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A Million Ways To Avoid Relegation

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There are a thousand different approaches to staying in the Premier League, but ultimately the goal is to stay in the Premier League. We have seen some of those different approaches in the past – Ian Holloway’s expansive, attacking Blackpool side almost caught a few sides unaware but ultimately were ended by their own defensive frailties while through much of the 1990s Southampton built a hard working side around the incredibly talented Matt Le Tissier hoping that he would do enough to keep them up.

There are differing approaches from this season’s strugglers. Hull’s struggles have come as a surprise considering some of the talent they have within their squad and their strengthening of that in the transfer windows. Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez is an exciting talent with a goal scoring record that is nothing spectacular while his countryman Gaston Ramirez may have cost Southampton £12 million but that didn’t stop them shipping him out on loan to Hull. Hatem Ben Arfa is incredibly talented but his attitude ended his time at Hull and Newcastle early and now he’s threatening to retire. Mohammed Diame is a physical beast in the middle of the park and was even linked with a switch to Liverpool not too long ago so to get him in a cut price deal in the summer looked to be a revelation yet he’s struggled to recreate his best form so far. Steve Bruce’s remedy to their struggles – sign more players. Senegalese striker Dame N’Doye joined from Lokomotiv Moscow to try and get more goals but only time will tell.

Paul Lambert has built a talented young side at Aston Villa that has served him reasonably well but it looks like this season they are struggling more than ever. The burden of Darren Bent has been lifted slightly by his loan moves to the Championship but the goals are not flowing at all for a Villa side that are becoming all too familiar with alarming mid-season slumps. There is some real talent at Villa Park though – Christian Benteke was almost a near £30 million striker about 18 months ago; Ashley Westwood is a lovely passer of the ball; Ron Vlaar has been linked with Manchester United while Brad Guzan has kept some of Villa’s scores respectable. There is real pressure building on Lambert as many feel he’s underachieving despite being unable to spend what some of his predecessors could.

Nigel Pearson’s Championship winners Leicester boasted little Premier League experience and he obviously focused on that as a big part of his transfer activity. In came Mark Schwarzer on a free in January to join fellow free signing Danny Simpson to bring a bit more Premier League know-how. Esteban Cambiasso has done pretty much everything there is to do in football and was brought in for a little bit of added quality and steel in midfield. Big money was thrown at strikers too to aid David Nugent and Jamie Vardy but Pearson took a big risk in going for two unproven at Premier League level. Leandro Ulloa cost Leicester £7 million and was excellent in the Championship for Brighton but there is a quality gap between Championship and Premier League. Ulloa started well but has not been massively prolific. Despite that, he has experience in English football unlike Leicester’s record signing – Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric. The talent is there considering Chelsea were very interested in signing him and he has scored goals but there is (with all due respect to Croatian football) a massive gap between the Croatian league and Premier League. And at £9 million, Kramaric has to deliver and deliver quickly for a Leicester side that are struggling to get wins.

What of all these teams have in common, generally, is that they have brought in a number of players many of whom have not quite performed to the level expected. Strikers aren’t striking and defenders aren’t defending is their simple problem. Their solution to this problem is to simply buy more players that they believe will do the job in keeping them up that won’t massively break the bank. Two of the other teams in the mire have polar opposite ideas of how to avoid relegation – QPR and Burnley.

