Tag Archives: England

Hero of the Month (August)

As The Villa prepare for their first piece of September action tonight, I take a look back at the club’s most outstanding member throughout the month of August.

Yes, Kevin MacDonald deserves his credit. He was thrown into the deep-end with just 5 days to prepare, he got the boys motivated, the club united – and despite a couple of bad results, he got us into the top 4; securing a 100% Villa Park league record with zero goals conceded along the way.

But with all the off-field uncertainty heavily circulating in the wake of O’Neill’s resignation (and that uncertainty is still rife with the FFF shenanigans), it’s refreshing to see that a lot of things on the field are falling into place nicely.

It would be fitting to award young Marc Albrighton with the coveted Hero of the Month accolade. After just 5 appearances (one start) last year, the 20 year old has already matched this in the first month of the new season (but has started 5 times) and chipped in impressively with 3 assists in the first two games. Getting stuck in and coming of age, he just misses out this month.

Winner

It was much, much too difficult to overlook Ashley Young however. Being used in a new role behind the front man, boy he is thriving. His anticipation and quick feet, not to mention his excellent first touch, make him such a danger that it’s hard to see how we can make room for both Agbonlahor and Carew. The freedom afforded to Ashley is extremely comforting as a Villa supporter and knowing that he can pop up on either wing or come through the centre without the restrictions of a flank position makes his new role a natural selection for him.

Ashley Young…

So far this season, Aston Villa have banged in 7 goals. Of these, our number 7 has played a major role in 5. I keep a tally of all our goals and when I credit someone with a ‘Key Goal Involvement’, they need to have a telling contribution to the goal and not simply a pass back to the man who assisted – a game changing input merits a Key Goal Involvement.

Young has provided two Key Goal Involvements in that without his input, the goals may very well not have taken place. On top of this, the 25 year old successfully completed 3 direct assists (more impressively, they were 3 balls which many others would have struggled to make). Furthermore, Ashley won a penalty against Newcastle which, had it been converted, would have changed the landscape of THAT St James’ Park memory (he also should have had a stonewall penalty against Rapid Wien).

Moreover, the transfer talk involving our prized asset was so unsettling that when Young committed to Villa with such assurance, it was not only a confidence boost to the club, but a real testament to the substance of the main man. And now we hear talk of a new contract on the horizon.

Not only this, but as the only Villa based player to win a spot in the national side, Ashley Young’s key role in 71.4% of our goals didn’t go unnoticed and it is with genuine ease that I award him the title of my meaningless Hero of the Month.

Congratulations, Ashley.

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Gerard Houllier – The SILVER Lining

Last night, I had a dream (excuse the M. L. King impersonation). Aston Villa, under the management of newly appointed Gerard Houllier, took to Wembley stadium to compete in the F.A Cup final – and were successful. So real was this dream that I, in a state of semi-conscious delusion, text a Liverpool fan, who had sneered at Villa’s new recruit, to say,    😉

(Not my wittiest text message).

But silverware aside, the “day out” ignored; with all the infested water that has gone under the crumbling bridge in recent times, the most pleasing thing about this “dream” was that we were, once again, a force. We were fighting. We were, once again, Aston Villa.

And after Houllier’s press conference at Villa Park today, I couldn’t help but think that one day soon this vision could become a reality – in the same style Liverpool’s fortunes were rejuvenated throughout his time in charge.

For 6 years, prior to Gerard’s reign, Liverpool, the most successful club in English football, had just one League Cup to their name. But after clinching the club’s first European trophy for 17 years, their first FA Cup in 9 years, along with a further 3 competitive trophies, Houllier served to reinstall the pride of Liverpool Football Club and what it is all about – winning.

I was looking to create a balanced argument with this piece. Yes, he has won silverware in England (a feat which has evaded us for 15 years), in fact he has been remarkably successful in every managerial role within his unblemished career – but can he cope with the Premier League? Can he cope in the transfer market?

