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The McLeish Mentality

Aston Villa Blog’s Ollie Scrimgeour discusses the mentality that Alex McLeish has brought to the club early on in his reign as manager, as well as giving his opinions on the club’s deadline day activity.

After the first three games in the new Premier League season, Villa sit comfortably unbeaten with five points and looking ahead to the rest of the season. Alex McLeish has managed to weather the storm that surrounded his appointment in July, but what have we learnt about him, his style of management and his decisions so far?

Alex McLeish has illustrated a number of things about his managerial mentality after his first month of competitive football in charge of Aston Villa Football Club. The most unpopular appointment in the club’s Premier League history, McLeish had a lot to prove when he crossed from the blue side of Birmingham early in the summer.

To a large extent, it is fair to say that the Scot did well to win over a considerable number of the Villa faithful, appearing to bring balance and a sense of direction to the dressing room. Clearly the players were impressed by his organised style, and he has made the right decision in revitalising the likes of Stephen Warnock and Shay Given, the latter being one of the excellent signings McLeish has made since arriving. Another top signing was Charles N’Zogbia, who offers the side a direct form of creativity, which is something that has been missing among the claret and blue ranks for several years.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that a lot of those fans who were explicitly against his appointment are standing by their protests, and attendances at Villa games are suffering. The home game versus Wolves on Saturday, which once would have been considered a huge clash not just in the Midlands but in English football in general, was nothing short of tame. In spite of Sky Sports billing the affair as an exciting encounter between local rivals, there were vast areas of empty seats around Villa Park and the atmosphere about as damp as Mick McCarthy’s mood when faced with a microphone.

Overall, however, McLeish is doing a good job and has earned the respect of a number of those who were initially very doubtful that he would offer anything to Villa.

Steady Strategy or is McLeish winging it?

One thing that has been very notable about the current campaign under McLeish has been his fondness of an unchanging starting line-up and formation in the Premier League.

It is evident that Heskey has charmed Big Eck, as illustrated by the consistent use of the same two strikers, Emile played alongside the deadly Darren Bent. You would have to look very hard to find a single Villa fan who thinks McLeish is wrong in playing Darren Bent. The hit-man has built a reputation as a clinical goal-scorer and will lead the line this year for us. I have every faith that he is just about the best striker we could have at the club at this time. He is a class finisher and should be England’s first choice forward as well.

Heskey, on the other hand, is a different story – and I’m not being unfair. He works hard for the team, riling defenders and holding the ball up. These are strengths to his game, many of which go unnoticed by the majority of spectators. However, there are a number of reasons why I don’t believe the big target man to be worthy of first team football at Villa Park.

First and foremost, Heskey does not score goals regularly, which is frankly unacceptable for a side like Villa, who are aiming to at least challenge for a top seven finish. His goal against Blackburn in the second Premier League game of the season was his first in 900 minutes of top flight action. You don’t have to be a genius to determine that McLeish’s dedication to playing Heskey up front is ill-judged. On top of this, as I’ve mentioned in other pieces, Heskey encourages long ball football, and prohibits Agbonlahor from playing in his correct and most effective position – up front, and not on the wing.

In my humble view, there can be no doubt that Agbonlahor would be a far more effective force as a centre forward than a left winger. His pace is formidable, which is perhaps why McLeish considers him apt for the wing. Nevertheless, this attribute could be used alongside Bent for a frighteningly quick front two. This would have opposition defences out-paced, or sitting deep, leaving gaps in between defence and midfield for our wingers, and more attack minded central midfielders, to exploit. Alternatively, it could indeed cause the entire opposition formation to drop back, enabling Villa to maintain possession and play the more dictating style of football any fan would like their team to play.

Moreover, as a result of putting Agbonlahor up front in place of Heskey, it would open up a space on the wing. As I argued before the start of the new season, Marc Albrighton is a key link in the Villa chain this season, and should be employed as such. N’Zogbia should be shifted to left wing, allowing the young local boy to slot into right midfield, where his dangerous crossing and tireless work ethic will aid newly signed right back Alan Hutton, and indeed provide more opportunities for Bent and Agbonlahor in front of goal. Agbonlahor is not a natural left winger, and this has resulted in a lack of defensive aid for Stephen Warnock at left back. All of these aspects, offensive and defensive, are important to consider when putting a player on the wing.

Delayed Decisions – Good and Bad

Deadline Day

To have taken five points from the first three Premier League games would suggest Villa are doing something right. Defensively, we look quite secure, with James Collins and Richard Dunne now one of the most consolidated centre back pairings in the league. With Stephen Warnock now reinstated at left-back, and Shay Given looking like the signing of the season, McLeish deserves credit for improving this vital area of the pitch.

One of the notable aspects of his managerial mentality so far has been his decision making, and the way in which he tends to leave things late until he makes a change. We’ll start with how this has potentially worked out well.

The most recent of his delayed decisions came in the last few days, with McLeish working hard to complete the deals he wanted before the end of the transfer window. Deadline day was something special in the Premier League, as it is every year now, what with Sky Sports News and the endless stream of rumours flooding our Twitter timelines and BBC Sport pages. Indeed, as one person astutely observed yesterday, this date in the football calendar has become a national event. It’s a fascinating product of the mélange between football, money, journalism and modern technology that could only exist in the greatest sport on Earth. It was like a microcosm of the world of football as we know it – full of excitement, frustration, opinion, drama and as Arsène Wenger will be happy to tell you, pressure.