Where do you start with Queens Park Rangers? The last few years has seen an incredible number of players walk through the doors of Loftus Road with very few actually proving to be resounding successes. They’ve been so poor in the league thus far but the only way Harry Redknapp seemed to know how to fix it was by suggesting that he should be able to buy more players. In around two years at the club, Redknapp bought a staggering 25 players. To put it simply, QPR have had essentially a whole Premier League squad of players arrive in the last two years and they still haven’t got it right. Some of these players that have been brought in have done so at great expense and then left at a fraction of their price – Jordon Mutch is the perfect example having joined in the summer for £6 million before leaving in the last window for £4.75 million. They signed Mauro Zarate on loan last month only to realise that they didn’t want him anymore but couldn’t get rid of him. It is almost comical at Loftus Road and performances on the pitch haven’t been much better. Their away record is, to be kind, abysmal and they have leaked goals like nobody’s business. There doesn’t seem to be a clear identity at QPR with the constant chopping and changing of personnel meaning that the players, despite their obvious quality, are struggling to string together remotely commendable performances. It’s not all bad news for Rangers though. Tony Fernandes has reportedly put his foot down and said that the days of signing fifteen players a window are gone while the recent late defeat to Southampton showed the side had fight within it. The performances of some the big names in the squad is nothing new at QPR with memories of Stephane Mbia’s single season at the club lingering in the minds of QPR fans everywhere. There does look to be some fight within the side though as they battled to get their first away win on Tuesday night at Sunderland

Burnley meanwhile have a whole different approach to staying up. In both seasons in the Premier League, the club has kept faith with the majority of their promotion winning squad and added cheap depth (usually from the lower leagues) to try and stay up. They are a modest club who are fully aware that they will not outspend most clubs but don’t aim to. To put it in perspective, Angel Di Maria cost Manchester United more in one go than what every Burnley signing has cost the Clarets combined. Danny Ings cost the club very little when he joined from Bournemouth a couple of years ago but will bring in a good fee when he leaves in the summer. There is an acceptance at Burnley that the club will lose Ings regardless of if they stay up because they won’t break the bank for any one player. It is not a lack of ambition though as they operate on a clear budget and won’t hedge their long-term for short-term glory (see Leeds United). It’s admirable and they have stuck to their guns throughout the season even when teams around them have went and spent huge sums. Sean Dyche has got a well-drilled and effective side that is direct without being considered “long ball” and they have capable enough players to stay up. Performances have been reasonably good as well this season but some defensive frailties have cost them plenty of points and they could do with scoring a few more goals too – their big summer signing Lukas Jutkiewicz has not scored so far while the next top scorers after Danny Ings (who only has 8 to date) are George Boyd and Ashley Barnes with 5 and 4 goals respectively. Unlike QPR, there is a clear understanding of how the team is supposed to play and Sean Dyche should be commended for getting his side into a position where they are not only competitive but also have an excellent chance of pushing hard to stay in the Premier League.

There are a million ways to stay up in the Premier League – throw everyone forward, park the bus, lump it long, pass it through, spend millions or spend what you can afford – it is always interesting to see how the bottom clubs approach it. One thing is for sure though. However they play and whatever their strategy is, anything can happen in the Premier League. Especially at the bottom of the table.

Aston Villa

Can Aston Villa and Steve Bruce afford to blow their big opportunity?

After a difficult start to life in the Championship, Aston Villa are now in a favourable position to secure a return to the Premier League under Steve Bruce, writes columnist Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Villa
Photo: Reuters

Aston Villa have climbed up the Championship table and, after a run of six consecutive victories, should now be considered serious promotion contenders.

The Midlands club have struggled since being relegated from the Premier League and it has taken them some time to adjust to the second tier, but they are now emerging as one of the best teams in the division.

The club’s critics will point to the amount of money that has been spent since arriving in the second tier, but, in truth, the squad needed a complete overhaul and the Villains are now benefitting from that.

They are currently third in the division, but they trail Derby County by only one point and will be confident that they can move ahead of Gary Rowett’s side.

Villa are building momentum at the right time and no team will relish the prospect of playing against Steve Bruce’s men.

The manager is a major reason why the club have to be considered as favourites to clinch the second automatic promotion place, as he has a proven track record of getting teams over the line.

He has won promotion to the Premier League on four occasions and that will stand him in good stead to achieve a similar feat at Villa Park.

A quick look at the squad that faced Burton Albion shows the quality and experience that Bruce currently has at his disposal.

John Terry is a winner and after a slow start to life as a Championship player, he has found his stride. His leadership will be crucial over the coming months.

Ahmed El Mohamady, James Chester, Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have all achieved success in the Premier League, which makes them great players to have when challenging for promotion.

