Monthly Archives: June 2010

We Must Not Become a Selling Club

For Sale?

Unfortunately, there are still some fans who think we could benefit from cashing in on some of our most prized possessions. As the summer progresses, the whispered rumours about the sale of our top players become increasingly deafening. Yes, there are big bucks to be made in an Aston Villa clearout – but should we allow the loss of Gareth Barry to set any kind of trend, then we are in huge danger of becoming a selling club with no ambition. And our failure to hang on to our blossomed crop will serve only to ensure that we are doomed to another decade of mid-table mediocrity.

Tottenham consider offer for the Aston Villa defender Curtis Davies

Chelsea to enter race for James Milner as Aston Villa keep Man City waiting

Young joins Milner on City’s wanted list from Villa

Agbonlahor on Tottenham Hotspur agenda

Underrated

I’m not sure why, but in any forum I glance at, Curtis Davies is always amongst the first names on our recommended ‘players out’ list. Signed for an initial £8m by Martin O’Neill, the 25 year old defender is no mug – and I’m certain MON agrees. Starting every game last year and carrying his tremendous form into the start of this season with a goal at Anfield, some Villains have quickly forgotten how devastating the news was when it was discovered that Davies had to undergo further surgery on his shoulder and would be missing for a long time. And if reports are true, it’s no little thing that the Tottenham boss is looking to acquire the English man to boost their Champions League challenge.

The first subtle suggestion of a James Milner move has now proceeded to spread like the proverbial wildfire. Thankfully however, the boardroom were admirably quick in reacting to a £20m transfer bid with unrepentant contempt – similar to how an academic professor would flick away the annoyance of a gnat upon his steamed blazer. James Milner has made himself the rock upon which we need to build if we are to progress, and O’Neill and Lerner recognise this. Take those foundations away (like many supporters are starting to think wouldn’t be so bad) and we could very easily see the empire crumble before us. Not that I don’t have faith in MON (he moved us on from Barry-gate impeccably), but why would he want to stay at a club where he is creating potentially world class players, only to have them pinched from his hands?

Ashley Young is quickly becoming the best pound for pound (currency, not weight) player in the Premier League. Signed for what many believed was an extortionate £9.65m, our number 7 has quickly proven to be the bargain Martin O’Neill hoped he would be. As the only player to ever receive 3 Player of the Month awards in the same season, would we be able to buy a better player than the 24 year old?

As much as I want to see my compatriot, Robbie Keane, join The Villa; I will not condone his signature if it is at the expense of Gabby Agbonlahor. Maybe Keane has a bit more quality than our number 11, and of course he has that creative flair which we are so badly missing; but as I have already researched, Agbonlahor is one of our most important players (if not the most) and was directly responsible for 43% of Villa’s goals, in the games he was involved in (https://myavfc.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/the-underrated-agbonlahor/) .

To take our 23 year old jewel out of the squad, and replace him with the ageing Keane, would represent absolutely no progress at all. But to add a Robbie Keane to the ‘Gabby-effect’ is the exact step in the right direction which we are crying out for.

Although I’m expecting too much, I put forth a squad list that we could have at the club next season for under £30m. (And when you consider that Man Shitty spent £125m last season, is it really to much to ask that we try to keep up by spending 4 times as little?)

Brad Friedel

Brad Guzan

Stephen Warnock

Fabio da Silva

Richard Dunne

James Collins

Curtis Davies

Micah Richards

Rafael da Silva

Stewart Downing

Martin Petrov

Stiliyan Petrov

James Milner

Stephen Ireland

Nigel Reo Coker

Ashley Young

Shaun Wright Phillips

John Carew

Kevin Doyle

Gabriel Agbonlahor

Robbie Keane

Kris Boyd

To me, that is a squad of 22 first team players (15 British & Irish) that would give any team in Europe something to think about. A squad that could be funded to some extent by selling off our dead wood: Luke Young (I don’t want him to go but he’s not being used); Carlos Cuellar (I don’t want him on our cards as a right back); Nicky Shorey; Habib Beye; Steve Sidwell; and Emile Heskey. Obviously, it is still extremely speculative: the reserve full backs (the United twins) are dependant upon their club loaning them out for the year; and the capture of the 4 Manchester City players would take a big, big pull from everyone at the club – particularly MON (an effort that will have lost its ‘pull’ if we go ahead with the proposed sale of Davies, Milner, Young and Agbonlahor).

Roberto Martinez watched (and watches) Wigan's best players being sold

However, others would like the cash.

