Martin O'Neill: Aston Villa Manager
A follow up article by Simeon Hartwell following last weeks So where do we go from here?
Football managers are ultimately judged on their results. This is inevitable, and it`s right. They are judged on the results they achieve within the context in which they manage. This means that Felipe Scolari, as a convenient example, was adjudged to have failed (or at least not inspired confidence that he wouldn`t fail) and was sacked, whilst Tony Mowbray, whose West Brom team are far less successful in absolute terms than Scolari`s Chelsea, hasn`t been sacked, and probably won`t be when the Baggies` relegation is confirmed.
This is because manager`s tend to be measured against a relative scale of success and failiure. But of course we as Villans care little for Chelsea and West Brom, because we`re interested in Aston Villa, and in Martin O`Neill. So what constitutes success and what constitutes failiure for Martin O`Neill and Aston Villa? As fans, we all have an idea what this is, but for now, I`m going to hold fire on mine, at least until I deliver my assessment of O`Neill`s performance, which is of course the purpose of this piece.
In addition to results, there are three broad criteria on which managers are judged; tactical awareness (and closely related to it, playing style, ie. How attractive or not is the football), transfer dealings, and man management. I will offer my opinion of O`Neill`s successes and failings (if applicable) in each area, and I will conclude by stating my opinion on both how O`Neill is doing, and how well he should be doing.
First, how good is O`Neill tactically, and how good is the football we play? This is in fact a very difficult question for me to answer for two reasons; firstly, I`m not qualified to offer a definitive verdict on O`Neill`s tactics for the obvious reason that I`m not a tactical genius. I can offer a layman`s opinion, but it`s not going to carry much weight. The second reason is that the style of our football has varied greatly, even over this last season.
The performances against Arsenal (and particularly the one at home) were excellent, and the football we played was superb. We have also at times played a (sometimes unfairly) maligned long-ball game this season, but against Arsenal our passing was quick and mostly along the ground, with not a target man in sight, but rather Agbonlahor playing up front on his own, pulling the Arsenal defence around and allowing us to exploit the space created. Perhaps the way we played against Arsenal had something to do with the quality and style of the opposition. I certainly think so. After all, we have played a different brand of football against other teams and produced results. We`ve won ugly, and lost (or more often drawn) pretty. In short, I don`t think style of football is something we can judge O`Neill on. The best we can say is that, generally speaking, we will play in a manner that gets us a result, and of course results are the most important thing.
However, there are a couple of things to mention on the debit side. Substitutions are perceived as an Achilles heel for O`Neill. Usually, changes aren`t made at all, and when they are they tend to involve taking a defensive player off, shuffling players around, and having more attacking options on the pitch. A typical example would be taking off Knight, moving Reo-Coker to left back (!), Luke Young to centre back, and Milner to right back. Yes, we have an extra attacking player on the pitch, but is the side stronger? Almost certainly not. With players out of position, individual performances suffer, and the team suffers. Or maybe I should have said with more players out of position, and this is the next criticism to level at O`Neill.
For two season now we have lacked a recognised right back, and for this past season, a recognised left back. Mellberg (a fine centre back), Reo-Coker (a sub-par right back) and Cuellar (perhaps a good centre back, but who can say as he hasn`t been given a decent run in the position to prove himself) have all 'filled in` there, with varying degrees of success. Luke Young has spent the majority of his short Villa career at left back. But playing players out of position is never a good option. I understand that, at times, it may be the best option, if for example there is an injury crisis and the alternative is to play a 17 year old kid. But even in Luke Young`s case you can`t help but realise that, as good as he`s been at left back, he`d have been even better at right back. And in Mellberg`s case, how much stronger would we have been last season with him rather than Knight partnering Laursen, and a recognised right back (and why not Luke Young?) at right back? Which brings me nicely onto the second criterion by which O`Neill is judged; his dealings in the transfer market.
