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An early analysis of the season


BOF
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4 league games (and 1 re-arranged game) into our season, where do we find ourselves and what hope for the rest of the season ? A brief synopsis of what I've seen.

Firstly we'll concentrate purely on the results, if only to get them out of the way because they're not the reason for this article.

At this stage last season we were unbeaten and lying 5th in the league. However, the signs were already there that this was a false position, and O'Neill was at pains to keep a ceiling on the euphoria. We were just avoiding defeat rather than going for wins. We had already drawn 50% of our games - a pattern that would not cease right up to the end. We could see that against Arsenal on the opening day (which was always going to be a rearguard action) and again the negative formation at West Ham. But considering where we'd come from the previous season, this was a welcome change. At least we could now defend properly.

Back to this season. We may have already lost a game, but we're only 1 point away from last season's tally at the same stage (7pts to 8 ) but the manner in which the points have accrued has been far more encouraging, not to mention the opposition has been much more impressive and our attitude towards that opposition has been more impressive.

Where last season we used a damage-limitation 4-5-1 formation against Arsenal and West Ham, this season we have used 4-4-2 against Liverpool and Chelsea. Yes they were home games but that's not the point. Liverpool benefitted from a gross refereeing injustice and went away with all 3 points when the draw would have been fairer, but Chelsea were taken head on and beaten fair and square. No flukey 1-0. This was a 2-0 victory with a huge performance from everyone on the pitch. I think we'll be able to count on 1 hand the amount of teams who keep a clean sheet and beat Chelsea by 2 clear goals this season in the league. Yet barely a whimper from the media. The media whimper will come though. We just need to make that type of result slightly more regular, and do it from a more threatening league position.

The most encouraging thing about the games against Liverpool and Chelsea was not just the formation or the personnel used, but the belief the team seemed to have, that they could actually beat these guys and that they'd try to, rather than trying to avoid defeat. I've often got the impression in recent seasons that against the big 4, Villa are beaten before they walk out onto the pitch. Occassionally they'll avoid defeat like we strangely seem to manage against Chelsea, but more often than not it results in a 2, 3 or 4-0 thumping. This team seems to have far more steel, no doubt helped by the fact that we have a very exciting array of young fearless speed merchants in the latter half of the pitch.

Now onto the personnel.

Comparing the team that went out to face Chelsea against the team that went out against West Ham (our 4th league game) last season shows some critical differences and improvements, and in my opinion not a single thing compares unfavourably against the team of 12 months ago.


Carson | Sørensen
|
Mellberg Knight Laursen Bouma | Mellberg Laursen Ridgewell Barry
|
Agbonlahor Reo-Coker Barry Young | McCann
| Agbonlahor Petrov Davis Moore
Carew Moore |
| Angel[/code]

Going through those one by one. People were split on whether Sørensen needed to be replaced, however I think regardless of your opinions of him (I am a fan btw), I think we can agree that Carson has looked at the very least his equal and probably better in his appearances so far. Knight in for Ridgewell is, on the face of it, much of a muchness, although he has the stature and, based on his huge debut, would seem to be an improvement on what was there before, albeit as I said marginal. Bouma is a much better and more natural leftback than Barry. They both come from a background of playing as the leftsided centreback in a back 5 but firstly, Bouma has taken to the left back role better but secondly and far more importantly Barry is quite clearly far more dangerous when utilised further up the pitch. So this change allows that.

The midfield is the most improved area though. We've already discussed that Bouma at leftback allows Barry to play a more pivotal central role, but the acquisition of Ashley Young for the left wing has also had a doubley positive effect. Quite apart from getting one of the hottest prospects in English football and having him tearing up the wing all day causing no end of problems for the opposition and no end of goalscoring chances for us, it allows Moore to get up front where he belongs. Moore was never and never will be a left winger and he was the one player who looked like a fish out of water in the early parts of last season when we were on our unbeaten run. Reo-Coker has also come in and shone in the role vacated by Gavin McCann. There was a time when people (including myself) thought the team without McCann would fall apart, that the defence would be exposed and that there were no other battlers in midfield. This was before the emergence of Craig Gardner but also before the signing of Nigel Reo-Coker who has slotted into the role that we haven't (imo)properly filled since the departure of the under-rated (but not by Boro fans) George Boateng. We now have a class destroyer, born leader and part-time attacking CM in the middle who can't be far behind Barry in getting a call up to the full England squad. Gabby has had to revert to rightwing where we are still a little light but with Petrov now out of the team we have space for a 2nd striker.

