Another day, another draw.
Yes, the two points dropped against Everton leaves our fight for fourth hanging by a worn thread. However, if we were to magically win our remaining five games we would still accumulate the targeted 16 points which I believe would be enough. But daydreams aside, I think it’s important to get back down to business and think about how we could improve on another season of overachievement.
Speaking to fans of other clubs, the general consensus is that Villa have had a “very good season.” Some would deem this patronising and others would think we deserve more than a very good season but in relative proportions, we have had an excellent year.
When you’re engrossed in team affairs and buy into the promises and hype of hope, I suppose it’s easy to accuse the team of underachieving when some results don’t go your way. Fortunately for our previous two managers (Taylor and O’Leary), they failed to offer any form of optimism and thus expectancy was non-existent throughout their reigns. If we were to ignore the less competitive league of the past when 10 less points got O’Leary to where O’Neill finished 2 years ago, one could argue that DOL’s 6th place finish got us believing. However, a steady decline throughout his time in charge of both on and off field performances suggested all along that he would not take us forward. Indeed, before MON took charge, we had witnessed 4 FA Cup 3rd Round eliminations and a thrilling run to the 5th round. So when I consider how in just 2 seasons O’Neill had turned us into an assured top 6 side, before chasing both fourth place and cup honours, I remember our all-too-recent relegation scraps and realise that Aston Villa have of course had a “very good season”.
A very good season for an Aston Villa fan, however, means putting up with yet another trophyless year. And if we were to stop the rot at 15 years this coming season, it is going to take a prolonged exceptional performance. The boys proved their capable competency this year with 2 extended cup runs and an elongated top 4 challenge (which is still going with just 5 games left).But, as good a journey it has been, we have fallen short. And as quality a player we may possess, we can’t expect to win silverware with just 13 trustworthy names (Luke Young and Heskey are the only other two squad players who contribute).
So what do we require to go one step further? Which players are needed in our squad to help push us into the top 4 and into cup glory? How do we prolong success?
Okay, okay, not groundbreaking by any means and the Villa faithful might not jump up from their seats at the prospect of the Irish man’s arrival. But in ‘Doyler’, we could have a younger, hungrier, more prolific and just plain better version of Emile Heskey. Watching the Wolves player on a regular basis playing for Ireland, I was surprised at his superb ability to hold the ball up. Not only is he much stronger than I first presumed, but his aptitude to bring the ball under control and find a supporting player is something to be admired – and something which he can do as effectively (if not better) than our number 18. On top of this, he does so in much more difficult environments playing with poorer opposition and used as the “out man” for his country, Doyle has propelled himself to be one of the nation’s most crucial players. Furthermore, his pace, technique and goalscoring record (which surprisingly is better than Heskey’s one in every eight games) make him a much better candidate than the 32 year old Emile to help our club progress. I’m not saying he would make our starting line-up (although he seems to grasp his chance anywhere he plays), but if we sold Heskey and replaced him with Kevin Doyle, we would already have taken strides to improve our chances next year.
Next up, it looks as if our munificent chairman will have to dip into his pockets once more. Of course, there are players there to be sold as well. I think he’s a decent player, but if we have little use for Steve Sidwell then we may as well cash in. Analysing the team, I think it has become abundantly clear that the right back area is a major problem. Defensively, Cuellar is not designed to cover so much space behind him and guard against lightning wingers. And offensively, the Spaniard is certainly not devised to cross into the opposition’s half. I’ve said it before, it’s not his fault but he should not be playing at right back. He is a quality centre back – one of four at the club – and if needs be, could also probably be sold to raise expenses (as disappointed as I would be to see him leaving). Curtis Davies is, talent-wise, our best centre back. Dunne has performed exceptionally well, as has Collins. Therefore, if money was an issue, Carlos would need to get the chop.
Audacious? Maybe. But with the Serbian defender we could, once again, improve our starting line up immensely. At 6ft 2, he would have no problem replacing the aerial prowess of the older Spaniard and certainly at right back, we could acquire an actual footballing threat. As a centre half, Ivanovic would also have much more to offer than Cuellar but after his £9.7m sale to Chelsea, might not come so cheap. I actually believe that Luke Young has much more to offer than he has been allowed this year, but if we are aspiring to play Champions League football, it would be advised to splash out the 5 – 7million required for the purchase of Branislav Ivanovic.