One glance at his decision to reject the chance to sign loanee Nicolas Anelka in favour of splashing £10m on the erratic El Hadjii Diouf would suggest that we have just recruited an extremely risqué manager. Yes, Diouf is an extremely talented footballer but managed to flop extraordinarily at Liverpool. Now, he is a good player for Blackburn Rovers; Anelka is a world beater. And £14m for Cisse? Okay, he scores goals and Houllier never got a chance to use him in his Liverpool reign – but again, what an expensive mistake for someone who is now spending his best footballing years in Greece.

Throughout his stint on Merseyside, Houllier averaged 65 points in the league; whereas Villa achieved 64 last year. More worryingly, the 3 years preceding his tenure at Anfield (the first years of 38 games per season), Liverpool, without Houllier, were averaging 68 points each season and thus went downhill under the Frenchman. And with fewer Champions League spots available in the 90s, Liverpool weren’t rewarded for top 4 or top 3 finishes pre-Gerard. Maybe he had the benefit of these new places.

However, it would be unfair to leave this article as it is. Because after sharing over 3 months of his first season with Roy Evans, Houllier’s arrival only served to oversee a 7th place finish after an uninspiring 54 points were achieved. Crucially, this was the key factor in the decline in average points for the Reds. And after undergoing an overhaul of the club’s internal and external structure, its staff, personnel and facilities, this year wasn’t even wasted as Liverpool shot right back into the top 4 the following season with 67 points – before winning a top 3 Champions League position amidst their “treble” winning season.

Our new manager also led The Pool in their first title challenge for 12 years, securing 80 points. In fact, if we ignore his first season (which was shared with a joint manager, and which is recommended in a lot of research to abandon as it should simply be the season the manager is testing the water) in the Premier League, Houllier secured overall consistency with Liverpool’s past league form and matched an average of 68 points – but added silverware on top. Moreover, his ability to rally high points tallies (albeit in an inconsistent manner) brought about a 21st century Champions League legacy to Liverpool (3 qualifications) which eventually led to THAT final in 2005. Now, I’m not suggesting that he built the best team in Europe (far from it), but what cannot be denied is that 12 out of the 14 players who competed in the Istanbul victory over AC Milan were all members of the Houllier era. Benitez clearly did remarkably, remarkably well to turn them into Champions League winners, but they were still players who were proven to be a team capable of such a feat – a team built by the French man.

His former players seem to kneel at his feet, and coming highly recommended by one of the best players in the world and national captain Steven Gerrard, Houllier certainly has this writer’s full backing. Working at all levels of football (club and country), equipped with experience of every type of club, Houllier has adapted to create success wherever he goes – in the French lower divisions, with Lens, with PSG, with Liverpool, with Lyon. He has proved his worth – so much so that it has quashed an article which I wanted to remain neutral. And so much so that I believe those mistakes he has made in the past have had ample time to be learned from.

Today, he spoke of a “new era” in Aston Villa Football Club. He admitted that success cannot come overnight, that the Champions League positions are a stretch, that the January transfer window is a tough one. But he also said, “I am hungry…

And just like he overturned the apathy of Liverpool 10 years ago, just like his achievements elsewhere, Houllier can now very well be the remedy to awaken Aston Villa from its deep coma.

HOU’s With Me?

When he comes in, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get a winning team” (Steven Gerrard)

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3-0: If It’s Good Enough For Messi, It’s Good Enough For Me

On the 14th August, at 3pm, Aston Villa were managerless. The boardroom were penniless and the team were pointless.

Hopeless? Not in a month of Sundays.

Because on the 14th August, at 4.50pm, the “club in decline”, the “inharmonious dressing room”, the “shipwrecked” mission ignored all the off-field uncertainty at Villa Park and produced a devastating display which had us believing that MacDonald was Shankly, that new signings were irrelevant and more importantly; a performance which delivered all 3 points.