The easiest way to assess O`Neill`s transfer dealings is to simply judge the players he`s bought (and, to a lesser extent, the one`s he`s sold), and also to note the players he hasn`t bought. I`m not going to talk about particular players we haven`t signed, but rather mention the positions for which players should have been bought. But before I start naming and shaming, and indeed praising, a word on O`Neill`s broader transfer strategy. He has, almost exclusively, bought English-based players (with the exception of Petrov and Cuellar and Scotland, and Carew from wherever he happened to be playing at the time. Salifou, I`m afraid, doesn`t count). This policy has its strengths.
O`Neill (in theory at least) knows what he`s getting, and players won`t struggle to settle, at least on a personal level. Which reminds me, I left out one of O`Neill`s foreign signings, Shaun Maloney, who didn`t settle in any sense whatsoever. But there is something to be said for buying English players; they will be called up for the national team. And suffer burnout, or exacerbate pre-existing injuries. Ummm. As you can tell, I`m not a big fan of buying English, or rather almost exclusively English. Having said that, it would be unfair to ignore the good it does for a dressing room, having everyone speaking English. But perhaps this is more to do with man-management, which I`ll come to later.
Now, I did have the idea of dividing O`Neill`s signings into the good, the bad and the ugly as a tribute to the great Clint Eastwood, but then I realised that all the players O`Neill has signed are ugly, so that wouldn`t be very helpful… Then I had a better idea; the good, the bad and the Ashley… (For brevity`s sake, I`m going to concentrate on signings still at the club, so no Didier Agathe and Chris Sutton.)
The Brad`s: Friedel has done a decent job. He`s generally performed well, though their have been some shaky moments. But the most important thing he brings is confidence to the defence. A definite improvement on the post England-Croatia Carson. Guzan, meanwhile, has shown definite promise, especially given his appearances have been few and far between. The two of them cost £3m together, which represents good business.
Luke Young: Has performed fantastically on his weaker flank. He`s quick enough, positionally aware, strong in the tackle, comfortable on the ball, totally committed and highly consistent. It`s a shame he hasn`t been playing on the right, because he`s better (if older) than Glen Johnson, and could well have earned a few England caps this season. It`s even more of a shame we didn`t sign him a year before we did, for less than half the £6m we eventually paid for him. Instead, he went to Middlesboro for £2.5m. Hmm.
Davies: Still young, and still learning, but already looking like a very decent centre back. He`s suffered a dip in form of late that has coincided with him dislocating his shoulder. Has a tremendous attitude, is an intelligent lad, and should prove to be worth the £9m or so we spent on him.
Petrov: Was terrible for the first eighteen months, but has been good this season. Is lacking a little in physical presence - not ideal in a holding midfielder, but nevertheless has performed to a high standard and contributed to our current position. However, he will be 30 In the summer, so he will need an Indian summer if he`s not to look a little expensive.
Reo-Coker: I`ve included him in the 'good` category primarily for his contribution last season. I`m one of those who appreciated his determined, aggressive displays in the middle of the park. This season, he`s been used everywhere, probably to his detriment, though I was impressed by his performance at right midfield against Liverpool earlier this season, and he kept Ronaldo in his pocket at Villa Park. He`s still a good age, has a great attitude and will improve - but needs game in midfield.
Milner: At times can look a little ordinary going forward. He`s not a flamboyant player. But he does have the ability to go past defenders on the outside, and this allows him the room to cut inside. Being two-footed also helps massively. His work-rate is exemplary, his attitude is excellent (a common theme with O`Neill`s signings), and he will continue to improve. Expensive, but a sound investment.
Carew: But for his fitness record, I feel Carew would be an excellent striker. Often doesn`t look entirely fit, but has still contributed a good, if not spectacular, number of goals, Swapping him for Baros was an excellent piece of business - but was it O`Neill or Houllier who initiated the deal?
