When will Aston Villa escape the vicious circle of mediocrity?
Following Southampton’s relegation in 2005, there have been just seven clubs to have played in every Premier League season since it begun 23 years ago. That includes the hugely successful Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the generally disappointing Liverpool, and the usually good but occasionally struggling Everton and Tottenham, both of whom have had their brushes with relegation since the early 90s. The seventh ever-present has been Aston Villa, who could also be put into the Everton and Spurs category – except that the ratio of good seasons to bad is a lot closer to 1:1.
Villa were among a clutch of teams aiming to break into what was, in the late 2000s, a seemingly impenetrable top four. Martin O’Neill’s energetic team, with an ideal blend of youth and experience, consistently finished in the top six and had strength in all areas of the pitch – Brad Friedel in goals, Olof Mellberg and Richard Dunne marshaling the back four, Gareth Barry directing operations in the midfield engine room alongside the totally reliable Stiliyan Petrov, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing marauding down the flanks and the sometimes lethal striking combination of Gabriel Agbonlahor’s pace and John Carew’s penalty box strength. When Tottenham eventually cracked fourth place in 2009/10, it must have given Champions League challengers Villa a surge of belief that it was possible.
At the beginning of the following season, O’Neill was inexplicably sacked and since then, it’s been all downhill for Aston Villa. A 10th-place finish under Gerard Houllier in 2011 was perceived as a disappointment and heart problems for the Frenchman led to him moving on. His replacement did not go down well with the Villa Park faithful, with the club turning to Alex McLeish, the man who had just been relegated with arch-rivals Birmingham. Young and Downing left that summer and Villa’s downward spiral continued, with a shocking finishing position of 16th. Naturally, McLeish didn’t survive for a second campaign.#
In just two years, the club had gone from European regulars to relegation battlers. It didn’t get a whole lot better under Paul Lambert, with Villa ending the next two seasons in 15th, on both occasions needing a strong finish to preserve their Premier League status. Last term, they were toothless in the extreme, scoring a paltry 11 goals in their first 24 league games. The fans called for Lambert’s head and the powerbrokers heeded the call in February, replacing the softly-spoken Scot with a wildly contrasting straight talker in Tim Sherwood. The former Blackburn and Tottenham midfielder guided Villa out of the relegation zone and into an FA Cup final, although a 17th-place finish and a 4-0 Wembley hiding by Arsenal took some of the gloss off Sherwood’s work.
Nine games into the 2015/16 season, the Villans lie second from bottom with just four points, three of which arrived in an opening day win at Bournemouth. Yes, they have drawn one and lost seven of their last eight games. That eerily familiar sense of a fight to beat the drop is already enveloping Villa Park, and that is not territory which sits well with the club’s proud following. Sherwood is a decent coach and his honesty and ambition are admirable, but he is not helping himself with his repeated declarations that he, and only he, will steer Villa out of trouble. It certainly isn’t an encouraging sign when he openly declares himself “bored” with his team’s performances. He has stated that he is not afraid of taking on the responsibility that football management brings. Time to stand up and be counted, Tim, or it may be time to get your gilet and seek employment elsewhere.
In Sherwood’s defence, though, Villa have been hemorrhaging quality in their playing ranks over the last five years. Brad Guzan is not a bad goalkeeper, but nor is he a match for Friedel in his pomp. Defensively, they are sorely lacking in strength. Don’t be surprised if Ciaran Clark is lured elsewhere next summer, or possibly even in January, thus weakening Villa’s hand at the back even further. In midfield, Jack Grealish is a talent but he still has it all to prove and there is a danger that he could succumb to the hype and fade into the shadows by the time he reaches his mid-20s – fans will hope, for his sake, it doesn’t happen because he has the raw material to be a very, very good footballer. Up front, they have Rudy Gestede and that’s it. Agbonlahor’s career seems to have stalled completely.
Villa have also recruited very poorly in recent years, with the notable exception of Christian Benteke, whose loss is being badly felt this season. Since 2010, the Belgian is the only unqualified success to have been signed by the club, although Ron Vlaar was generally impressive during his time at Villa Park. While much has been made of Liverpool’s careless frivolity in the transfer market over the past few seasons, Aston Villa have a similarly awful hit ratio, albeit on a smaller monetary scale. How’s this for a roll call of ‘came, went and did not conquer’: Charles N’Zogbia, Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi, Carlos Cuellar, Jordan Bowery, Antonio Luna, Nicklas Helenius, Alexander Tonev, Aly Cissokho, Joe Cole.
Not only have Villa flogged their best players since O’Neill left five years ago and failed to adequately replace them; they have also been unable to unearth any gems of their own, with the possible exception of Grealish if he can consistently play to his best. To be fair to Lambert, he had been working with a rather young squad in his first couple of seasons, but the players he blooded into the team never really kicked on and there is a glaring lack of quality in the playing ranks at Villa Park right now.
Sherwood spent more than £50million in the summer, so Villa fans are entitled to expect some return for that not inconsiderable buck. So far, they are certainly not getting it. Only the perennial misfortunes of Sunderland and Newcastle (although the weekend thrashing of Norwich could prove a turning point for the Geordies) have kept the most damning focus off the Midlanders. With games against Tottenham, Man City, Everton, Southampton and Arsenal still to come before Christmas, it’s hard to see Villa racking up a multitude of points between now and then. Unless they at least begin to improve their performances, Sherwood might not make it to the end of 2015, by which stage Aston Villa’s relegation troubles could be all too real and, possibly, the first seeds of the end of their Premier League involvement could be sewn. What they do have, though, is ample time to turn things around – for now.
Featured Image – All Rights Reserved by Alex Hannam
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