Of course, the team was set up identically to O’Neill’s preseason campaign so in a way, we are indebted to the Ulster man. However, whatever our newly-beloved caretaker manager said in the dressing room on Saturday, whatever words he advised in his players’ ears during the week, and whichever style he adopted worked terrific wonders as The Villains ran rampant against their claret rivals and secured a minimum winning margin of 3 goals – a feat we could only replicate three times in all last year throughout the entire league crusade.

It’s the cliché of the weekend, but the team were free to express themselves and had a refreshing fearlessness which banished the old policy of over-respect for the opposition – instead, going straight for their jugular with merciless havoc. Again, I wouldn’t downplay our former manager’s involvement in this as Kevin MacDonald has had just 5 days to work with the team – but to be honest, I don’t care who was responsible for Villa’s very own brand of Total Football, I’m just delighted to have witnessed it.

When our 20 year old, mostly untested, winger Marc Albrighton produces two direct assists from each wing (as well as a key-goal-involvement for the other), when 3 midfielders grab all the goals from shots within 18 yards of the nets (when Stan crosses the halfway line for that matter), when Aston Villa and Ashley Young are praised by one of the best footballers ever as playing exciting football and having a blinder ( http://twitter.com/officialmessi ), respectively, the shackles have certainly come off haven’t they?

Maybe it was planned throughout the entire preseason period, maybe it wasn’t. But rarely in the past 4 years have we ever dominated possession against any team and broke opponents down with such ease and assurance. Last year, we were caught out. Teams were ready for our counterattacking prowess and set up to spoil a spoiling team. Our predictability was all too apparent in the bemusing 52 league goals recorded by the biggest club in the Midlands. But we were aided by a mean defence.

This year (so far), we are opening up. Yes, there is a chance that this could prove to be a two-edged-sword and the step away from the old, cautious approach might well prove costly at times – particularly in cup competitions. But last season was the absolute last time we could have continued with our expected humdrum brand of football and the change is very welcome – and necessary.

And now the groans of Villa Park, echoed from uninspiring past results against Wigan, West Ham, Wolves, Sunderland and Blackburn, have all but disintegrated in place of mouthwatering content for the pure attack-minded regeneration.

 Yes, the Hammers were meek opponents but 17 shots (12 on goal) and a hatful of spurned gilt-edged chances (mostly from Big John), speaks volumes for our domination and suggests that nothing would have deterred a hungry Aston Villa outfit from getting the job done on Saturday – no matter who stood in the way.

Manager Debate

After hearing Petrov proclaim his desire to have MacDonald appointed as fulltime manager, I must admit that it got me thinking. I would in no way base this judgement on one fine result but more in the consideration that he has the players playing for him, he has introduced fresh faces to the action and it would be a smooth and simple transition from the MON era. I wanted the big name to take charge and continue to uphold the attraction of the club – but then I realised that this is Aston Villa; and drought or no drought, this speaks for itself. Mr Lerner and his boardroom contingent now have a massive conundrum in their hands: appoint Sven or Jol (which I’m all for) and risk drastic change, jeopardise more days like Saturday this year; or keep the faith with MacDonald and endanger our top 6 status through the guidance of an untried football manager. And the kicker is that this decision must be made immediately before the close of the summer transfer window. But what I will say is that only positive (extremely positive) reports have emerged from the Villa camp regarding the temporary boss.

Thankfully, I have no say in such matters and can simply look forward to Thursday with renewed optimism. Whatever MacDonald does next, he will always be remembered as the man who lifted the blues of last Monday, and allowed us to hope – yet again. He will be associated with the beautiful reminder that managers come and go – but Aston Villa is for life.

And as a supporter of the club first, I can bask in the glory that Marc Albrighton tops the Premier League assists charts; that two further youth team products, Andreas Weimann and Barry Bannan, have been successfully brought through the ranks; that every time Ciaran Clark plays a league match, Villa keep a clean sheet; that Marlon Harewood has finally produced the goods (oh, wait…); and I can be exceptionally proud to say that I am a peer of the thousands of fans who bid the ever-professional James Milner an emotional and deserving potential farewell. I can be proud to say that I am an Aston Villa man (God, the start of the season is magnificent!).