Shorey: Not played much, and when he has, looked mostly dodgy. Some claim that he must be decent because he`s played for England, but no-one makes the same argument for Knight. Whatever his merits as a player might be, O`Neill prefers to play a midfielder at right back, and a right back at left back - a damning indictment, though more of O`Neill than Shorey in my opinion. A 'panic buy` after Bouma`s injury, and a terrible signing.
Knight: I like Zat, and as a Villa fan, he makes a good fourth choice centre back. But he does lose concentration, and ultimately he isn`t of the requisite quality. He was also signed for £4m when we could have had Luke Young for less, had a proper right back, allowed Mellberg to play at centre back, and maybe Gary Cahill would have been more inclined to stay.
Cuellar: I think Carlos has showed signs of being a quality centre back, but he`s never had a run of games in that position, and thus been denied the consistency so crucial for defenders. He`s generally done okay at right back, but he offers little going forward, and this won`t have helped in home games against negatively minded opponents.. Cost almost £8m, which is very expensive for a mediocre right back, albeit one who can cover at centre back.
Sidwell: Three goals is the extent of Sidwell`s positive contribution to the Villa cause, but the minuses massively outweigh this positive. He has invariably been a passenger when he`s played (making that impressive away run all the more remarkable). He can`t tackle, his passing is very limited, and he hasn`t scored as many goals as he should have. He runs around a lot, but to seemingly no great effect. What compounds the problem is that his presence has denied Craig Gardner opportunities, and given Craig`s ability, and passion as a Villa fan, this is criminal. There`s no suggestion he`ll come good, a la Petrov, because he`s a Premiership player and hasn`t had to acclimatise. £5m well and truly wasted by O`Neill.
Harewood: Why? Is the question that inevitably springs to mind. O`Neill has often said that he`s only interested in signing players to improve the team, and won`t just buy players to make up the numbers. Yet Harewood started just once in the Premier League in two seasons. O`Neill clearly had no faith in his ability, and why he`s spent the season with us is a mystery. Another terrible signing, though like Sidwell, it`s impossible to blame the player.
Heskey: A three and a half year contract, considerable wages (one would assume), and a £3.5m fee. Heskey is 31, and he`s not very good, as he`s demonstrated throughout his long career. And he`s injury prone. His recent 'renaissance` at international level is the only reason his signing wasn`t ridiculed, yet this rehabilitated reputation came courtesy of displays against the lies of Israel, Estonia and Kazakhstan. Needless to say, Heskey didn`t score. I had hoped O`Neill could get the best out of Heskey. The worrying thing is that he may well be doing so…
Unquestionably O`Neill`s star signing, Young is the only player O`Neill has bought who didn`t already have an established reputation. What I mean by this is that anyone could have signed Davies for £9m or Reo-Coker for £8m. Everyone knew who they were and what they could do. They`d played frequently for the England U21 team. Young however was a relatively unknown quantity (despite costing big money; Watford knew the value of the player) and signing him was considered a little risky. But know Young, along with Barry, is our best player, and worth well in excess of what we paid. We got him on the cheap in other words. This is the one piece of inspired business O`Neill has done, and for this he deserves considerable thanks.
Concerning the players O`Neill has released, not many objections can be raised. Steven Davis had showed promise, but perhaps there were question marks over his willingness to fight for a place. The same can be said of Gary Cahill, although the signing of Knight would have given him good reason to think O`Neill didn`t believe in him, which perhaps was an error of judgement on O`Neill`s part, particularly given his impressive displays for Bolton. There are no real regrets for any of the other departures under O`Neill (although Aaron Hughes has had a fine season alongside Hangeland at Fulham this year). It`s regrettable that Luke Moore looks set to fail to fulfil his prodigious potential, but this is his responsibility, not O`Neill`s.
It is no coincidence that I`ve devoted more space to O`Neill`s transfer dealings than any other aspect of his management. Football matches are won and lost on the pitch, and putting the right combination of good players out on the pitch is at least half the battle. Unfortunately, this crucial area is the one where O`Neill has let himself down. His transfer dealings have been unimaginative and perhaps a little unambitious, and his inactivity in certain instances has been a serious error of judgement.