–         Therefore, if we went ahead and sold off Curtis Davies, we would expect a return between £8m – £10m (he’s costly for a reason).

–         If Spurs and City came hounding after O’Neill’s favourite, Ashley Young, I wouldn’t expect him to be sold for less than £20m.

–         The reported Keane-Agbonlahor swap would see our Irish target arrive at Villa Park with £10m to add to our kitty.

–         And of course, if we were to receive the much debated £30m for James Milner, we could fund all of my targets and then some.

That would leave our books in an extremely healthy position. We would have already acquired the 29 year old Robbie Keane and have an extra £68m to spend how we like. So couldn’t that just take care of my wish-list and improve on it?

The simple answer is “No”.

The most frightening thing is if we did this, we would negate the need to sell elsewhere, and we would probably keep Emile Heskey! If we did this, we would have to endure another season of our current number 24 struggling on the right flank (Cuellar’s a great centre back). We would have lost, what could eventually prove to be, three of the best Aston Villa players in a long, long time; and with a meek record signing for the club still standing humbly at £12m, we would be unable to replace Young, Agbonlahor and Milner (certainly not in the immediate future anyway). If we sold our assets, we should be prepared to forget about any dream of purchasing Stephen Ireland. Ireland is one of the league’s hottest properties; his stock demand will not plummet and if we launch a bid for the Irish man without the ability to hang on to players like James Milner, Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor, we should expect to see Wigan Athletic attempting to lure the out-of-form Kaka at the same time.

Not only this, but other players like Wright Phillips and Richards, whilst not world beaters by any means, will not be prepared to take a step down to the level Aston Villa will be punching at. This will mean we would have to settle for inferior players: players like Scott Parker (29) and Carlton Cole (26); who are good footballers, but a definite dip in class – and who won’t come cheap.

If we could still attract Martin Petrov in the face of our ‘selling club’ status, we would be left with him and Downing on the flanks and in need of a “world class” wide midfielder like Ashley Young. Our central midfield area would be riddled with less optimistic names than those of Milner and Ireland. Instead, the older Petrov and Parker combination would be the best in the squad with Nigel Reo Coker (looking to end his last year of his contract) as our number one replacement in a declining squad. Of course, we are allegedly in the hunt for Mbark Bouffousa (whom I’m not sure of his talent) but Anderlecht are adamant that he will not be sold for £8m, rather at the “right price”. So instead of Stephen Ireland, we would have to settle for the older, unproven Morocco player (who could turn out to be a gem) for around the same price.

As I wrote that paragraph, I was trying to think of possible wingers that we could sign – but real quality outlets seem few and far between these days (at a reasonable cost). Even Zoran Tosic raised £8m, after 2 magnificent appearances, for Manchester United. It is a genuine credit that we already have 2 class wide players in our squad; but to offload the best of these (one of the best in the league) would mean we would have to either take an expensive gamble, or invest in a player for the future (which our Champions League challenge time frame wont allow for). The reality is; if we lost Young, he would be irreplaceable.

So we can sell up and raise £68m for our bank account, lose our 3 best players and our best defender, and fail to replace them. Our position at the minute does not allow us to fail. We are on the brink of success, but just above midtable apathy. Therefore, a healthy transfer budget, at the expense of our best players, is the last thing we need. What we do need; is to improve on our current progress which seen us miss out on 4th spot by two games, and come agonizingly close to cup success. We cannot afford to take a backwards step and attempt to rebuild on it. But if we do choose to take two steps back, if the fans are happy to raise more money for the transfer window, if we are willing to wave goodbye to our best players, then we must be willing to wave goodbye to our heightened expectations.

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England v USA

Frustrating

And so: after 240 days of anticipating build up; over 30 months of Capello’s callous expectation; and 44 years of dreaming; England’s most recent quest for world domination came crashing down to earth with an almighty thump upon the uneventful plains of Rustenburg.

Of course, it would be unfair to rule out the Royal Britannia after just 90 minutes of football, and but for another goalkeeping error, England would be sitting pretty with a 100% record; unfortunately though, for me, the national side have been much too uninspiring to be even considered as outside contenders to claim the planet’s most prestigious football competition.

The beauty of the group stages, however, is that each team has two more games to get things right and as per the nature of Group C, only a couple of meagre outfits stand in the way of England and the World Cup’s first knockout round.

So rather than waste an article moaning about another pitiable performance; instead of sliding blindly into the vicious circle that is the Three Lions rigmarole, I thought I’d have a proper look at the England-USA game and try to offer some constructive feedback (for anyone interested!).

