Many neutrals and Villa fans had their doubts over the appointment of Gerard Houllier 2 months ago but how has he really done in his opening 10 games at the club. The pessimistic may have seen the choice of the Frenchman as somewhat of a sideways step after his tenure at Liverpool was left on a low point with the Anfield club. Despite this, Houllier had a terrifically successful spell at the club leading them to Community Shield, UEFA, FA, League Cup (x2) and Supercup glory, a feat which has surpassed any of his successors at Liverpool. After health issues seemed to stunt his progress with the club, many in the Merseyside remember Houllier as a negative and uninspired tactician as he looks to answer the critics who doubted him. Villa have had a stop-start season to say the least and some impressive performances and results have been overlooked due to the sides current inability to close out games. Here is why I believe the new manager has done a decent job in his opening 10 fixtures and why Villa should not be counted out of a European finish.
After Kevin MacDonald had started brightly in his short spell as caretaker manager, the team began to stagnate somewhat and great results were overshadowed by diabolical ones. A 3-0 win to open the season was followed by a 6-0 thumping by at the hands of Newcastle and another Europa Cup departure to Rapid Vienna who by all accounts are poor. Beating Everton picked up the spirits again but an awful home performance against Bolton and an unfortunate last ditch defeat to Stoke left Villa fans wondering what side would show up each week. Enter Gerard Houllier…
The Frenchman had what some might call a fortunate start in having to face Blackburn in the League Cup. Although defeat would have been disappointing it would not have offered as much pressure as a league game and was an opportunity for the new boss to understand what he had to work with. A young team was fielded and after a disappointing first half, Villa ran out 3-1 winners due to an inspired Emile Heskey cameo. Backing this encouraging start up with an away derby day win over Wolves provided the perfect start to the 63-year-old’s tenure.
The next two games would really show the teams resolve with a tough away game at Tottenham followed by a visit from the Champions, Chelsea. When Marc Albrighton gave Villa a deserved early lead at White Hart Lane all was looking rosy for the new boss. A fantastic performance from Rafael van der Vaart saw him score in the dying moments of the first half to turn the game on it’s head. The Dutchman added a second to punish Villa for missing chances in the opening exchanges but an away defeat to Tottenham is nothing to fret over. When Chelsea came to Villa Park it was key not to crumble to a successive defeat. The boss’ tactics were spot on in what eventually turned out to be a dull game which sprang to life with 10 minutes to go. Had Nigel Reo-Coker scored a 1-on-1 with the last kick of the game it would have been a masterminded victory from Houllier whose side defended admirably.
Perhaps the most disappointing result won’t have been that of the 1-0 defeat at Sunderland but of the shocking game versus the Blues at Villa Park. Not many sides travel to the Stadium of Light and come away with all three points and after their dressing down of Chelsea this weekend the result doesn’t look that bad! Since the defeat the club are 5 games unbeaten including progression through to the Quarter Finals of the League Cup after an extra time win over Burnley. The victory sets up a mouth watering clash with Birmingham though if the two sides last encounter is anything to go by I wouldn’t be getting too excited. Nevertheless the opportunity to get one over on our fierce rivals to reach the semis is an excellent prospect.
At this stage the clubs injury woes were beginning to stack up. The new manager seemed to be out of luck having lost Gabby Agbonlahor and Luke Young to injury but it would only get worse. A rejuvenated Emile Heskey and a lack-lustre John Carew joined the sidelines as well as club captain Stiliyan Petrov. With no fit senior strikers the midfield began to whittle down as well when stand in skipper, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell picked up knocks. The absences allowed the likes of Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannan to join the outstanding emergence of Marc Albrighton through the ranks which is probably the most promising aspect of Villa’s campaign thus far. We drew 0-0 at home to Blues and played abysmally. The less said about that the better!
Fulham away represented the chance to put the derby day wrongs right and all was well until the 94th minute of play. A promising performance and stand out show from Barry Bannan and Albrighton appeared to have won the day for the visitors. Houllier’s men threw away their one goal advantage and this inability to hold onto results has epitomised Villa’s season. Without a win in 5, defeat was unthinkable against Blackpool at home and made more so by the opponent’s line-up. Despite some good passages of play, the inexperienced midfield pairing of the diminutive Bannan and the defender Clark was leaky and uncertain. Villa had to take the lead 3 times to see off the Blackpool reserves with a last minute winner from James Collins. A win is a win and a return to goals in a thrilling encounter will have pleased the home fans with the home side at least attempting some more free flowing attacking football under the new regime.
What can we say about Saturday? Nothing short of a fantastic performance for 80 minutes against Manchester United merited a comfortable advantage for the home side who had seemingly done enough to kill off the Red Devils. With the so far ineffective Stephen Ireland, and Ciaran Clark dropping out late on Villa were depleted to say the least. A return for Gabby Agbonlahor was great to see and a composed debut from Jonathan Hogg against the Manchester giants was refreshing. Albrighton again shone and the defence looked tight and more than capable to hold out the former champions. A thoroughly well earned 2-0 lead was built up from the spot from Ashley Young and a fine team move capped off by man of the match Albrighton. A goal from nowhere from Federico Macheda, who is fast become a real villain amongst the Villans after a late winner 2 seasons ago, gave United a new lease of life. Vidic equalised from close with minutes remaining to make it 5 leads lost in the league so far (12 points).
In conclusion if you switched Houllier’s two defeats to Spurs and Sunderland so far with the draws against United and Chelsea, I believe the Frenchman’s record would make for much more impressive reading. Despite the points total remaining the same, many believe the jury is still out on the new man at the helm and realistically it is. However I believe Houllier has done well with what he has had at his disposal after a thread bare squad was highlighted by no fewer then 10 absentees last time out. A win against Blackburn will relieve pressure ahead of impending clashes with Arsenal and Liverpool though I am more than happy to give Houllier time in what is clearly a transition period at the club and I for one and certainly not ruling out Europe just yet!
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