As a Villa fan, there are many positives to be taken from this season...yes, you read right, I did say positives.
In the end, Villa finished 9th, the highest placed Midlands team (not that I really care!). They didn’t lose to Chelsea and beat Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton at least once. The only other teams above Villa were Fulham (2 draws), Tottenham (2 defeats) and champions Manchester United (1 draw, 1 defeat), proving that Villa can beat almost anybody on their day. On the flipside, defeats to Wolves, West Brom, Blackburn and a thumping from Newcastle, also show Villa’s vulnerability. Only on one occasion did Villa manage to string together more than 2 wins in row. On 2 occasions Villa lost 3 or more games in a row and all too often failed to get a win in a sequence of 3 or more games. All this highlights the issue that repeats itself season after season – the lack of a genuine Premier League squad. With this in mind, Villa were never going to finish above any of the final top 6 – they don’t have the squad to compete. Fulham and Everton had good seasons and have grown accustomed to forming a good squad with a minimal amount of money. 9th is perhaps slightly below par, and the points difference between Villa and 6th (10points) is perhaps a bit more telling. However I believe 9th is a good result and something to be positive about.
Other positives include excellent seasons for Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, demonstrating their pacey attacking ability not only at Villa Park but on an international stage as well. The ‘kids’ have played a big part too, with Marc Albrighton the pick of the bunch. Contributions also from Bannan, Clark, Baker, Herd, Delfouneso and Delph show real promise for the next few seasons. There have perhaps been disappointing seasons for Dunne, Collins, Petrov and Agbonlahor, the latter failing to live up to the promise of the previous season. Gerard Houllier seems to take the blame for all of this – on several occasions, younger squad members have sung the praises of Monsieur Houllier, whilst all season we have heard rumours of unrest and of ‘senior’ players disliking the new regime.
I’m going to stick up for Houllier, largely because I’ve met the guy, but I would rather side with the future of the club rather than the old guard. I also think his transfer dealings have been spot on. Darren Bent is not only worth every penny of his ‘inflated’ transfer fee but also every penny saved from avoiding relegation (albeit by a comfortable distance in the end). Kyle Walker has looked excellent at full- back and will soon be challenging Johnson and Richards for the England right back position. Makoun and Bradley are yet to prove themselves, although glimpses of Jean II have shown his possible value (and perhaps family issues have been on his mind). Surely any man who’s commitment to a job ends up with him in hospital has got to be praised – his effort and commitment toVilla has been harshly questioned by some Villa fans, who really should be ashamed of themselves. Having said that, there have been some mistakes this season – most notably an FA Cup fifth round tie against Manchester City, in another winless March. My biggest criticism was the way Houllier told the fans how important the cup was but did not back that up with his team selection and he probably should have found a central defender who could pass if he wanted Villa to play from the back. There is an intense need for more creativity. Too many times I’ve shouted at my computer screen to stop passing backwards and sideways and actually play a forward pass. Possibly more frustrating is the lack of supporting runs to cause a need for these forward passes. I guess Villa aren’t going to be Barcelona and there has been some improvement on the long ball tactics that seemed to be the default method of attack last season. New recruits will be needed and I think forthcoming.
January isn’t the best time to get players in, although I’ve already stated my approval of what Villa managed to achieve. The Summer, with pre-season training and a friendlier transfer market is the time for Houllier to build his squad and to develop the style of play that he sees best – something he was denied at the start of this season. In all honesty, the whole club were denied this with Mr O’Neill’s abrupt departure. I’m not going to blame Martin O’Neill, I don’t know all the details, but the situation left us in a lot of trouble. Kevin MacDonald was admirable in acting up, but you have to question his ambition (and possibly ability) to work at that level when he has been in his position for so long. It was disruptive for players, for the staff that were left and for the club as a whole. Transfer plans were in disarray and the solid training with clear focus that is needed in pre-season, could not happen. I personally think losing the creativity of James Milner was also a big blow (possibly a knock-out as far as MON was concerned), and Villa still need to find a replacement – bringing Milner back might do the trick!?
Looking forward, I feel Villa need quite a shake-up. If Ashley Young leaves, there is a need for a winger, definitely a creative midfielder, a fullback, at least one centre back and probably a goalkeeper to replace the ‘evergreen’ Brad Friedel. My preferences would be N’Zogbia from Wigan (or Adam Johnson if at all possible), I’d take James Milner, but probably a foreign, more technically gifted midfielder, Kyle Walker on a permanent deal and Ben Foster would do a good job in goal. I suspect Houllier has eyes across Europe and will have players in mind, especially in defence and maybe in goal. It will be an interesting pre-season – Martin O’Neill will play some part, Gerard Houllier may not if his doctor (and wife?) have any say. Villa fans need patience, Houllier needs a bit more time to recover and to do his job and Randy Lerner will have to seriously back Houllier, whilst ensuring the financial stability of the club. Lerner has proved his commitment to the club, I’m lucky enough to have met Gerard and believe he is also committed. Most of the players are committed, and those that aren’t will be let go (Carew is already out of the door, Warnock will surely follow).
Oh, I forgot to mention that Birmingham City suffered the indignity of relegation - I suppose most Villa fans will be pleased with that! Only 85 sleeps until the season starts – bring it on!