Goalkeeping Problems

Firstly, I feel bad for Robert Green. He seems like a nice guy and a complete professional but sadly, football is a dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest will survive. It would be easy for England to pin responsibility for their draw on the shoulders of one man; but at the end of the day, he is their first choice goalkeeper and every team runs the risk of being as weak as their weakest player.

Maybe the manager chose the wrong man to stand between the posts. With 4 blunders, Rob Green made more errors leading to goals than any other player in the Premier League last season. But with “the more experienced” David James failing to ever line out in tournament finals for his country, and a 23 year old shot stopper yet to start an international match, as backup, the selection of the West Ham number one was not controversial by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it just goes to show that England is not blessed with a great goalkeeper – a necessary tool for any team who have aspirations of winning a cup competition.

James Milner

Maybe he was sick; maybe he wasn’t involved, but as a Villa fan, I certainly was not going to let this one go without a say.

Not even 30 minutes on the clock and up went the fourth official’s board to signal the first substitute of the evening. Annoyingly, Milly would have been dreaming of playing for his country in the World Cup finals his whole life and would not have let his manager down. However, one yellow card later and the PFA Young Player of the Year is summoned to the dugout. Yes, he mistimed two tackles, but I have never witnessed a game where there is such concern over one of the wingers being booked. Playing inferior opposition, why was Fabio so obsessed with protecting the backline? Indeed, at the risk of sounding cliché, it is a testament to the Italian’s negative system that the left midfielder can’t prolong his game-time with a yellow card because it will interfere with his prioritised defensive duties. James Milner has an awful lot to contribute to any team; but unfortunately because of his admirable industry, Capello spoiled the Villa player’s game out of an unnecessary fear that Ashley Cole (one of the best left backs in the world) could not cope without backup.

(I also wondered why, in those first 30 minutes when the USA did show something going forward, were the yanks so determined to get down the right side past an almost immoveable resistance of Cole and Milner. Surely they would have had more joy getting at the likes of Lennon and Johnson on the other flank.)

Not to mention the ineffectual introduction of Shaun Wright Phillips. As I’ll prove later, the Man City man offered nothing for his country in their opening group game. In the second half, England played 17 of their final balls from wide areas – only 3 of these came from the left (none from SWP). I’d like to think that Aston Villa’s main man would have had a greater input than that had he been given the chance to ply his trade in a dominating second half.

Steven Gerrard

His inspiring performance tonight raises questions as to why he was ever considered to play out wide. He offers too much in the centre to be wasted on the wing and after completely outshining midfield partner, Lampard, if Gerrard is moved to accommodate Gareth Barry, there should be uproar amongst both the fans and the players to keep Stevie G as the team’s attacking heartbeat.

Emile Heskey

Beware!

There is a fickle sense that The Mule has won people over with his one, admittedly elegant, assist today. This is one report I found:

There will be plenty of fools criticising Heskey for thumping his chance just before the hour straight at Tim Howard. Ignore them. And if you are one of those fools, ignore yourself. The big man was terrific in every other way, winning everything in the air, strong when holding the ball up, an of course the exceptionally weighted pass for Gerrard’s opener. The idea that a striker is there only to score goals, and is a failure if he doesn’t, is outmoded. If Heskey contributed less elsewhere, he would not be worth his place in the side, but he was arguably England‘s best all round player.

Some will say ‘Defoe/Bent would’ve buried that’. Possibly. But would Defoe/Bent have played a similar pass for Gerrard, or made such an important contribution to the rest of the game? Absolutely, positively, certainly not.”

 

I am here to tell you to not be fooled by such sensationalism.

Heskey looked sharp at the beginning of the game. He got in front of his marker and flicked a perfectly weighted ball in front of his captain in an almost effortless manner – and surprisingly, I was delighted for him. Indeed, in the first 8 minutes, it was Heskey who delivered all of England’s final passes (4 of them) – but only one of which were successful and lead to a shot (the Gerrard goal). If only the game was played over 8 minutes.

Because for the remainder of his 72 on-field minutes, the Villa striker looked like he wanted to rest on his laurels and did his best to be substituted. Back to his old self, the man-mountain was being barged over and “hurt” with every ball that came his way in an attacking position (oh, and of course he was standing pointlessly offside a few times as well). With regards to him “winning everything in the air”, the England number 21 did flick a number of long balls aimlessly off the back of his head – which did not once result in Capello’s men advancing further upfield with possession.