And do you know what else? It’s been a long, long time since a 3-0 home result at Villa Park flattered the opponents. Long may it continue.

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The King is Dead, Long Live the King

As much as it pains me to say, it’s time to move on. Martin O’Neill steered the Villa ship with a pair of undeniably steady hands for 4 years, but he will now embark on pastures new and probably go on to prove his worth elsewhere. It doesn’t matter. Because like him or loathe him, rate him or dismiss him, miss him or rejoice, Martin O’Neill is gone for good – but Aston Villa still remains.

It is now the age of a new leader – a new commander who has been set the task of ending our soon-to-be 15 year drought; a new chief who will guide his warriors with the scent of blood; a new provider who will be asked to deliver the meat in order to end our prolonged starvation of success.

And as a fan, it is my duty to give our next permanent manager my full backing. As players, it is their responsible to give our incoming supremo their full co-operation. And as the club’s board of directors, they are obliged to place their complete trust in Aston Villa’s next boss.

We are not here to prejudge the next man in charge. We are not here hoping for a reason to grumble. I made no secret of my disappointment at the Board’s recent deceit. Widespread Villains made no secret of their split in loyalties over the MON-saga. But what’s done is done. I took a side, and I was unhappy – but my blood is claret and I will continue to support the club. However, I fear that, come Saturday, there may be a lot of red faces around Villa Park as 2 separate protests expose the disharmony at Aston Villa. I hope this isn’t the case. Yes, I hope that there are a lot like me who are sad to see the back of O’Neill – but more importantly, I hope that everyone is like me and are AVFC fans first and foremost, and that they willing to leave the events of Monday and simply get behind their team. We are all here with the ambition that we can restore the spirit of ’82. And with a united front, we could begin to do that. Step by step.

So firstly, it’s time to give the new man in charge a fair chance and let him shape his vision for Aston Villa. And after time (and a lot of scrutiny!), we will begin to understand his methods and patterns and I’m sure that I will be the first in line with a few questions!

Therefore, without further ado, I present to you Aston Villa’s next possible managers:

Sven Goran Eriksson 8/11

 

Strangely, I think Sven’s personal life precedes him. Instantly, when people hear his name, they laugh or sigh and construe him as some sort of performing jester – in the wrong profession.

But as a football manager, I have to admit that the Swede has led an unblemished career and I would find it difficult to hold any objections to his appointment as next Villa manager.

Sven was fast-tracked into national acclaim after a superb one-season-wonder job with Degerfors as a young manager; and unbelievably, right up until his engagement with the English national team, Eriksson only failed to deliver silverware with just one club in those 23 years. His success as a club manager is indisputable. Even very recently, with Man Shitty, the 62 year old sex god mentored the Sky Blues’ best season for decades – dragging an underperforming club, devoid of a trophy in 30 years, into the Premier League top 10, winning two Manchester derbies (first time since 69-70) in the process before being bizarrely axed despite the infamous ‘Save Our Sven’ campaign.

I never understood why he wasn’t appreciated throughout his England tenure either. Imagine the shame of 3 consecutive tournament Quarter Finals (only Brazil matched this), or the embarrassment of being dumped out by Brazil (eventual champions), Portugal (the host country after a penalty shootout after that Urs Meier incident), and another penalty shootout defeat by Portugal in 2006 (with 10 men). In fact, England achieved their highest FIFA ranking of 4th in the world under the guidance of their lambasted manager – and after topping each of his qualifying groups, Eriksson was then succeeded by Steve McClaren who failed to even reach a major tournament.

Surprisingly, the only actual failure of Sven’s career came throughout his time at Mexico. Not bad for 33 years in football management eh? Yes, he had the benefit of a fantastically generous financial backing at Lazio, but after providing a return of 7 trophies in just 4 seasons, Eriksson proved to be sure-fire value for money.