I agree with buying players with good character as well as natural talent, and therefore interested in more than just a fat pay-cheque. But this doesn`t explain the apparent lack of planning in O`Neill`s transfer dealings. Why on earth did we fail to sign a striker in the summer (a better time to buy than January according to O`Neill), when all we had was Agbonlahor and Carew? (I discount Harewood and Delfouneso because neither has started a league game.) Given Carew`s aforementioned suspect fitness record, it was entirely possible that Agbonlahor would be left as our only striker, and consequently run into the ground. The heavy workload Gabby has endured is, for my money, responsible for his current lack of form. This scenario was easily foreseeable, and therefore preventable, yet O`Neill did nothing other than sign Heskey, who is far too little, far too late.
Then there is the full back farce. Had Bouma not been injured, we`d have (belatedly) had the immediate problem fixed, but Bouma was injured, because injuries are inevitable, and so for the majority of the season we`ve had one fit fullback whom O`Neill has deemed worthy of selection. This, again, reveals a frightening lack of planning on O`Neill`s part, of which the signing of Shorey is symptomatic. Finally, we`ve also lacked any kind of cover in the wide positions. If Young had been injured for any period of time, we`d have really struggled. Neither Maloney nor Routledge have been replaced. That neither was ever really good enough is neither here nor there. If O`Neill didn`t believe they were up to the job, why weren`t they replaced in the summer? Routledge remained, but wasn`t given a chance. Personally, I don`t think he was good enough, but neither did O`Neill, yet he didn`t replace him.
This season, we`ve had less than our fair share of injuries. Bouma`s injury was horrendous, but him aside we`ve not had too many out. Laursen and Carew have both had problems, but these were predictable. Yet we`ve failed to compete strongly in either the League or UEFA Cups. The squad has been exposed as being short on quantity and quality, to the extent that even a little squad rotation (a necessity in modern football) has been impossible. Not one player has been rested from a league game by choice. Given these shortcomings, we`ve done fantastically well to be where we are. Indeed, if these handicaps weren`t self-inflicted, one could rightly hail O`Neill as a genius. But so many of the problems O`Neill has encountered are of his own making, and so he has no wiggle room if things go wrong (in the sense of things not going as well as they should).
Ironically, it is exactly because of mistakes O`Neill has made that his other managerial qualities have been brought into sharp focus. We have a small, tight-knit squad who have never lacked for effort under O`Neill. Various times this season, the guts, determination and team-spirit have been there for all to see. The players want to play for O`Neill, and will seemingly run through brick walls for him. The dressing room is a happy place, even with some players having no prospect of getting a game. He handled the Barry situation in the summer tremendously, and deserves as much praise as Barry for the player`s performances this season. Just about everything you hear regarding O`Neill concerning this aspect of the job is exemplary. Credit where it is due. It`s just a shame he hasn`t made life easier for himself.
O`Neill`s man-management will be crucial in our run-in. It is his job to enable the players to turn it around. Confidence and belief must be restored, and exactly the right amount of pressure - neither too much, nor too little - must be applied. If O`Neill is able to do this, and Villa can get a favourable run of the ball here or there, then overhauling Arsenal is well within our capabilities. If Arsenal remain above us however, then the full price of O`Neill`s mistakes will be paid, and for those mistakes and that price, O`Neill will have to be accountable.
It is, again, ironic that in one sense O`Neill is a victim of his own success. He has, through good management, exposed the vulnerability of Arsenal. They are there for the taking this season. But if we don`t take Arsenal now, it will be purely down to bad management on O`Neill`s part, as I hope this piece has shown. In the circumstances, there is no way O`Neill can be considered a victim. The next two months are crucial for both Villa and O`Neill. Let`s hope that, come the summer, O`Neill can learn from his mistakes from a position of strength rather than weakness.