And referring back to the above quote, I’m happy to dissociate myself from the said “fools”. Simply because I will not be criticising Heskey for his time-rich one-on-one miss; for the reason that when the ball was played through, not one inch of my anatomy reacted with any sort of stimulus out of complete assurance that there was no way Emile Heskey had the ability to finish off that move. Therefore, just like I wouldn’t judge Rooney on his aptitude to mark an opposing centre back whilst defending a corner; I won’t criticize Heskey for not being able to produce something that is not within his capabilities to produce (why should the striker be expected to finish that anyway?). Rather, I hold my reservations for Emile’s inability to affect change in the “rest of the game” where he still came up some way short (and if he is expected to lead the nation through the knockout rounds, then please excuse my lack of faith for the England cause).

(Just a note: To suggest that the substituted Heskey was also better than Glen Johnson and Steven Gerrard, in their World Cup opener, defies logic.)

I really don’t want to sound like a Villa basher because I am the complete opposite – I just don’t want English men and women sitting up on their seats for a player who I know (and I’ve seen tonight) is not worth opening one eye for.

First Half Analysis

What was most worrying, however, was the further evidence of England’s technical weaknesses. Having analysed every final ball Capello’s men made, I noticed a shockingly poor ratio of attacks turning to shots. What was more interesting was to find that the 5 times England did manage to create a shooting or scoring opportunity in the first half was when they cut inside and went through the centre either with a direct dribble or a cute through ball.

England’s Final Pass

Diagram Key below article

The two times the team did go long to Heskey, nothing came of it. With not even one successful cross; any final ball, which led to any sort of outcome for the English, had to be played on the deck through the centre.

This first half also comes to question Capello’s belief of having speedy wingers in the team. With Aaron Lennon playing the whole half and Wright Phillips a third of it, England didn’t try to utilise their pace and get to the by-line or in behind the defenders.

Second Half Analysis

After a quiet first half, Aaron Lennon was responsible for a lot of his team’s final passes in the final 45 minutes – however, 5 of these went astray with no outcome.

Mr Capello clearly set his team out to get down the sides of the US in this half (despite the central success of the first) and it resulted in a lot more final ball being delivered from open play. It did however also show up the deficiencies of Shaun Wright Phillips on the left as his only penultimate contribution to his team’s attack was to win a free nearer to the halfway line.

The diagram shows the tendency of the English to head for the right flank even though they still looked likely to cause damage through the centre. But with Glen Johnson getting heavily involved and Steven Gerrard clearly covering a lot of ground, balls were going into the American box as quickly as Heskey was falling to the ground.

Looking at both images, every time Wayne Rooney had a say in the final pass, it led to a goalscoring opportunity. This is probably an obvious observation considering the talent of the United player, but it is further proof of the technical importance required to unlock defences. The scouse man wasn’t used enough as the white shirts of England felt they were having enough joy bombarding the American left back.

Nevertheless, despite the volume of right sided attacks launched by Capello’s men, England failed to score in the second half (and their two greatest chances came from through balls to Heskey and SWP who both spurned great opportunities).

If England were to continue playing like they do, it would be advised to select the best crossers of the ball because not only was that mode of attack top-heavy, it was also very unsuccessful and obviously didn’t suit the players on the field. And I’m confident that SWP and Lennon are not the best crossers in the squad.

Alternatively, if they learned to keep the ball on the deck and go for the jugular of the opposing defence, they have shown they can turn a lot more of their attacks into goalscoring chances. But this will spawn out of an ability to hold possession and wear down the defence – and by not constantly looking for clear bits of harmless grass beside the touchline.

Spain are the tournament favourites and will score very few goals from deep crosses. England have shown they can get through the centre. Whether they will realise the importance of it in time, remains to be seen.

Key:

(2) = Glen Johnson

(3) = Ashley Cole

(4) = Steven Gerrard

(7) = Aaron Lennon

(8) = Frank Lampard

(9) = Peter Crouch

(10) = Wayne Rooney

(16) = James Milner

(17) = Shaun Wright Phillips

(21) = Emile Heskey

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Filed under Uncategorized, World Cup

Dream Big & Dare to Fail

I’m fed up listening to bloggers and journalists complain about how they have nothing to write about. I’m fed up hearing people bemoan either the lack of transfer activity, or even the potential transfer activity at Villa Park. I’m fed up seeing the months of May, June and July dubbed “The Silly Season” by writers who, in my opinion, have struggled to find the real beauty of football; because this is one football blogger who doesn’t shirk the task of embracing the summer. This is one AVFC fan who already knows that there are always 315 days without club football in every calendar year. And this is one writer who won’t be defeated by the blank page.