Moore going up front to partner a player who I can't have imagined playing for Villa only a few years ago. John Carew, in my view, was the signing that showed other teams that we finally have something to offer. That if a player like him can come here then we must be doing something right. I'm not suggesting we now take him for granted, but he has slotted in effortlessly and does a huge amount of work up front and now the thoughts of having a player who has been there and done it for the biggest teams in the biggest leagues up front for us seems quite normal. That in itself is progress.

Don't forget also, the age of the team. The players that appear in both starting 11's, in particular Agbonlahor & Moore, are now a year older. Gabby was a total rookie learning the ropes. He now knows the ropes and is a far better player than the one that appeared against West Ham. Yes they know him too and will pay him more attention, but that works for us too - he is better at beating his man and he takes up a marking resource that he mightn't have last year.

So the quality has improved, and the positioning of the remaining players has improved.

By having a young, hungry, fearless extremely quick set of players in the Premiership you give yourself a massive chance in any game. The likes of John Terry might be able to stick the boot into a trickster or mark the cleverest of players out of a game, but there is nothing he can do against Young, Moore or Agbonlahor bearing down on him or going past him in a blur. Or even add to that the physical presence of Carew who can hold him off. We saw this on Sunday. Terry played well but ultimately we got joy against them from a corner (which they rarely concede from) thanks to our 6 foot 6 defender and with the pure pace and intelligent positioning of our 2 wide boys. These youngsters have no fear. They have clearly had it drilled into them by O'Neill that they can beat anyone, they have the weapons at their disposal to beat anyone and that if they show it on the day and go for it they WILL beat anyone. The old Villa might have gone one up against Chelsea but they sure as hell wouldn't have gone for a 2nd goal to finish it off! If you then add our defence to that fearless attack you've got a pretty good combination.

That brings me to another point about the new Villa. Our style of play. One of the very few reservations voiced when O'Neill came to Villa was that during his time at Leicester and Celtic he was known for a certain style of football. The hit and run based around a big donkey up front, some uncompromising centre backs, a reliance on set plays and not the prettiest to watch. The fear was that the game had moved on in his time away and that, just like Taylor MkII, he could be a bit of a footballing dinosaur on his return. The hope, however, was that he only resorted to this with those teams because it was a case of 'needs must'. Leicester were never going to attract the best players so you needed to hire players you knew could do a certain job. You needed to be difficult to beat as opposed to going for the win, and they did that brilliantly with some cup wins and consistent mid-table Premiership finishes. Celtic to a lesser extent was the same. He didn't have a bottomless pit of money although he was clearly on a different plateau to the one at the crisp munchers. Also, in that league where Celtic demand success, the Leicester way of playing would suffice. They wanted success, they would get it. A clogger up front with the type of player Celtic can attract elsewhere around the pitch will guarantee you at least top 2, and couple it with a rough patch for Rangers and you win the league. Having Henrik Larsson wouldn't have hurt either !

The early days at Villa with Angel as the lone man up front seemed to suggest that O'Neill hadn't forgotten what got him to where he is and it looked ostensibly like we were in for more of the same, but bearing in mind the very limited time he had had to buy anyone after taking over (only Petrov), it was still being argued by some that he was only using what was available to him at Villa and that possibly once he has had more time, we'll see the real tactics he wants to employ.

Thankfully, this season, it seems to have been proven that it WAS only 'needs must'. Because the players he has brought in at Villa and the formations and instructions being given out are clearly to attack, attack, attack. If what we've seen so far this season is anything to go by then we'll be seeing far fewer draws (well we can hardly see more). Yes he still likes the big man little man combination up front, but most managers do, to be fair.