Even his other apparent flops in the transfer market have proved a lot of people wrong. I’m probably Corluka’s biggest critic, but he is the one now starting for a Champions League outfit every week at Spurs. And I’ll put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t heard of Geovanni or Martin Petrov – but both turned out to be real gems. And of course, Elano “The Piledriver” won a place in a Brazilian first XI after being let loose by Eriksson. As a Premier League manager in the transfer market, I believe that Rolando Bianchi was Sven’s only dud (and an expensive mistake at that).

As firm favourite for the vacant position at Villa Park, I had to analyse the former England manager a bit more rigorously, and do you know what? Like Ulrika Jonson, I like what I see.

 Bob Bradley 11/4

Maybe should be the bookies favourite considering his nationality, but I’m not sure if that would be a deciding factor as Randy looks to keep pushing the club forward.

Untested in European football, the American has had unarguable success with his national side – following up a remarkable Confederations campaign (beating Spain and bringing the most successful country ever to its knees in the final) with a very respectable World Cup performance.

I wouldn’t write off Lerner’s compatriot so ignorantly: he converted himself as a renowned MLS manager and I, for one, would love to see the arrival of his son Michael into the Villa squad. But for me, this is a much riskier move than the aforementioned manager would be, and I think the name of Sven Goran Eriksson would be much more attractive for the club than that of Bob Bradley.

I’d be very interested to see him get his deserved chance in Europe or the Premier League, but I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be if it were us who took that punt.

Martin Jol 7/1

 

Why not?

Spurs treated him like dirt and after two consecutive top 5 finishes, the North London contingent were the only losers from his sacking after they wound up with Juande Ramos.

The Dutch man is still a relatively untravelled coach but his early years in the Netherlands saw him deliver a KNVB Cup in his first season as a football boss, before later winning 2 different Manager of the Year awards in 2 different seasons.

Spent big bucks on Darren Bent who let him down – and I am a big Bent critic, but boy he has proven that he will get goals and thus, has in some way justified Jol’s evaluation of him. I also wouldn’t just brandish Danny Murphy a write off. For £2m, Martin was investing in valuable experience for his squad and after leading Fulham to a Europa League Final, the Liverpudlian is still doing it.

What excites me most about Jol is not that he has followed on his Tottenham career with quick success at Hamburger and Ajax. No, it’s that he brought the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale to the Premier League for under £17m. How much would those 3 cost today? (Berbatov already made the club over a £20m profit)

After Eriksson, the 54 year old Dutch man would certainly be my choice to fill the void left by O’Neill.

Paul Lambert 8/1

After studying under our former manager for a number of years, the Scot would certainly prove a smooth transition. He’s doing a good job at Norwich, after that brilliant League Cup campaign with Wycombe in 06/07, but again he is still relatively unproven and much too risqué for my liking at this stage of his career.

Jurgen Klinsmann 8/1

Responsible for the regeneration of the German national team, Klinsmann led his country to a World Cup Semi Finals and I believe that his introduction of updated coaching techniques, playing style and attention to physical detail are pivotal to the onslaught success of Germany in the last 2 international tournaments.

Failed in his only club role to date, it would again be brave to appoint Jurgen but I don’t think I’d be unhappy to see him arrive either. However, constantly linked with every football post, I believe that his short odds are unfounded.

Alan Curbishley 10/1

I’m a fan of Alan, however I know some will say that his consideration would be a question of ambition. Unquestionably a safe option, ‘Curbs’ is still to bring success to a Premier League side and I have a feeling that his appointment would be met with unenthused groans by hardcore Villains.

But I look at it differently.

After overseeing 2 promotions and top flight consolidation with Charlton Athletic, Curbishley remarkably (and famously) saved newly promoted West Ham’s season from certain relegation with just 5 months to work with – and later turning them into a top ten outfit the year after.