Almost a full month into temporary life without the Premier League and I’m not panicking. I’ve probably used up all the stats I could deciphering the aftermath of the 09/10 season. I’ve discussed money matters, analyzed player performances and scrutinized the gaffer. I’ve had a look at the rumoured transfer targets and I’ve put forth my wish-list. I’ve even had a juke at matters outside the club, but tried to relate these back to Aston Villa. Yet, with still 67 days to endure before the big kick off, I refuse to lose distance with my beloved Villa. I could write a short sarcastic piece about how nothing is going on (like certain Villa forums); the ludicrousness of vague grapevines (like certain Villa forums); I could lambast Martin O’Neill for the audacity he had to holiday in May (like certain Villa forums); or provide copy and paste minute by minute news from South Africa (like certain Villa forums)… but I won’t, and I can’t anyway, because my enthusiasm for Aston Villa is unwavering. Of course, I have World Cup fever and I am looking forward to analyzing and documenting the planet’s biggest field game competition, but not at the expense of the upcoming season. Because beyond the poetic 4 World Cup weeks, life goes on. And for most of us; that life is Aston Villa.

Living vicariously through the performances of your football team is a dangerous game in itself. Your mood is determined by the weekend’s results, by the player attitudes, or by the manager’s interview. And for many long-sided fans, football is a drug; and as Villa currently reside in the Nothing to Declare checkout section, the footie addicts grow increasingly frustrated at the lack of dosage for their bad habit.

However, for me; the summer, whilst it is undeniably an off-season phase, is arguably the best part of the season… particularly for an Aston Villa supporter. Not only because it involves less defeats than normal; but because the break provides the opportunity to recharge. It allows us to accumulate our thoughts and excite our imagination with its prolonged suspense. It is the one time of the year when every team is on a level playing field and belief that this is our year is rife. The rest gives us renewed hope in tomorrow and the chance to live and learn; a bit like sleep does, and works in identical phases: reflection; dreaming; preparation.

And having reflected long and hard about all issues last season; having tirelessly debated in my head and with others about all-things-Villa, in the end it was easy to conclude that the 2009/10 campaign was a giant stepping stone in awakening the sleeping giant. And thus, it has been easy to allow myself to slip contently into a new chapter of the year; the dream.

Dream big and dare to fail…” (Norman D. Vaughan)

Yes, our league form suggests an inability to break teams down (particularly at home). 52 goals aren’t enough. With Luke Young out of favour, we have massive right back problems. Stiliyan Petrov has added another year to his biological clock and we could do with a replacement. All the talk is that James Milner is off and there is something lacklustre about Carew and Agbonlahor (on their day, they are unplayable however). And once again, we have used the fewest number of players over the course of 38 games.

But this does not faze me. This brickwork is simply what allows me to hold tight to my dreams of next season. We have improved every year; our first XI has gotten stronger; and now we are ready to step up a gear. We are ready to dream.

So; realism aside for the moment, what are the hopes for next year?

With Tottenham Hotspur occupying the final Champions League spot, would it be too audacious to suggest that Aston Villa (2 victories behind) could edge their way in this coming year – especially with an influx of new faces?

With our cup consistency, improved belief, and O’Neill’s ability to set us up effectively; why can’t we end our 10 month cup drought (I’m counting the Peace Cup – it’s been too long)?

Expecting (hoping) that we once again disregard the Europa League (it’s a worthless tournament), I’m being a tad cheeky and asking if it would be at all possible for the Villa faithful to be delivered a competitive trophy and a shot at Champions League qualification.

And to do so, we need to improve on our competent first XI with a number of additions which I believe will push us past Spurs and City (for all their spending), and will cost us a net loss of approximately £27.5m (once you consider value of my suggested outgoing transfers).

With a desperate desire to keep Milner and Carew; and a coveted (albeit, necessary) need to spend the guts of £30m, I’m dreaming of success in the 2010/11 campaign, and below is a number of ways this could be done.

The vital quartet must stay

When MON has made his move, and the season draws closer, I will enter the preparatory phase of the summer – but until then, as in my dreams, I like to think that I can have my say.