Finally let's look at what we can hope for in the remaining games. We will get our fair share of injuries, hopefully nothing more than our fair share. Our bench for the West Ham game last season was Taylor, Baros, Whittingham, Berger, Gardner. The bench for Sunday was Taylor, Gardner, Petrov, Harewood, Maloney. In terms of the whole season we can assume it will be Sørensen on the bench making that position much stronger. Gardner is a year older and far more experienced and (imo) is unlucky not to be on the pitch (but then who do you take off?). Petrov is clearly a stronger option than Peter Whittingham ever was, and Shaun Maloney can also count himself unlucky not to be on the pitch and would be as strong as, and equally effective as, Patrik Berger (who is also available to us if the need arises). Harewood and Baros I'll let you decide. I'll just say that Baros never looked interested and rarely looked like scoring. No point having all that class if you can't be bothered to do anything with it, so in many ways I'd even see that as an improvement of sorts, but I appreciate the counter argument there too. We are still slightly light at the back with the obvious omission of a natural rightback. You'll notice that in neither bench is there a defender. Yes both Gardner and Whittingham can play in defence but it's nothing more than a stop-gap (although Gardner has impressed) so a defensive injury might cause us problems, particularly one to Olof Mellberg who is the only defender in the squad with high-class experience at right back. But at least we do have Gary Cahill and Curtis Davies to come in. Again, Davies is an option we didn't have last season, and if he can improve our already impressive defence then we'll have a hell of a backline. An injury to Agbonlahor would hit us hard. Not only would it be a clearly weakened frontline in terms of options and ability but our rightwing would probably require swapping Young from the left which wouldn't be ideal in the form he's in.

Thankfully O'Neill seems to be drawing up his January wishlist already, and allegedly going back after players he missed out on in the summer (the papers mentioning FC Porto rightback Jose Bosingwa). We'll have to wait and see of course. In the meantime provided they don't all get a bug in the same week, we seem to be in much better shape than we were at this stage last season. The doom and gloom that followed what many thought was an uninspiring transfer window seems to have completely disappeared in the euphoria (and manner) of tonking one of the big 4 (well 2-0 is a tonking in 'big 4' language). Optimism is, once again, very much the order of the day, and I can certainly confirm that moderating the forum is a damn sight easier since the win.

It remains to be seen whether we have the flair and class to match Spurs' massive squad over the course of a full season or whether we have the gritty determination and consistency to get results at the rate Everton seem to manage, but I think we are a much different prospect for every other team this season both in personnel and in approach to the game. The media may not have copped on yet, but even the England manager is starting to look at, and pick, Villa players for the full squad. Hell, one of them might even start on Saturday ! I think our result on Sunday was more keenly felt by the other teams in the Premiership than it was by the media.

Where will we finish ? I think it will be top half. Not top 4 clearly, but I think we're now most certainly in the mix along with the next tier of Spurs, Everton, Blackburn so UEFA is a definite possibility.

BOF

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A cracking analysis there BOF.

One note on the big man-small man combo; our small man is 5'11" and 12 stone. Which makes him one the leagues biggest small men!

I'd also argue that with a big man up front, attacking wingers and aerially dominant centre halves, this is MON's traditional tactic; updated and with better players but still the same principles.

You've mentioned the word fearless a few times in there, and that for me is the biggest change. This squad has a fantastic attitude, they look like they expect to win and they clearly don't give a fig for reputations. That bodes well for the future.

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A cracking analysis there BOF.

One note on the big man-small man combo; our small man is 5'11" and 12 stone. Which makes him one the leagues biggest small men!

I'd also argue that with a big man up front, attacking wingers and aerially dominant centre halves, this is MON's traditional tactic; updated and with better players but still the same principles.

You've mentioned the word fearless a few times in there, and that for me is the biggest change. This squad has a fantastic attitude, they look like they expect to win and they clearly don't give a fig for reputations. That bodes well for the future.

I think it's a similar set of attributes man for man, but the tactics, the mentality, the positivity and obviously the quality are different to what we've seen from him before.