At just 19, Rafael is a proven threat attacking from right back. In the intensity of Old Trafford, the Brazilian has sometimes been found wanting in defence and has demonstrated a few signs of inexperience which will surely be rectified with age. But with 3 long term right back servants ahead of him (O’Shea, Neville, Brown), a loan move would be perfect for the development of the young lad. Perhaps he wouldn’t fit as well into Villa’s system and could prove a liability in our set piece defending, but certainly if the chips are down or we’re controlling a game (trying to break teams down), he would be a valuable dimension to deploy.
I can’t believe I just wrote this player’s name. Constantly a source of negative criticism (heavy criticism) from yours truly, I’m extremely disappointed in myself that I have turned my back on such strong beliefs. Too often, Carrick is happy to play safe and return the ball to centre back or pass the buck to his central midfield partner. He’s a player who doesn’t seem to want to make something happen, someone who doesn’t seem to want responsibility, and thus someone who hides from the ball. Yet, when he is on form, he is undoubtedly a terrific passer (if he has the balls to look forward). Starring for Spurs, he made the big money move to United because of his ability to find a game winning pass. And at times for the champions, the fans adored him. Last year, they were electric and Rooney and Berba loved feeding off the English man’s inch perfect passes. But when the going gets tough, Carrick gets running (scared). What I do think however is that Manchester United is probably a club too big for the make up of the central midfielder. Tim Howard was suspect to blunders at Old Trafford, but since his move to the blue half of Liverpool, he has proven he is one of the best keepers in the league. Likewise, Phil Neville’s selection at United was lambasted every week before he went on to captain the best club outside the top 4 and proved he was in fact a quality player. I firmly believe that with Carrick’s underlying talent, he can replace an ageing Petrov, but do so with more panache and more ability to change games for us. And with Man U about to put a miserable season behind them, a serious shake up is on the cards on Sir Matt Busby Way and the former Spurs player could well become available for around the same price we captured Downing and Milner for.
Maybe the wrong time in his career, but Ireland’s all time leading goal-scorer has something which we have been missing for years: flair. Villa stick to a rigid system and it works great, but again when we’re facing difficulties breaking teams down, we don’t possess a player who can unlock defences with a touch of flamboyancy from nowhere. All the great teams have this creative nerve to their back bones and although maybe not a world-class number one choice, Keane could arrive at a cheap price and provide a wonderful stopgap elegance to our side.
Rumours of his arrival were rife last season and as much as I would prefer to see a bigger name on the scene, I’m trying to maintain an air of realism – realistic, yet valuable, additions. How often do we say that Villa need a finisher? Well in Kris Boyd, we could have an indisputable great goal scorer (regardless of which league he plays in). Scoring a goal in almost every 1.3 matches, I think Boyd would make an excellent addition to our effective forward line of Gabby and Carew, but provide that deadly instinct which unfortunately is missing too much. Probably available for under £3 million, it would be silly to miss out on the 26 year old – unless we had a mouthwatering name lined up.
Out of favour at an ever-growing Man City, SWP could be the perfect addition to our thin squad. When Downing and Young are tired or underperforming (not to mention the possibility of injury), we have to move our best centre midfielder to the wing and rarely have I seen this pay dividends (Not because Milner can’t operate on the flank, but because we leave a gaping hole in the middle). Again, I am not his biggest fan but even with his inconsistencies, Wright-Phillips is direct and dangerous. I feel Downing and Young for sure have more to offer our first team, but when he’s on-song, little Shaun would fit like a glove into our quick moving attack and again, provide an extra dimension to the superb crossing ability of our current wingers in his willingness to take on the full back.
Having considered 7 new additions which could be acquired this coming summer, I have not only discussed fully possible targets, but I have also put forth 7 names which I think could make a world of difference to Aston Villa’s season performances. On top of this, my wish list could easily be obtained within the realms of a sensible budget and to ensure balance, I have proposed the sale of 3 high profile, replaceable players (Cuellar, Sidwell, Heskey). However, if we could keep such players and find better use for them, as well as bringing in new faces, then the squad will have improved two fold. My suggested signings provide not only a remedy for our first team weaknesses, but flesh to a bone-thin squad and invention to an unimaginative (sometimes) attack. On top of this, each potential signing are at peak age for performance and we wouldn’t have to wait for them to produce the goods. They are proven performers and would not have to adapt to the environment of the Premier League. If you consider the development of Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton and the long awaited recovery of Wilfred Bouma, with these summer acquisitions, Aston Villa could find themselves going one step further next year. And a one step improvement on this season would result in League Cup success, FA Cup Final shot and Champions League Qualification.