Regular First Team

Friedel 

Richards     Davies     Dunne     Warnock 

Young     Ireland     Milner     Downing 

Agbonlahor     Keane

 

Available Subs:

Guzan

Collins

Rafael da Silva

Fabio

S. Petrov

Reo Coker

M. Petrov

Wright Phillips

Doyle

Carew

Villa Park (vs bottom half teams)

 

Friedel

Davies     Collins     Dunne

Rafael                                                Fabio

Milner

 

Ireland     Keane     Young

Doyle

 

Spoiling Tactics

Friedel

Richards     Davies     Dunne     Warnock

Petrov     Reo Coker     Milner

Young                                                                   Petrov

Agbonlahor

*However, I still think Carew is our most talented forward and will probably make my first team. But what a lovely squad we could have this year for under £30m.

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Filed under 10/11 Season, Uncategorized

MON His Way?

Paddy Power: Next Permanent Liverpool Manager

Martin O’Neill  2/1

 

Kenny Dalglish 10/3

 

Roy Hodgson 4/1

 

Sven Goran Eriksson 15/2

 

Mark Hughes 14/1

 

Harry Redknapp 14/1

 

Jurgen Klinnsmann 16/1

 

Gus Hiddink 20/1

 

Merseyside Messiah? Don't bet on it

‘Liverpool Football Club’. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? The most successful English football club of all time; 5 time European champions, a record number of First Division triumphs. Surely the chance to take up office at Anfield would be too good for even the most wanderlust of managers to turn down.

But it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty easy.

Because as proud a history the Merseyside club may have had, and as loyal the unshakeable support, they are still gifted with, is; the new football decade we are about to embark on doesn’t seem to care much for what tune the spirit of Shankly danced to in 1984, or for what lyrics of defiance ring out from today’s SOS at the Kop end in the cold year of 2010. Instead, the inevitable pastures new of Liverpool Football club seemingly suggests that only unforgiving, turbulent terrain lies ahead for the once “mighty” Reds.

And once again, Martin The Messiah is apparently poised to reign supreme and rescue the scousers from midtable obscurity. What is more alarming is that The Villa Blog (author: Damian Dugdale) has successfully got under my skin for a second time and suggested that O’Neill is not the man for us anyway; rather, my old pal Rafael Benitez should replace him. As I feel there are no words which could justify my frustration at this outlook, I will refer readers to my earlier post which compared some aspects of the gaffers’ performances: http://wp.me/pPEcu-2F.

However, this isn’t to say that I don’t think Benitez is a good manager. In fact, June’s messy remnants in the red half of Liverpool are testament to how bizarre and surreal the situation is; a sad situation that the scouse fans find themselves embroiled in. Because on the 3rd of June, it was announced that Rafa Benitez would step down from his managerial post at Anfield “by mutual consent”. A decision which I would have agreed with because as much as the Spaniard has in him to give, I don’t think he was the right man to take a limited, crisis-ridden Liverpool forward. Nevertheless, having been ‘sacked’ by the Premier League’s 7th best team, Benitez finds himself being chased by the European and Italian double champions Inter Milan to replace the world’s best manager, Jose Mourinho.

Does that make sense? If Fulham had sacked Hodgson after finishing 7th last year, would he be linked with the Barcelona job? Although, if Fergie guided United down 5 league places this coming season, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think that the 2011 Champions League winners were interested in him, would it? However, it would be senseless of the Glazers to let him go off the back of one bad season (not that I should be comparing Fergie to Rafa, of course). But it is all immaterial because unfortunately, modern day Liverpool doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Hence, when I see Martin O’Neill’s name at the top of every list of managers to replace Benitez, I am not concerned. Yes, there are some buffoons who would be happy to let our “underperforming” boss go, stressing that he is not the man to take us forward; that we have finished in the same position for three successive years. But as I’ve said before, the fact that we are even standing still (which we aren’t anyway; we’re going forward), in the face of today’s outlandish market, is a rousing tribute to the unflappable work of O’Neill and his shrewd backroom staff. And after completing 4 hard years of undying graft just to pull us out of the trench we were buried in, why would MON want to abandon a ship that has just begun to gather momentum? Why would he even think about stepping aside, just for someone else to sweep in and take his credit? More importantly though; of all teams, why would he want to go to Liverpool F.C?

In spite of the fact that Villa sit higher in the league, the appeal of Liverpool Football Club has vanished for a number of off-field reasons. Obviously, the American owners don’t offer much for a prospectus manager to get excited about. With a mountain of debt, Gillett and Hicks have apparently used the club purely for personal reasons as means of softening the blow of their other business ventures. And with the club for sale for at least £600m, it could be a long, long time before the money is available to steer the club from 7th, back into title contention.