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You've mentioned the word fearless a few times in there, and that for me is the biggest change. This squad has a fantastic attitude, they look like they expect to win and they clearly don't give a fig for reputations. That bodes well for the future.

for me OBE if we step and actually not roll over when manure come to villa park then i will believe this!

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That's brilliant BOF. Really enjoyed it.

I think what we're seeing is an "MON team" but with a massive gulf in quality compared to what he's had at his disposal before. Having played with John Robertson at Forest he's clearly wise to the thought that teams with a good left winger tend to be successful - think Barnes, Giggs et al. One of his "stars" at Leicester was Guppy who, despite not being the greatest, did get an England call. Ashley Young is a different league but it seems to be the same sort of principle. Around the pitch you can make similar comparisons - Matt Elliott/Zat Knight; Sutton/Carew; Lennon/Reo-Coker.

MON has a history of making average players into good ones. Let's see what he can make of this set of good players he has already at his disposal...

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Liverpool was a massive disappoint. MON's tactics were poor in that game - playing Stan had a number of impacts

- left us short on the RHS

- confused NRC and Barry

- left us short up front as Gabby was coming out right to cover and also trying to play of JC

In addition, JC and Laursen had been sick and should never have played.

I would love another crack at 'Pool at home 'cos I don't think they are as good as Chelski, even with Stevie G playing.

But since the change to a proper 4-4-2 in the 2nd half against Fulham we haven't looked back and I hope MON has the balls to keep playing this. A solid back 4 (two defensive full backs) gives the wingers a bit more freedom and NRC. Flying wingers means that we can get 4 forwards onto the oppositions back 4 and this creates space for everybody - Ash can get 1 on 1 with RB, Gabby can steam in against an isolated LB and Like gets space to play of JC.

What else would I like? A few chances for Shaun in the right games and to see a bit of Marlon, agian in the right games. A RB in the New Year and probably a decent midfielder to join.

Overall very optimistic as BOF says. You might even say that the future is bright.

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General Krulak here:

BOF: An extremely well written and cogent discussion of where we have been, where we are and, to a degree, where we might be headed. I enjoyed it because I believe you hit the nail on the head on almost all points. Several fans have already hit on the area that fires me up...the Squad looks and acts like they "believe." They play their hearts out and are always supporting each other. They are a team...and act like a team. None of this means that we won't have some tough times BUT, I think these lads are mentally and physically stud-bolts and will come through when the going gets tough.

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  • VT Supporter

Right now my power ratings (based largely on strength of schedule and strength of victory) for the league are:

Arsenal

Liverpool

Blackburn

Newcastle

Villa

Man City

Everton

WHam

Chelsea

Wigan

Boro

Man Utd

Portsmouth

Fulham

Reading

Spurs

Bolton

sha

Sunderland

Derby

Given the small sample, Liverpool and Newcastle are somewhat boosted by their results against us.

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The biggest change for me has been the fact that any time we took the lead we never looked like keeping it.... and when we went behind it was game over to all intents and purposes. This season that ,thankfully is changing.

We started slowly against Liverpool but came back strongly and arguably deserved a point,beaten only by an out of this world Gerard special, if a free kick is given,arguing about it afterwards is pointless.

Against Chelsea we were magnificent, it was like the late 70's all over again, and to compare what MON is doing to what RON aschievedis praise indeed.

Keep it up Villa, I for one am behind you

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  • VT Supporter

Bof.... Great round up and one that i agree whole heartedly with.

The boys seem to enjoy playing with each other( in footballing terms) and Martin has to be credited with his blending abilities.

I do, most definately, see Zat Knight as an improvement to Liam Ridgewell, albeit I appreciate the hard work that Liam Put in during his stay with us and I hope the villa fans can show that appreciation when he comes back to Villa park.

Belief and confidence is returning to a large number of our players and that is great to see.

One or two of our players seem to be struggling for form..... I would like to think with so much good happening around the place that we (fans) could find it in our hearts to help lift these players.....Just remember the players we are cheering are mates with the ones we are jeering..... none of us would like to see our mates slagged off so lets cut it out boys.

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