Meanwhile, Jack Grealish, Josh Onomah and Keinan Davis have the ability to inject flair and energy into any performance.

It has been a period of recovery for Aston Villa, but they are now coming out fighting and the supporters have a team they can believe in again.

At the tail end of the Championship standings, there are examples of what can happen if the team isn’t run correctly after relegation.

Sunderland are second bottom and have only won five times in 30 league matches. Meanwhile, Hull City are just one place above them in the table.

Both clubs could face back-to-back relegations and, considering the supposed financial advantage they should hold over the rest of the league, their struggles are indicative of poor leadership from the top.

Although Tony Xia has caused problems for Aston Villa since taking over as the owner of the football club, namely through his Twitter feed, he has stabilised the club and provided the finances needed to build a team that can compete in the Championship.

The Chinese businessman made headlines when he bought the club,  speaking of his desire to win the Champions League within ten seasons, as evidenced by the following quotes from the Telegraph:

“We don’t have a very detailed plan but we have a vision that we will challenge to get back into the Premier League and we will be challenging when we get back.

”The aim, not just the hope, is to get back in the European field within five years and I wish we can succeed to get another trophy like we have here in eight or 10 years. That is not an exact number, but we want to win the European Cup.

“It is really important to get promoted in the first season as everybody hopes but all we can do is do our best.”

There is nothing wrong with ambition and, as Leicester City showed when they won the Premier League in 2016, the impossible remains possible in football.

However, coming in as a new owner of a club that had just been embarrassed in the Premier League, it wasn’t the right time to speak about achieving success in Europe.

First and foremost, he had to sort out the mess that he had inherited.

He initially appointed Roberto di Matteo and that turned out to be a poor move.

The Italian had previously won promotion with West Brom and the Champions League with Chelsea, but he wasn’t the appointment that the club needed.

Villa required a manager who had the experience of winning promotion and building a squad capable of achieving it, from scratch.

Di Matteo didn’t stay in the position long. Villa were struggling in 19th position after just 11 league matches, with only one win to their name.

Xia made the decision to relieve the Italian of his duties and started a managerial search from scratch.

The appointment that followed showed how much the Chinese businessman had learned from his short time in football, as Steve Bruce came in.

The Geordie was exactly what the club needed and the patience shown by the board underlines the faith they have in him.

The first season after relegation was a tough one. Villa were humbled and finished a lowly 13th. However, Xia didn’t panic and he deserves credit for that.

Compared to the actions of some owners in recent years, the Chinese businessman doesn’t come across as too volatile, despite what his social media profile would have you believe.

Steve Bruce’s recruitment since has been very shrewd. He has brought in players that are proven in the Championship, alongside those with a sprinkling of Premier League class.

Robert Snodgrass would fit into both categories, while the likes of Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane know what is required to succeed in the lower leagues.

During January, Villa were keen to add to their ranks to maintain their positive momentum and their signing of Lewis Grabban looks to be a masterstroke.

The striker scored 12 times during the first half of the season with Sunderland, in a team that was struggling badly. His reputation soared and he will provide another source of goals for the promotion-chasing side.

The next few months will be defining for Aston Villa. Their need for promotion is greater than other clubs competing at the top of the Championship due to their wage bill and stature.

A club the size of the Midlands outfit can’t afford to be outside of the Premier League for too long, especially if they want to continue growing.

The finances on offer in the top-flight are huge and the longer the club are missing out on that, the greater the gap will become.

They are in a strong position with a proven manager and talented playing staff. It is now up to them to take that final step and return to the level where they belong.

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Aston Villa

Why the FA Cup weekend provides a big opportunity for Aston Villa

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Aston Villa
Photo: Reuters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of the times. It was panic mode. It was ‘don’t worry’. It was December. A month, for Aston Villa, that does not bring many gifts.

In the twelfth month of the year, it is usually the time of the football season where you can expect Villa’s hopes to collapse. Of course, the club have ironically lead league tables before November eroded into December. After Christmas the club is usually lucky to have a hand on the top half of the table!

