs.  Indeed, Aston Villa used the fewest players last season and by March, a month without any points for 3 seasons under O'Neill, the team had been found out and early promise had faded.

It's not possible to compare transfer records yet.  Houllier has brought in just 2 players - Pires and Kyle Walker - but has already set up a more comprehensive scouting network.  O'Neill didn't ever seem to look abroad for players - over 90% of his transfers were from English or Scottish clubs.  I feel more confident in the players Houllier will be looking at - I just hope Villa are still in a position to attract these players to the club.

There's no real explanation for Villa's form at the moment - another terrible performance against Sunderland leaves them in real danger of relegation.  You would think that they have the players to stay up and Houllier might be able to further add to the squad this month.  There needs to be a change - in tactics, in personnel or in attitude.  Only time will tell whether Lerner's faith in Houllier will be repaid.

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