A Thorough Ecksamination
I know there are 2 games left but I thought we`d get the appraisal done and dusted. Relegation or survival will not factor into this analysis; the season is 38+ games long and the last 2 will be a formality in terms of judging the manager`s success this season.
It`s always good to start with the positives, so let`s take a look.
First, for a squad that`s been heavily depleted, first by the departures of key players and then by injuries at crucial times, Aston Villa have been able to hold their own in terms of not losing (not winning, just not losing). We`ve drawn 16 games this season, nearly half of the league fixtures, and if those 16 games had been won then the table would look very different indeed.
Next, Alex McLeish has signed important players for Aston Villa this year. Shay Given is a good-quality Premier league goalkeeper, Charles N`Zogbia is a player with bags of potential, Enda Stevens is rumoured to be a promising young left-back, and Alan Hutton has had enough Premier League experience to replace Luke Young. Robbie Keane also came in on loan to provide some much-needed goals.
To supplement these signings, and due to injuries, the emergence of young players like Chris Herd, Gary Gardner and Andreas Weimann has shown that Villa`s academy is working, and that the younger players will most likely be able to cut it in the Premier League.
At times this season, Aston Villa have shown their ability to attack and score goals. Our front men have demonstrated their proficiency to bury chances and we have scored some important goals from defence and midfield, which means that we can attack when we try.
Finally, McLeish has shown gritty determination and steel to stand in the face of a group of supporters who don`t support him and say "I`m here, this is my job, give me a chance and I`ll prove you all wrong." Whether you like him or not, that takes some stones.
We looked at the 16 draws we`ve had all season. 7 of those were no-score draws. We had taken the lead in 7 of the score-draws we had, so as mentioned above, if we`d held onto the leads we took we`d be 21 points better off.
There`s no doubt that the players McLeish has signed can do the job, but in terms of individual performances this season the team has been found wanting. Players such as Dunne, Collins, Warnock and Hutton have struggled with consistency and quality in their performances, while Ireland and N`Zogbia have unsettled the dressing room on occasion. In addition, Albrighton has been like a lost sheep for most of the season and Agbonlahor has slowly drifted away from the front-line and out to the left wing.
Scoring goals. In 12 games this season we have scored 1 goal. In 10 league games we have scored 2 or more and have won 7 of them, showing that for Villa to stand a chance of winning a game we need to score more than once. Stating the obvious, yes, I know. Interestingly, the bottom 3 teams at present have all scored more goals than we have.
Going hand-in-hand with the problem with scoring goals is the lack of attacking. Aston Villa have lacked bite and intelligence in their attacking play this year, and defensively we have only been better than Norwich (13th). Bent has been isolated and dropping deep to collect the ball (not how he works) and Agbonlahor has tended to drift to the wing. The build-up play has been sloppy and unattractive, while players like Albrighton, Ireland and N`Zogbia have lacked the confidence to take a man on or run at defences.
Despite his mettle, McLeish has refused to publicly acknowledge any responsibility for the team`s plight. The main offenders always seem to be injuries and a lack of experience in the squad, although these never became issues until around Christmas. Recently a lack of presence from the dugout has been blamed on seating situations.
Finally, situations off the pitch have hindered what happens on the pitch. Disgruntled and unsettled fans have made their feelings known about the manager on various websites, forums and groups, and this has intensified the atmosphere inside the ground, but in a negative way. This has then affected the players and also the manager, causing many current and ex-players and managers to come out and defend Alex McLeish in the media.
Pending that the table above the bottom 3 doesn`t change much, a finish of 15th/16th wouldn`t be the greatest, but it wouldn`t be the worst either. With the exits of many key players in the summer, it could be argued that most Villa fans never expected success this season. However, this league position would be considered more favourably if the team possessed the attacking identity that has always been associated with Aston Villa; we have only lost 2 games this season by a 1-0 scoreline and that was to the Manchester clubs, which proves that unless you have quality and strength in depth, you must attack in order to get results. The strong negative reaction from the fanbase has not inspired but intimidated and inhibited the team; however, the manager has been unable to respond to this criticism with adaptation or positivity, and the team has been stuck in a winless rut because of it. If McLeish`s team had shown any signs of consistency or character to grind out games, score goals and get points then he would have earned the right to stay on for another season. Sadly, with 7 wins, 16 draws and 13 losses, the only thing we have been able to do consistently is hold out for a point while we are bombarded with attacks, as well as conceding leads to lose and draw games. Despite his injury Darren Bent`s goals again appear to be vital in securing our Premier League status, although question marks will inevitably now hang over his future at Aston Villa. The media will no doubt help matters by linking him with every London club until a bid comes in. Hopefully this won`t be the case.
The best way for Aston Villa to rebuild will be with a new manager. It was a brave, bold move by the board to appoint Alex McLeish after he took our rivals down for 2 out of 3 seasons, but in spite of the fans` reaction and correlating performances, results and league position, it appears highly unlikely to work out over the long-term. McLeish may well have a future as a Premier League manager but the gulf in class between the SPL and the Premier League, as well as between Birmingham City and Aston Villa, has been a gap too wide for him to bridge. Ideally McLeish would have tendered his resignation after the Bolton game as to prevent further humiliation and vilification, but he will see out the last 2 games most likely as a martyr. The board would do wisely to consider the sentiments of the fans regarding the next appointment, ensuring that the next manager is a man who is able to fully utilise our team`s attacking potential and playing to that strength, as well as tightening up an ageing, leaking defence. It has been an insult to long-term paying supporters of the club (aka valued customers) that they have had to endure such a poor campaign after so much was promised. As a result of this, the relationship between the board and the fans is now incredibly strained. Until this relationship is mended, the club will not move forward. The board wants a successful product to bring in revenue; the fans want a successful team to bring in trophies. Most fans now accept that the future of Aston Villa will take more than one season to resolve, and will give the right manager time and support in order to build on a team which has great foundations for the future. The board must now respond with positive action by appointing the right manager, whoever he may be, providing sufficient funds to add strength in depth, and responding to the needs of the fans. If this happens at the end of the season, the future may still be bright.