On top of this, the refusal of the boardroom to back their manager to the hilt is a complete no-no in football; and a prominent issue which is nothing but a deal-breaker for the obstinate Martin O’Neill. Time and time again, Benitez was undermined by the Liverpool board: players like Aaron Ramsey and Daniel Alves to name but a few starlets who were let slip through the net, simply out of lack of trust in their manager; and an unnecessary arrogance that the board knew what was best when it came to team matters. Of course, I have lambasted Benitez’ transfer performance in the past; but if I was a member of the Liverpool hierarchy, I wouldn’t employ someone to manage the team if I would refuse to put complete faith in him. The manager is hired to carry out his duties and run the club as he sees fit; he should be allowed to imprint his stamp and create his own vision and if the board don’t buy into his ideas, then he shouldn’t be in charge for 6 years. Before MON takes control at a club, he makes sure that he actually has control. There is no way he would agree to take charge of a team if he knew that he would be restricted in his input; if he knew that he didn’t have the freedom to manage how he wanted; if he knew he didn’t have the full backing of the board. England failed to acquire the Northern Ireland man’s services because it was clear to him that he would not be able to conduct his responsibilities and shape his visualization without interference from the powers-that-be. Either you place your complete trust in the manager, or you don’t hire him. Fortunately for us, MON demands this and gets it at Villa – he wouldn’t at Liverpool.

Moreover, the attitude of chairman Martin Broughton in the last 2 months has been of a very poor nature that would scare off even the most patient of managers. Arriving in the post on the 16th April and refusing to contact the manager for a full week is unacceptable. And after sacking the soon-to-be boss of the European Champions, a lot of Rafa’s peers might view the expectation attached with the current Liverpool vacancy a tad too much.

With the on-field catastrophes of the season passed, the necessity of having to still qualify for an uninspiring Europa League tournament, and with the off-field uncertainties of the boardroom and ownership; Liverpool has now not only become a new-manager-repellent, but it could well turn out to be a current-player-deterrent. For what reason would Javier Mascherano want to dismiss the attentions of Barcelona? For what reason would the managerless, debt-stricken club refuse the money? Does Steven Gerrard want to end his career knowing that Solomon Kalou has won more league titles than him? Were Torres and Reina just following their fellow Madrid-born citizen? The question marks at Melwood are all too big for a manager to take such a punt on such a sideways step.

Troubled

Besides, shouldn’t the fact that O’Neill has already signed another contract extension be some indication of his allegiances? Should it not only support the idea that he isn’t looking elsewhere, but reinforce his excitement at the prospect of a 5th season on his Villa mission? Because he signed on so soon, I have every belief that he honestly feels there is unfinished business with this project. And that he believes he is the man to deliver success to Aston Villa after a long time coming.  

But with bookies unanimously suggesting that Martin O’Neill is on his way, I think I might return to my betting days and take advantage of their naivety.

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The Underrated Agbonlahor

Yes, he misses too many one-on-ones and we’ve seen our number 11 fluff some gilt-edged chances; he still hasn’t delivered that supposedly essential 20-goal-season and he’s not going to South Africa… but show me someone who “wouldn’t be that bothered if we sold Gabby” and I’ll show you a fool.

This piece has been inspired by a recent article on The Villa Blog (http://www.thevillablog.co.uk/aston-villa-blog/aston-villa-rumours/manchester-city-do-not-want-gabby-but-wouldnt-p70-million-be-nice-for-all-three/) where the author (a great Villa blogger) Damian Dugdale suggested that our 23 year old striker has had too many chances to impress in a claret and blue shirt. Comparing Agbonlahor’s effect similar to that of the infamous Darius Vassell, I felt that I couldn’t let this criticism (he says it isn’t criticism, but it is) pass without veto; and therefore, I have decided to put forth an unnecessary defence of Gabriel Agbonlahor.

At the tender age of 19 (and later, 20), Agbonlahor broke into Villa’s first XI in O’Neill’s first year in charge and featured in every possible game he could have that year (being used as a substitute just once). Playing on the right flank for the majority of that season (and still banging in 10 goals), it was clear that we had a real prospect on our books that would bring so much more than just a genuine goalscoring threat.

