Today signalled the start of a new era at Villa Park with new manager Gerard Houllier and his back room staff taking charge of their first training session. After a questionable start to the campaign I will be looking at some of the things that Houllier should be considering in order to improve the clubs fortunes on the pitch. In my opinion, first port of call is to drop some of the first team regular’s, some of whom just haven’t started this season. Here I will discuss who could be left out and why.
The 1-1 draw against Bolton was the 3rd game of the season that Villa haven’t won when they really should be if they have top half aspirations let alone European hopes. Kevin MacDonald has brought in his own system, different to that of O’Neill’s, which was highly successful on the opening day, beating West Ham 3-0. The Scotsman has consistently started with a 4-4-1-1 formation, deploying Ashley Young just off the lone striker. O’Neill came under criticism for rarely changing his side in terms of personnel and tactics and the same could be said about the former caretaker. Player’s appear to be resting on their laurels somewhat and need to be kept on their toes with numerous bright youngster’s waiting in the wings.
Starting with the defence the main promising sign for the start of the season has seen Luke Young, a right back, restored as the starting right back. MON constantly overlooked the ex England international last term after a fantastic first season at the club for Young. The Ulsterman instead opted for Carlos Cuellar in that position although Cuellar looked uncomfortable getting forward as he is naturally a centre back and has performed well there.
One issue for me is the mindset of Richard Dunne. The centre back undoubtedly had an excellent start to his career but began to make more mistakes as the season grew old. I believe that the heartache of his nation’s unfair dismissal in the World Cup qualifier to France really affected the Irishman. He then went on to make crucial errors in both the Carling Cup Final and FA Cup Semi with Chelsea. I don’t think that Dunne has ever really recaptured his best form since the tough spell he had at the start of the year and the likes of Cuellar, Davies and Clark will all be hoping for their chance under Houllier and ready to stake a claim for a place when needed. The centre backs injury against Stoke which forced him off at half time with Bolton may well be a blessing in disguise to enable the so called fringe players to prove their worth.
In midfield I believe there have always been doubts over Stewart Downing’s contribution since a return to fitness and a decent start to the season has been pleasing. Another major highlight thus far has been the emergence of Marc Albrighton which may have spurred the former Middlesbrough winger to play for his place. In my opinion, with an able replacement in the youngster, the winger’s should start as Downing and Ashley Young, with 20 year old Albrighton more than willing to fill their boots were they to slip up. I think that with Young and Albrighton either wing you would have a greater balance to the side with both players always looking to run at defenders and deliver.
One man who has been a constant starter is Captain Stiliyan Petrov. The Bulgarian is strong in possession but lacks any real drive and seems to have lost all the creativity from his game after season’s playing as a holding midfielder. Nigel Reo-Coker has started a few games under MacDonald and has impressed me with his performances. The former West Ham midfielder possesses a lot of the same attributes to Petrov but has age and fitness on his side. He is strong in the tackle, retains play well but also has the energy to burst forward when required and I fell he should be given a chance over Petrov in the games to come. I recognize that this is made all the more unlikely by Petrov’s status as Captain at the club it would take a bold move for Houllier to implement the change, but bold moves are what this team are crying out for. Partnered with Ireland in centre midfield, Reo-Coker could be the perfect accompaniment to the creative influence of Ireland and would represent a more youthful core to the side.
A mention should be made of young midfielder Barry Bannan who could also be called upon. The Scotland Under-21 international scored for his country last week after an impressive start to his campaign. On the opening day he picked up his first Premier League appearance for Villa when coming on as a sub and backed it up with his first senior goal in the 1-1 draw with Rapid Vienna. In midweek for the reserves the little man celebrated a superb hat-trick against Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer’s second string Man Utd team. Although predominantly a central midfielder, the Scot can also play on the left wing and has a terrific left foot to boot and should not be overlooked.
Up front the club have lacked fire power for years now with no Villa player reaching 15 League goals for a number of years. Agbonlahor doesn’t get, or make enough chances for himself and has always looked dangerous in wide positions. A 3 pronged attack could bleed more goals with O’Neill trying the system early in his rein. I liked the set up Ashley Young and Agbonlahor either side of Big John Carew with the wide-men dropping back when not in possession. I feel that one up top is not working and especially as this ‘one’ is not a recognized target man. John Carew and even Emile Heskey play a better role in the isolated position and a cha needs to be made. Villa fans have been pleading for a long time now to see Nathan Delfouneso given a run in the team and this would represent another way of keeping some of the more idle first teamer’s on their toes.
These are merely my opinions and I’m sure they won’t be shared by all of you so do let me know what changes you would like to see Houllier make on the field! The new manager’s opening Cup game with Blackburn may be the ideal scenario to try out some new ideas whilst keeping a strong team to ensure a result.
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