Hoards of Villa fans were chanting ‘Houllier out’ during the sides home defeat to local rivals Wolves at the weekend, with banners erected in the same vain before the game had even began. Various fan polls suggest that around 2/3’s of the fanbase want the manager out now but would that really help? Either way the club have backed the manager, an not for the first time, after a run of three straight defeats has seen the club drop out of the FA Cup and fall just 1 point above relegation and more worryingly, 3 off the bottom club Wigan. So just how much of the blame, for what has been a dire season (there’s no way around it), can be placed on the manager, whose 32 game reign has seen just 10 wins, of which just 6 have come in the league. Of the remaining 22 matches that Houllier has overseen, the club has lost 13 including the weekend’s derby defeat. What can we salvage from this campaign if we stay in the league and what positive changes has the manager made to the setup which may well have kept him in a job this long?
The 1-0 defeat to Wolves on Saturday was undoubtedly a low point in Houllier’s tenure, hence the fans displeasure, but is one of many in a stressful and sometimes uncompromising managerial run. The Frenchman has been severely effected by injuries in two of his major slumps at Villa Park, firstly in centre-midfield with every senior player out toward the end of last year and of course more recently, a defensive crisis which saw centre midfielder and league debutant Chris Herd fill in at centre back alongside the returning Carlos Cuellar on Saturday. This seemed a strange decision considering that Nathan Baker, a centre-back, was deployed at left back and later withdrawn for another midfielder Fabian Delph. However serious these injury lay-offs have been, Villa should be testing a Wolves side at home more often than in the weekend’s woeful performance.
Disciplinary issues have mounted in recent weeks but have been consistent throughout a turbulent season and not helped in the sides plight for much of the manager’s spell in charge. Although the players must be held responsible for poor behaviour, it is evident that something is not right behind the scenes and hasn’t been since Houllier arrived. Talk of the manager falling out with players arose before he had even managed a game with the media stating that fractious former relationships would again come to fruition with the likes of Stephen Warnock, John Carew and Brad Friedel, all of whom Houllier sold in an earlier managerial role. The former two players have since been completely frozen out so the immediate suggestions of unrest seem to have been accurate, although it must be said that both were dismal in the first half of this season.
Since then new recruit Stephen Ireland has been similarly overlooked and in turn shipped out to Newcastle and the likes of James Collins and more severely, Richard Dunne have all come to blows with the management. Discipline is essential but pettiness is inexcusable and it seems to me as though Houllier has overlooked the well-being of a team to prove a point which is all well and good but it clearly hasn’t worked, just my opinion!
Villa’s lowest low of the season is hard to pick out. The club lost to fierce rivals Birmingham in the League Cup with the Blues going on to life the trophy and although this was impossible to swallow, the performance deserved more and has done on numerous occasions this season, most recently in the 3-2 away defeat to Bolton. The loss to City was compounded by an inability to beat the blue noses all season which will never go down well with the Villa faithful. Awful displays and results spring to mind immediately with the loss to Wolves, with defeats to the likes of Blackburn, Sunderland and Liverpool all remaining sore spots.
However, if I were to pick out a low, or two to be more precise, it would be crushing away defeats to Manchester City. This may seem odd as Villa would be made outsiders in both but the manner of the 4-0 league defeat was bettered by the French surrender in the FA Cup. The first domination by City at Eastlands was probably the closest Houllier has come to losing his job and the manager since admitted that it was his lowest hour (and a half) at the club. Despite this the former Liverpool boss went on to condemn an inexperienced side to a 3-0 defeat with only Dunne and Clark keeping their places in an outfield 10. Again it can be argued that Houllier was being sensible in resting his stars for a Premier League survival battle but again, it hasn’t worked and more importantly he was resting players which didn’t need resting. The side had played once in the 2 weeks previous and were to play once in the two weeks after. Senseless surrender is how I would label it but I’m sure you have your own spin, either way we have lost both (winnable) games since.
Now, I promised positives and I will keep that promise! In the New Year the club went on a mini revival spell and played good football. In fact we have played good football in a lot of games but more importantly, failed to win those games. Starting before Houllier even came in, a good performance away at Stoke (no mean feat) turned into a disappointing defeat due to a last minute winner from the home side after an inability to defend set pieces which has become key feature to the sides demise. A dominating performance away at Fulham saw the side throw away another lead, again to a last minute set piece and the same was the case in throwing away a fantastic 2-0 lead against Man United in what was an otherwise terrific display, one which Rio Ferdinand claimed was the best that the leaders have faced all season. Villa have indeed conceded the most goals from set pieces and also gave away the most points from winning positions (21) so those two facts can pretty much sum up the sides season. I realise that these still seem like negatives but I meant to focus on the attractive football that was played in such games, certainly an improvement on what had become a stagnant routine under O’Neill in my opinion.
My personal highlight of Houllier’s reign in terms of results and performances undoubtedly the 4-1 win over Blackburn and let’s not forget that that wasn’t long ago! When Houllier’s side utilise the pace and trickery of its wingers and combine this with a finishing touch than they will be unplayable for most sides and proved this in last month’s fixture. In terms of Houllier’s best feature at the club, for me it has been his success in the transfer market and his eye for a player. Not only have we recruited the likes of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun, as well as unveiling a Premier League gem in Kyle Walker in my opinion, but the 64-year-old has shown interest in a number of talented prospects, both home and abroad, and pending survival I think the summer will be an exciting one for the club and more importantly the fans.
In conclusion, pros – keep trying to play attractive football, improving fitness, utlising the club’s wealth of young talent and seeking exciting recruits. Cons – stop the squabbling behind the scenes and indeed in front of them, it’s making a mockery of our great club. Learn how to defend set pieces and hang on to leads, I repeat, the club’s season can be summed up by the following; Villa have conceded the most goals from set pieces and also gave away the most points from winning positions (21).
It’s not constructive to call for the manager’s head in such a position in my opinion (stress on the my opinion!) Unity is paramount to ensure survival and with the signings made, supported by a youth system which has revealed only a small number of its various diamonds in the rough we will be twice the side that we currently are. Unity means players who want to stay at the club so Young, Warnock, Carew, Ireland and more than likely Dunne will have to be sacrificed and replaced come the end of the season. We need 10 points from the next 6 games with Arsenal and Liverpool last up so it’s precarious but those 6 games are all winnable so keep the faith. UTV!
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