Although it might not get me jumping from my seat, I would support the acquisition of Curbs, the former Villain, and would remember that everyone deserves their chance once they’ve earned it.

If football was so elitist and managers could not climb available ladders of opportunity, we would not currently be treated by the work of David Moyes, the beauty of Wenger football – and dare I say it, we would have no Alex Ferguson.

 Gareth Southgate 10/1

A Villa legend, surely.

But relegation and Alfonso Alves speak volumes for his current ability as a manager.

Scone’s Shortlist:

1)      Sven Goran Eriksson

2)      Martin Jol

3)      Alan Curbishley

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FAO Andy Gray

I’m disappointed…

Of course, I’m still deeply saddened by O’Neill’s departure; I’m frustrated and confused at my sudden change of opinion of our once beloved American owners; but I’m more disappointed at the careless (and convenient) inaccuracies being spouted about the media in an attempt to brandish our former (oh! That hurt) manager as a childish villain (and not the claret kind).

Yes, I make no secret of my obsession for the Northern Ireland legend – but I haven’t held O’Neill on a high pedestal for so long on a random whim. I’ve studied his performance, I’ve admired his achievements, and I began to respect his every word. And so, when I see a certain Mr Gray sitting behind his Sky Sports News desk criticising MON and kidding himself that his Google stat search is ample support, I’m more disappointed than surprised. I’m in no way surprised at Andy’s erroneous laziness (why should I expect a top television pundit to conduct a bit of valid research?), but I’m disappointed that some of us lay people have bought in to his tripe.

Mr Lerner has indeed been a great owner and had every right to tighten his purse strings for one transfer window (I’ve said this before), but when Gray attempts to vaguely explain that O’Neill has spent “something like” £120m of the American’s money, he led a lot of fans down a deceitful blind alley where unwarranted questions were raised as to how MON has been so immune to criticism (even if £120m was spent, this sum is still miniscule when compared to the lavishness of our closest competitors Spurs and Citeh). Martin O’Neill did indeed record an outgoing expenditure £123.85m for the club (if Gray is wondering), but after the sale of Nicky Shorey, the Ulster man is responsible for a NET spend of just £81.2m throughout his 4 years in charge. That’s merely £20m a year to bring a club in dire straits from 16th place to become top 4 challengers in today’s impossibly difficult money-mad football world.

Additionally, even if MON had spent enormous chunks (as being exaggerated by supporters from other clubs, and within our own unfortunately), he was still told by his employer that he would be allowed access to any money he raised through the sale of players – but now, all of a sudden, he isn’t granted such ‘privileges’. As the board, you cannot lie to your manager who is considering a new contract, and you certainly cannot fill his head with empty promises as he looks to discover how he can take his team forward.

On the 14th May 2010, Randy Lerner claimed that Champions League qualification was the aim for the season ahead, (http://www.goal.com/en/news/9/england/2010/05/14/1924753/aston-villa-owner-randy-lerner-we-are-aiming-for-the ), yet he expected his manager to perform such miracles within the limitations of a sell-to-buy policy. But O’Neill accepted the challenge and obliged – he knew that he would lose his best player for a second consecutive season, but he was unshaken. But less than 3 months later, MON was pushed over the edge – and we learned that something even more constraining than what was originally made public had been concealed from the former Forest player all along. And Martin O’Neill resigned. 12 weeks after putting pen to paper on a new contract.

Evidently, the timing of his departure is devastating. And maybe O’Neill wasn’t entirely thinking of the (overly critical) fans when he decided that he could not take the team any farther with his hands so tightly tied. But when he is not being allowed to shape his vision, how can he be the right man for the job? I suppose he came to this conclusion.