I’m getting side-tracked. While it was more momentous for a number of other Premier League clubs, Villa made two signings on the last day of the transfer window, both of which could prove to be good business by Alex McLeish. Having sold Luke Young to Queens Park Rangers and loaned Jean II Makoun to Olympiacos on Monday, McLeish needed to bring in a new right back and a central midfielder to bolster the ranks.

Ins and outs

There was a reasonable amount of pressure on the Scotsman to bring in replacements, because while he was shrewdly cutting the wage bill, Villa fans – myself included – were questioning his decision to get rid of two decent players. Jean II Makoun was a particularly strange one for me, being as he had arrived at Villa Park less than a year ago. I rate Makoun and wish that McLeish had given him the opportunity to prove himself in defensive midfield, taking the place of Stilian Petrov.

To get to the point, McLeish’s late call was this: to bring in Alan Hutton (£3 million) and Jermaine Jenas (on loan) from Tottenham Hotspur.

Alan Hutton had been a target for McLeish since he took over in July, so the signing completed a treble that had been expected for a while (with N’Zogbia and Given). There are sceptics, and while I am not over-enthusiastic about the signing, I think it’s a decent buy and will offer Premier League experience in a key position, not to mention an adequately attacking right back who can support the right midfielder ahead of him. In spite of his price being above that at which we sold Luke Young, the Scottish international is seven years younger and on a lower wage than his predecessor. McLeish’s target was to cut the wage bill, and bring in a player who can do a job. Mission accomplished, in that respect.

Jermaine Jenas, on the other hand, is a bit of a wildcard in among the deadline day transfers. There is hardly another player in England who divides opinion quite as much as he does. The central midfielder has been around for what seems like ages, but has achieved very little in measurable terms. He has been in and out of first team football at numerous clubs in the Premier League, with Newcastle United the club where he burst onto the scene with his energetic displays. At Spurs, he found himself unused much of the time and while there was a period in which he played first team regularly and enjoyed good form, many people have criticised him for rarely reproducing that. He is a talented player, but a frustrating one, is the general consensus. This is why there is such a mixed bag of ratings for the still relatively young player, who will hope to revive his career once again at Aston Villa.

Henry Winter of the Telegraph best described on his Twitter page yesterday what most Villa fans will hope for from Jermaine Jenas:

Jenas for #avfc. Could be one of the best deals. If he plays week in/out, & McLeish makes him believe, Jenas could be a cm (centre midfield) star again.

We shall see. Personally, I agree with this point of view and fully expect Jenas to grasp this opportunity with both hands (and feet, hopefully). He offers the sort of athleticism we need in midfield, particularly as McLeish persistently selects Petrov, who often looks out of his depth physically in a midfield battle.

The final feature of McLeish’s style so far that I would like to discuss is his late decision making with regards to substitutions. Against Wolves on Saturday, it was slightly exasperating to see Villa completely dominate their opponents, only for McLeish to consider that the only way of breaking the deadlock would be to take Charles N’Zogbia off for Barry Bannan on 74 minutes, and then swap Fabian Delph for Albrighton on 84, giving the exuberant right midfielder only six minutes plus stoppage time to make an impact.

It seems ludicrous that McLeish failed to recognise that Albrighton on for N’Zogbia would have been a straight switch in positional terms and would have enabled a continued threat down that flank. Bannan, while technically gifted, offered very little on the right wing for the ten minutes he played there and the performance became flat following this tactical change. It was a wasted opportunity, for had the manager played it correctly, I feel we would have got the goal needed to claim victory.

Substitutions can change games. McLeish needs to learn to make the right decisions, at the right times.

Ambition is key

All in all, there can be little doubt that Alex McLeish has got Aston Villa off to a positive start in the 2011/12 campaign. I admit it – I was a big sceptic of the decision to bring him in, largely because I wasn’t convinced by his track record.

Nonetheless, he has made some wise moves in the transfer market and we now have a team that looks more than capable of developing into a competitive outfit in the Premier League.

As a final note, it was good to see Villa attempt to sign Joe Cole yesterday, in spite of the outcome, which saw him choose a loan deal at Ligue 1 side Lille. It was good to see because it illustrated a level of ambition that we are perhaps not accustomed to but is something that should be maintained, if we are to be a success. I rate Joe Cole highly, in spite of his limited success at Liverpool, and wish him luck with the French champions.

Perhaps Enda Stevens, signed from Shamrock Rovers yesterday, will be the next Joe Cole. The youngster has already stated his ambition to play for Villa, which is the perfect attitude. Yet, we will have to wait until January to see whether McLeish has demonstrated his ability to buy for the future, as Stevens will not join the squad until then.

The first month has been constructive and has certainly flown by, but we have many more to come, fortunately. Ambition and a winning mentality are essential to continuing from where we have started. For now, I have faith that McLeish can offer those things.

Up the Villa.

Follow me on Twitter @olliescrim



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