Aston Villa parted company with 63-year-old Frenchman Gerard Houllier by mutual consent yesterday, after a much maligned tenure at the club ended in a serious health scare which led to the board’s decision to look elsewhere. The vast majority of Villa fans wanted the former Liverpool boss out at some stage or another, but encouraging form in 2011 saw the club headed in the right direction. So what did Houllier achieve/fail to achieve in his short reign at the club?It is fair to say that the ex-Lyon manager was not a popular choice with all of the fans when the board made the appointment following the sudden and untimely departure of Martin O’Neill just days before the season began. A controversial figure in some eyes but a man with real credentials in the Premier League and France. The Frenchman’s first official game in charge after a drawn out appointment was against Blackburn in the League Cup, a game we won 3-1 after initially going down to a Gael Givet strike. However, even before his first match in charge he had offended some Villa fans with comments in the press, a facet which was too familiar during his time in charge, particularly early on.
All was forgotten after a successive win against Midlands rivals Wolves began to give fans hope, but it proved short lived as the club won just 1 league game in their next 10 outings, an unspectacular 3-2 victory over a massively understrength Blackpool side. A draw and defeat to fierce rivals Birmingham in that time saw the Villa faithful begin to turn against him and a 3-0 surrender away to Liverpool was the last straw for many after the manager saluted the home fans singing his name and all but blanking Villa’s travelling away support.
Quotes after the game didn’t help but he saved some grace with an important home win over West Brom, the club’s last victory in 2010 and only their third under Houllier in the league in his opening 14 matches. By the end of the year it is fair to say that most Villa fans wanted him out, especially after an embarrassing 4-0 defeat at Manchester City capped a frankly awful start to his reign at the club.
Before January Houllier had successfully managed to fall out with Stephen Warnock and John Carew, both players he had sold in his managerial career in the past, as well as flop summer signing Stephen Ireland, and the harmony, or lack their of, at the club was unmissable. To that point the emergence of youngsters Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannan had been the only saving grace in a dismal campaign. The former two were influential in kicking off the new year in relative style following a dramatic up and down 3-3 draw at Chelsea, which eventually saw Albrighton set up Clark for an injury time leveller.
The spirit shown in that game was abundantly absent in the previous 4 months and sparked a revival of sorts under the new regime, though it didn’t look that way after the point was followed by a home defeat to Sunderland. Next came the arrival of Kyle Walker, a key signing under the former boss, and the full-back made an immediate impact at the club, netting an early wonder goal against boyhood club Sheffield United in a 3-1 FA Cup win. Another disappointing draw against Birmingham ensured that the club would go a full season without beating the Blues, an unacceptable failure in the fans hearts.
It is hard to focus a season around a single moment, but if there was a defining light in Houllier’s stewardship, it was undoubtedly the signing and forthcoming impact of Darren Bent. A possible fee of as much as £24m was blasted by many, but it got the Villa fans excited and paid off massively. The striker scored on his debut in one of the sides best results of the season, a 1-0 win over Man City, and went on to score 9 in his first 16 games for the club, stamping his authority on the England set-up in the process.
In the final 18 games of the season in all competitions, the club lost just 5 times, partly due to a return to fitness of a number of first teamers, admittedly an area in which Houllier had been hugely unfortunate up to the New Year. Another fantastic performance saw Houllier lead his side out to an impressive 4-1 win over Blackburn, and Villa fans were beginning to look up. The experienced boss then committed near managerial suicide in sacrificing an FA Cup run after ‘resting’ all but 2 of his first team regulars in an away trip to Man City, a team whose fixtures against were huge factors in Houllier’s run, in both a negative and positive manner. Villa’s young lambs were led to a 3-0 slaughtering and the pressure was back on the boss when the decision didn’t pay dividends as the club lost their next two games against Bolton and Wolves.
Villa then went unbeaten in their next three, beating Newcastle and West Ham in the process, before the shock news of a second heart scare for the under fire boss which led to his eventual departure from the club. The Frenchman was officially in charge of 34 games at the club, winning 12, drawing 9, but losing 13. The club went on to lose just once in their last 5 under Gary McAllister and finished their season on a high with wins over Arsenal and Liverpool.
Defensive frailties engulfed the season, particularly from set pieces as the back line struggled to revert to Houllier’s preferred man marking system. However, the main downfall was the clubs willingness to surrender a lead, dropping 26 league points last season, a league high. Good signings gave his tenure a shine with Makoun set to come good next season in my opinion and the Frenchman left the side heading in the right direction. In fact, prior to the New Year, Villa were placed 15th in the league picking up just 20 points in their first 19 games. In the final 19 they were 8th in the form guides, two points behind City, one behind Arsenal and two ahead of Tottenham with 28 points.
Villa’s stats in the league over the duration were far from impressive though, ranking 13th in terms of possession (48%), 14th in pass success rate (74%) and 12th in terms of aerial duels won (49%). The defence conceded a joint 4th 16 shots a game, made another joint 4th 22 tackles a game and committed 12 fouls per game. In attack the team had an average of 10 shots a game, 2 more than bottom club Birmingham (ha), and just 4 of those were on target.
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