But the timing of the decision is a strange one…” but do you know what Mr Gray? Something tells me that this was not actually planned – but hey, maybe that’s just me. On a serious note, I’m sure than MON had no desire to walk out on his 4 year progress; to abandon ship immediately after it had reached new depths; to neglect the nurturing of such talent as Gabby, Albrighton, Delfouneso and Delph; to sell off an unfinished business. Or maybe, after all, he did plan to take the team through preseason, prepare us for a do-or-die year and then turn his back 5 days before the big kick off…

Gray goes on to compare the Villa situation to Manchester United’s loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, he is irreplaceable and Fergie was not given the full £80m transfer fee to spend how he likes – however, Sir Alex was aware of this in advance (unlike O’Neill), he had the ability to still acquire the costly likes of Valencia, Obertan and Owen (unlike O’Neill), and he was in a position where he still had the vast, vast majority of players from the three times Premier League champions, not to mention their very recent Champions League exploits (similar to Villa?). It was also suggested that Harry Redknapp is being hard done by because he still hasn’t signed anyone ‘yet’. But a glance at his Portsmouth and Spurs debt, and the realisation that Tottenham will spend this summer, deems consideration of this argument very unnecessary.

Before I conclude my defence of Martin O’Neill (hopefully for the last time, because I want to give our incoming supremo every chance and my 100% support), I should also probably mention on a side note that had we acquired Stephen Ireland plus the reported £19m (which isn’t for spending) for James Milner, our NET expenditure would have had an even healthier face (for those who were so quick to look at the outgoing costs of the club). We should probably also be fair and consider the increased revenue of the club over the past 4 years, through gate receipts, European qualification, and of course, extended cup runs and TV rights. And why not throw in the fact that Villa distribute just the 7th highest wage bills in the league each year?

Hopefully the next time another famous voice attempts to take an uneducated swipe at O’Neill for “throwing his toys out of the pram”, they will firstly have a look at the difficulties which faced him in simply keeping us standing still in this crazy 21st century football business. Even more hopefully, Andy Gray will realise the errors of his judgements.

To quote my favourite, Brian Clough, “There’s a good lad…

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Do Villa Play Their Best Football With Heskey?

No… they don’t (it’s as simple as that).

Should anyone feel that they do not need to read such an unnecessary blog post to decide their answer for the above question, then please be my guest and click the ‘x’ button at the top right corner of your screen. If you choose to continue, below is what sparked a post I never thought I would have to write.

Whenever Villa played their best football it was with Emile Heskey…

I’m not a fan of negative writing. I know I have been guilty of this in the past but I like to think that any criticism I have of Aston Villa is largely constructive and contributes to the greater good of improving the club (or at least ways in which it could be improved). Of course, I am bias, but I don’t think that any of my opinions are unreasonable. I try to support a lot of my writing with facts; although I recognise that subjectivity is the fuel of football debate and the beauty of the one, true international language. Nevertheless, sometimes, we have to be critical.

But I will not, for example, downplay the obvious effect our 23 year old Agbonlahor has on the team because of his inability to win the Golden Boot (like some ignoramus writers). I will not ridicule someone’s view that Milner should play on the right for England, and then later argue that this is his best position and the reason why he is actually not so important for his club (like some hypocritical, and inaccurate bloggers). I like to research the unarguable datum and undergo essential performance analyses of both the players and the staff (some people obliviously dismiss this as unimportant, yet it is the same mode of work in which all Premier League clubs will officially recognise as means of progression). Of course, sometimes I just like writing. I like presenting my ideas and I occasionally like to reflect football in a poetic light. However, how could I ignore a sentence such as that which is quoted above? How could I accept an unsupported argument suggesting that Emile Heskey is pivotal to the best football of Aston Villa?

Well, I couldn’t accept this.

On the 5th March, I wrote a damning crtitique (https://myavfc.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/emile-heskey-conman-extraordinaire-2/) of Heskey’s performances for the club I love so well; but after his through ball to Steven Gerrard against the USA earlier in the summer, the myth that he brings other players into the game was once again vibrant – despite the fact that apart from the goal, he was responsible for just 2 more final balls in the game, and these were two unsuccessful flick ons (he also won one shootable free kick).