In fact, in the following 3 seasons of MON’s tenure, Gabby would miss just 5 league games and of course, improve his goal-to-games ratio in direct correlation with his age. But with niggling, unsatisfied mumbles about his failure to transform himself into a forward who will guarantee at least 20 goals, Agbonlahor has not received the unanimous appreciation he should have. Despite being one year shy of 24, some spectators at Villa Park have refused to acknowledge just how important Gabby is up top for his home club at such an early stage in his career; but instead bemoan the fact that he isn’t keeping up with the likes of Didier Drogba in the scoring charts every year. However, even world-beater Wayne Rooney couldn’t produce 20 league goals in his 5 years at United before he reached the age of 24. Instead, England’s only World Cup hope averaged 13 league goals pro rata (the same return Gabby provided this year) – and this playing for a team who secured three consecutive league titles. And how could we forget the concerns about Fernando Torres’ inability to bang in 20 league goals in a season (indeed, it wasn’t until he was 24 as well when he did finally crack it)?

But just like it would be ridiculous to compare our local striker to the uniquely unsurpassable traits of such world-class forwards like Torres and Rooney; it would be absurd to judge Aston Villa’s 23 year old jewel on his decent strike rate alone.

Because even though Agbonlahor has secured the designation as Villa’s highest league scorer, the effect he has on a team consistently dominated in possession is unmatchable. As per the deep nature of MON’s game; when Agbonlahor is missing, Villa are clueless. It is impossible to win games with 10 men pinned in their own half without a Gabby Agbonlahor. Rare goal opportunities will arrive, but without someone as competitive as Gabby; someone who can run the channels, hold up play, outmuscle defenders and obviously get in behind, then most teams would buckle under pressure. The boys played two poor teams at Villa Park at the peak of their Champions League climb; but without our go-to-man, we came out of the Wolves and Sunderland home games with 4 dropped points.

Even England’s recent form has seen them outplayed and struggling without an Agbonlahor. Trying to work their unusual spells of possession from their pressurized defence, it is a saving grace that England still have world-class individuals like Rooney and Gerrard who can make something happen from nothing. Indeed, 4 of their last 5 goals have come from a set piece, an offside handball and of course, two own goals. And if Capello persists on continuing to emulate the Aston Villa style of play when the Finals come around, England’s best bet would be to play Agbonlahor – otherwise, relentless pressure from even superior opposition will ensure that the 3 lions’ 44 year wait for glory becomes at least 48.

I’m not saying that I think Gabby is worth his place in the England first team (not yet anyway), but if the management struggles any longer to make a crop of talented players control a game, then it makes sense that they should borrow our “out man”. I’m not even implying that I think Agbonlahor is Villa’s best player; but this year, he has demonstrated that he is probably our most important player.

That is why it is unacceptable that one of the most popular Villa forums is arguing that Nathan Delfouneso could be more effective than Gabby,

I tell you this; if we played The Fonz in 38 games next season, he’d get thirteen goals – maybe even more.”

Not only does this undermine how well Agbonlahor has done to score 16 goals in a season where Villa’s counterattacking prowess was anticipated and thwarted by a lot of teams; it demonstrates blind ignorance to the quality and improvement shown by our front man whilst leading the line. Delfouneso looks sharp and I’m excited about his potential; but to suggest that our 19 year old ‘one to watch’ would do a better job than the established Agbonlahor is unforgiveable.

Not only this, but Gabby has been much more effective in front of goal this season than has been recognised. Playing 44 games, the plot is a lot thicker than his 16 goal contribution would suggest. Because of the games Agbonlahor has played, Aston Villa have banged in 65 goals and of these, Gab has forced two own goals and won 3 penalties. Moreover, the former winger weighed in with 7 assists; meaning he had a direct hand in 28 of Villa’s goals this year. Therefore, of the matches Gabriel Agbonlahor has featured in this season, he has been responsible for over 43% of Aston Villa’s goals.

So, ignoring the fact that he is quite clearly a top class performer in the claret shirt anyway, I wouldn’t expect even the best players to contribute to almost half of their club’s goals (and I certainly couldn’t see Delfouneso doing so). The three penalties won by Gabby also came in arguably our 3 biggest games: whilst trailing by away goals in the League Cup semi against Blackburn, Agbonlahor not only gave us the opportunity to score from 12 yards, but brought about the justified sending off of Christopher Samba. Secondly, in the final of the same competition (against the champions), Gabby stepped up his game, won a penalty for our only goal, and we all know what the fate of Vidic should have been. And being outplayed by our sworn enemies at home, Gabby got in behind and drew the defender (who also should have seen red) into a foul in the box, and the result was yet another second city triumph.

It is for his big-game-performances, incredible goal involvement, and obvious effectiveness for his local team that I deemed the defence of Gabriel Agbonlahor “unnecessary”. At just 23, the future England star is already an integral member of a big club and although he has a long way to go, if he continues to progress at the same rate he has done, we will certainly be the only losers if certain fans get their wish and we decide to sell him.

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