And again, that’s almost how it went for Aston Villa in 2017. A blown two goal lead, a draw, a defeat and another loss. Steve Bruce’s reign at Villa has been defined by streaks. A stint of winning, coldly sandwiched between two barren spells.

After a Boxing Day bashing by promising coach Dean Smith and his plucky Brentford side the tide seemed to be turning against Steve Bruce for the final time. Booed off rather viciously by an angry pack of away fans at Griffin Park, the 57-year-old head coach was quick to defend himself.

He was even quicker to do so when he escaped Middlesbrough with three points a few days after, and by the dawn of the new year – after taking six points against two very good sides, including a resounding 5-0 win against Bristol City – he was more than happy to take the plaudits.

Now, after a barrage of cold surf, Villa’s manager now seems to be riding a waves of optimism into 2018.

Villa’s first match post New Year’s Day is a FA Cup 3rd round tie against League One outfit Peterborough United. These matches are usually dismissed by those who are too quick to get down to the business of the league.

However, while the FA Cup might not offer glory, it certainly offers opportunity to teams like Aston Villa, who would do well not to turn their nose up at England’s oldest club football competition.

The FA Cup? For Villa, it’s an opportunity for rebirth. It is not a throwaway fixture at Villa Park in any sense of the world. Why? It allows the team to experiment, rotate and try out new things that they may be too scared to implement in a league fixture.

It also allows them to give extremely talented youngsters like Jake Doyle-Hayes, Easah Suliman and Callum O’Hare some valuable first-team game time. What is more, it allows an erratic side to settle into form, with a big chance for a win on offer.

Scott Hogan will likely be allowed a full ninety minutes of football to continue his decent spell, and a few goals will do nothing but help him along.

Among other things, it also gives Villa a look at a decent League One side. Many clubs are chasing Jack Marriott, who leads the line for the Posh. Seeing a ready-made replacement for any departing striker can do the Bruce’s team no harm. Well, as long as he doesn’t bang a few goals past Jed Steer.

The flip side of this? It is also a good way for the Birmingham side to put second-stringers and reserve players in a shop window. Especially considering it is very much a ‘sell-to-buy’ situation for the club this January.

Villa and Steve Bruce would be wise to pay close attention to Saturday’s fixture, as it represents a massive chance for this side to grow and really galvanise their season.

It has been a stop-start campaign so far and a good win against a talented Peterborough side in the FA Cup certainly won’t hurt Villa. In truth, it could be a really good opportunity to learn a lot more about Bruce’s current squad.

Villa won’t win the FA Cup, but a good run will only boost their season. Ignoring fixture congestion and other intangibles of which we cannot measure the impact, any match where a loss is not of huge detriment can only help one of the Championship’s most exciting, talented and erratic teams grow.

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Aston Villa

Exclusive: Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane on his creative prowess and the Villans’ season ahead

Jake Jackman

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Conor Hourihane

Aston Villa have had a challenging start to the season and are in 10th position after eight matches. This is three places higher than the position they finished in during the 2016/17 campaign and supporters have grown frustrated at the club’s inability to establish themselves at the top of the division. However, their struggles underline how difficult the Championship can be. Reputations mean nothing and it won’t be easy for the Villans to return to the Premier League.

The squad upheaval hasn’t helped, as they have signed 22 players since relegation. The individuals that have been brought in won’t all be seen as good deals for the club, but Conor Hourihane is one that Steve Bruce will look to build the team around this season.

In a period of transition, it took time for the midfielder to earn himself a regular starting place. He has managed to do that now after a good start to the season in front of goal. The 26-year-old has five in the league, which included an excellent hat-trick against Norwich City. He revealed his delight at his own start of the season, before moving on to address the club’s results to date:

“Yes, it was great, a great feeling. It was my first hat-trick. “

“They have been up and down, we’re starting to find our feet a little bit now and are unbeaten in a few games, we’ve had a few draws in a row that could have gone either way but overall it’s been an average start.”