At the time of that post, Emile had notched up 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 1 assist. He then finished the season with 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 2 assists. And with 2 further League Cup goals, the former England international finished the season with a tally of one goal for every eight games played (5 goals in 40 appearances). Obviously, he didn’t start all of these matches (although he started the majority of them), but what was more interesting was to find that similar to his England career, 4 of The Mule’s 5 goals came in a comfortable winning margin of at least two goals for his club (all of his competitive international goals came when England won by at least three goals).

Furthermore, Heskey did not contribute to the squad with even one forced own goal or by being awarded at least one penalty. Villa banged in 80 goals in all domestic competitions last season – Heskey had a hand in just 10% of these (making him non-existent for 9 out of every 10 AVFC goals).

Despite his clear ineffectiveness for the cause, and his inability to properly bring other players into the game, maybe we do play our best football when Emile Heskey is on the field.

However, going right back to the second game of the season, the fluid 4-5-1 we adopt was once again proved popular as a ‘Heskeyless’ Aston Villa not only grabbed 3 at Anfield, but completely outplayed, and outsmarted, the league runners-up in their own backyard. Heskey was introduced for the last 10 uneventful minutes.

The following game, Villa recorded probably their most comfortable, and pleasing, victory of the season at home to Fulham (who had finished just one place below us) in the absence of the all-important-Heskey. The return fixture was equally as pleasing (although not as attractive) and the big man did feature – marking his performance with the game’s most fouls.

Thankfully, Heskey was missing for the arrival of Bolton Wanderers at Villa Park as the home side enjoyed a rare 60% of possession; not to mention their 19 recorded shots, and of course, 5 goals.

Villa also completed dominating performances away to Hull and Birmingham without the “services” of EH and they turned over eventual league champions, Chelsea, with the Carew-Gabby partnership. However, the memorable Old Trafford success (as unconvincing as it was) included Emile and he was also a member of the team which knocked 5 past Championship outfit Burnley. But it is ridiculously clear that, compared to Gabby and Big John, Heskey’s contribution to Villa’s season was extremely minimal. He was either excluded or had a limited involvement in my favourite league performances this year, and it’s not as if he has a great effect record to fall back on (meanwhile Agbonlahor has had a direct responsibility in 43% of the possible goals he could have this year; whilst Carew made one more appearance than Heskey – yet still managed to knock in 16 goals, grab 5 assists, and win 4 penalties). Heskey also played either a bitpart role or a second string duty in the FA Cup run which saw his centre forward competitor (JC) grab the competition’s golden boot.

Prolific

Both Villa’s success, and at times, their best football this year has not taken place “with” Emile Heskey by any means. In actual fact, it took place in spite of Emile Heskey, who if anything, did his best to hinder our performances. I could continue to decipher his appaling form; his apparent need to fall over at the sight of any ball; his inability to hold the ball up and the lack of success from his flick ons; I could simply point to the fact that John Carew was responsible for 20 more goals (in the same amount of games) as his clubmate; or even conduct a survey of who has been the most frustrating Villa player of the past 10 years. But I don’t need to. It would be an insult to our players, and to our fans, if I did. In actuality, it is already an insult that even one “fan” declared that Heskey is associated with our best football – particularly with zilch signs of backing up such a ludicrous statement with any kind of reasoning.

As I say, I don’t like to be negative – but sometimes, black has to be separated from white in the reckless free-for-all that an unjustified grey area grants. A grey area derived from such conjecture as the quote which started this piece. I don’t like to pick on players (which I am doing with Emile) and consistently single them out for crticism, but I am adamant that I am a fair man who is simply looking to start the season in a positive manner – and who has his own specific idea of how to achieve this. Firstly, I just hope that Neil Lennon falls for the charm of the World Cup hero and ships him north of the border so I can finally put Heskey-gate behind me for good.

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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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