Every season there seems to be one team who manages to hit a terrible patch of form at exactly the wrong time and finds themselves dragged into the relegation battle. Sadly, that team this season seems to be Aston Villa. Villa have been mired in a dreadful run of form in the past few months and Tuesday night’s defeat to Bolton and yesterday’s draw at West Brom sees them only 3 points above Bolton, who occupy the last place in the relegation zone, but Bolton have a game in hand.
Villa have only won seven league games this season (only four of those wins at home), only already relegated Wolves have won fewer, and have only won once since January. Even so, pretty much everyone expected Villa to pull themselves out of the rut they were in and move clear of danger. I work with a guy who said to me a couple of months ago he thought Villa would go down, and I remember being in total disagreement. It has been proven time and again that no club is ‘too big to go down’, but that’s exactly how I saw Villa. I can’t say the same now though, as Villa are in big trouble.
Villa’s form and performances have been so abjectly poor lately it seems as though their chances of survival will have more to do with whether or not the teams currently below them manage to pick up enough points in their last few games to overtake Villa, rather than Villa picking up points themselves. The bad news for Villa fans is that Bolton, QPR, Wigan and Blackburn have all managed to pick up a few wins recently and have some momentum on their side.
Villa manager Alex McLeish has been the main focus of the fans ire, with large sections of the Villa crowd turned against him. It is a media myth to say that McLeish’s unpopularity amongst Villa fans stems from his affiliation with city rivals Birmingham City. That may well be a small part of it, but it is the negative tactics, his playing not to lose rather than to win, strange team selections, his propensity to playing players out of position and his seeming lack of passion or the ability to motivate the Villa team in any way that has led to the criticism he is receiving from the fans.
After Gerard Houllier (who was far from a roaring success at Villa) had a recurrence of his heart problems and had to step down due to health reasons, Villa made a total mess of their search for a new manager. Villa made a public approach for Wigan manager Roberto Martinez, who turned them down. Then a few days later appointed Alex McLeish from Birmingham City, having to pay a considerable fee in compensation for his services. Now, Martinez is known for playing a free-flowing, attacking, passing style of football. So if that’s the type of manager Villa wanted, you have to assume that’s the type of football they wanted the team to play. It was surprising then, that Villa turned to McLeish, a manager known for defensive, dour football, which is the opposite to what Villa were looking for only a week earlier. This suggested a lack of direction at the top as nobody seemed to know exactly what they wanted, which has permeated down.
McLeish has been unlucky in that Villa have suffered from a raft of injuries to their most important players at exactly the wrong time. They’re currently missing Richard Dunne and James Collins, who make up the heart of their defence, as well as their main goal threat in Darren Bent,. They are also missing Captain Stiliyan Petrov, who is sadly battling leukaemia.
This means that the Villa team has been made up of a lot of young players such as Nathan Baker, Eric Lichaj and Andreas Weimann, many of whom are, talented as they are, just not ready for the Premier League ,and as a result of this inexperience, confidence seems to be at an all-time low. In the Bolton game, five of the starting lineup came from the Villa academy, and there were another five amongst the substitutes.
Even at full strength though, Villa have struggled all season. There are only three teams who have scored fewer goals than they have. After selling Ashley Young and Stewart Downing over the summer, Villa have not replaced the goals that they brought to the team and crucially, their assists. Charles N’Zogbia’s signing has just not worked so far, and he has been a bit of a disaster, Stephen Ireland hasn’t done much to show why Villa gave him a second chance after being loaned out for most of last season and Alan Hutton has not shown any of the upsides to his game he showed at Spurs or Sunderland.
Villa have suffered from a chronic lack of goals in Bent’s absence. Gabriel Agbonlahor is capable of scoring and a dangerous player on his day, but is a notoriously streaky goalscorer, who cannot be relied upon to consistently score. Emile Heskey seems to have the opposite problem. He can be relied upon alright, but unfortunately it’s to not score.
When Randy Lerner bought Villa initially there was a lot of spending in a bid to try to get Villa into the upper echelons of the Premier League. Villa had a couple of sixth placed finishes, but that seemed to be as high as they could go. Martin O’Neill spent a lot of money, but many of those signings were mediocre players on massive contracts, who proved hard to sell.
Lerner had gambled on spending a lot of money in order to get into the Champions League, hoping then that the extra income would cover the costs. When that failed to materialise, something had to give; Villa just couldn’t sustain their level of expenditure and a period of cost-cutting ensued. Martin O’Neill resigned just before the start of last season in a row over the direction the club was taking. In the past few seasons James Milner, Ashley Young and Stuart Downing have all been sold for substantial fees and the wage bill has been slashed, but Villa’s cost-cutting still continues as Villa are still hemorrhaging money.
Sadly this cost-cutting has meant that Villa have gone from a club trying to win, to a club content to just stay in the Premier League. This has meant that in just a couple of seasons Villa have gone from being on the verge of the Champions League to the verge of the Championship.
The are grim parallels to McLeish’s Birmingham team last season. They were in a very similar position to the one Villa are in now. Birmingham were in 15th at this stage last season, the same position as Villa are now, with a four-point gap to the relegation zone. Birmingham then lost all of their remaining three games and went down. McLeish is now facing the prospect of being relegated from the Premier League for the third time in his last four Premier League seasons.
With only three games to go, there doesn’t seem to be much point in firing McLeish. Wolves have found to their cost that it doesn’t always work out to make a change. But it’s difficult to see any discernible improvement Villa could make whilst McLeish remains manager.
Even if Villa do stay up, it is hard to envision McLeish still being manager next season. McLeish has now only won only 15 of his last 72 Premier League games as manager. Attendances are down, as fans don’t want to pay top-dollar for such poor performances from their team. Villa have a large, passionate fan base, and Randy Lerner has to accept that McLeish will never win over the fans, and has to protect his investment by parting ways with McLeish at the end of the season.
For a team that was lifting the European Cup 30 years ago, and have been mainstays of the Premier League since its inception, it would be a crying shame if Villa got relegated. If, and it’s a big if, they stay up, hopefully Villa can take the opportunity to re-evaluate the direction in which the club is going, and take the necessary steps to ensure Villa don’t find themselves in a similar position next season and that one of England’s biggest clubs can start to restore themselves to prominence once more.