It is clear that the players understand the frustration of the supporters, but the four draws could have gone Villa’s way and if they had done, they would be in a healthier position now. The Championship is a tight league, which is why Hourihane is a key player for Steve Bruce’s side. He can unlock defences and win points for his team, as he has proven on a consistent basis since arriving in the Championship.

Last season, he finished top of assists in the Championship with 14 spread across his time at Barnsley and Aston Villa. He created a chance every 41.3 minutes throughout the campaign, but Hourihane was keen to stress that he is a complete midfielder, rather than one that focuses on attacking contribution:

“I suppose that’s what the stats show but for me I’d like to think I’m a bit of an all-rounder who can do bits of everything. Last year it went well for myself from that point of view but I think if I don’t get as many assists but we are playing well as a team and up there at the top of the league I will take that any day of the week.”

It is refreshing to hear that Hourihane isn’t letting last season’s personal success affect his aims for the coming season. Aston Villa need to develop a strong mentality if they are to challenge for promotion, with the team needs going before that of any individual. If the Villans can return to the Premier League this season, it would be a far more enjoyable achievement for the midfielder.

There were many reasons why Aston Villa were relegated and it was a result of a decline across a number of seasons. The recruitment policy didn’t help. In the summer of 2015, the majority of signings came from Ligue 1 and the club no longer had a British core. Their motives may have been more self-oriented, which is why the above comments from Hourihane are very encouraging. The team is beginning to become one that supporters can connect with and they should be a lot tougher as well. This is a trait every promotion-winning team needs to have.

Barnsley were the surprise package of the Championship last season and Hourihane’s performances for them were the reason why Aston Villa wanted to bring him in. During the first half of the season, he contributed six goals and 11 assists.

There wasn’t a shortage of interest in his services during the January window, with Sheffield Wednesday being heavily linked. However, it was Villa that won the race and their ambition played a key role in persuading the midfielder to make the switch. When asked what attracted him to the Midlands, he responded:

“The size of the club, the history and the where the club wants to take itself.”

It isn’t surprising that Aston Villa were an attractive club for Hourihane. The 26-year-old has had to work his way up from the lower leagues and will see his current club as his best chance of completing the journey into the top-flight.

Every good football career starts off with a failure and Hourihane’s is no different. The midfielder failed to make a first-team appearance for either of his first two clubs, Sunderland and Ipswich Town. That will have been a huge blow for the player at an early stage of his career, but he showed an impressive mentality to go down the leagues and forge a career on his own terms.

At Home Park, he improved year-on-year and his final season with the club saw him score nine times. A move to Barnsley followed and it was in Yorkshire that he made a name for himself, as he was a regular scorer with 23 across two seasons in League One. In his final full season with the Tykes, he was an integral figure as they won the Football League Trophy and gained promotion through the play-offs. Hourihane believes that his career to date has prepared him well for Aston Villa:

“It’s probably given me a different education to the lads that are here, a lot of them started off higher and have found themselves at Aston Villa and I’ve started off lower and ended up at Aston Villa right now and myself and the players have met in the middle and hopefully that would be a good mixture to take us up the table and ultimately where we want to be and get promoted.”

The make-up of the Aston Villa squad is a point of interest, as they have players like Hourihane with no top-flight experience playing alongside a Champions League winner in John Terry. In the Championship, the experience and know-how possessed by the midfielder is equally, if not more, important than that of the former England captain.

The 26-year-old’s main focus will be helping Aston Villa return to the Premier League, but he also wants to establish himself in the Republic of Ireland team. He has been capped eight times and that has certainly whet his appetite for more in the future.

Yes, I’m hoping so, I’ve been involved in a few squads now for the last six months, made another appearance recently so hopefully if I keep playing well for Aston Villa that will only benefit my international career.”

The next few weeks are crucial for Aston Villa as they try to make up ground on the leading pack. They have matches against Burton Albion and Bolton Wanderers coming up in the next two. No match is easy in this division, but Steve Bruce will be looking to take six points.

It is early in the season, but Hourihane is the team’s current top-scorer. Although he is unlikely to finish the campaign with the most goals, the 26-year-old will be key to their promotion chances.

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