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Where did it all go wrong and why?


John
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During the late Seventies, a room-service waiter entered George Best's bedroom with breakfast. George was in bed with a well-known beauty queen, toting a bottle of champagne, and the waiter noticed lots of cash strewn around, spoils of a night's gambling. The waiter asked: "George, where did it all go wrong?" I think a lot of us have been pondering the same question with regards to our football club as well as wondering why.

Cast your minds back to mid February. At that point we had played 39 league and cup matches. We had accumulated 51 league points. We were about to face Everton in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup and CSKA Moscow over 2 legs for a place in the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup. Within a fortnight we had crashed out of both cup competitions and we have since added only 2 league points from a possible 21. Why?

As far as the FA Cup is concerned the draw had been unkind to us (not for the first time). We faced Everton at their ground for a place in the quarter finals and although we approached the game with more than a little confidence this was always likely to be a tough game for both sides and defeat was therefore always a distinct possibility for either club. So, it proved for us.

We then faced CSKA at Villa Park. This again was never going to be easy and our prospects of further progression in Europe would have been brighter had we been able to add to the maximum six points we had gathered from the first two group matches against Ajax and Slavia Prague. But in losing our last two group games when fielding below strength teams we ended up facing a team who had won their group by winning all 4 of their group games. This was because Martin had chosen to prioritise the league games that followed the mid-week defeats against MSK Zilna and SV Hamburg. This decision was vindicated by league wins at Everton and then at West Ham but it made continuing our European campaign more difficult. Had he not made that decision we might have progressed in Europe but would we have been able to win both of those league games just days afterwards?

That home draw against CSKA left us facing a long arduous journey to Moscow for the second leg which was to be sandwiched between home league games against Chelsea and Stoke. Had it not been for the late two goal comeback by Stoke that decision could also have looked the right one with hindsight albeit not one that all of us may have wanted to seen made. Martin chose to leave the majority of our normal starting line up behind and our European exit was therefore I would suggest then an inevitable one. Had he played the first team in Moscow the result may have still been the same and I think most of us back then would have seen our chances of finishing in the top 4 as being more likely than winning the UEFA Cup. So if it was necessary to prioritise one competition above the other then with the chances of Champions League qualification seemingly the more likely to be rewarded and the more glittering potential prize then surely that was the target to take aim for?

Would we have won in Moscow had we played our best available team? Maybe we would have but there was no guarantee as the away goal CSKA took from Villa Park had left us with a mountain to climb against quality opponents. But, in selecting the team he did he prioritised a top 4 finish and all but surrendered the European place we had done so much to secure. That was his decision to make and it is one that a lot agreed with back then but it was never certain to achieve the top 4 placing that the decision had been made to protect. The fact that we imploded so soon and that fans paid a lot of good money to see a battling shadow team crash out in Moscow placed pressure on Martin for the first time during his stay at our football club. Was he wrong to make that decision? I don’t think anyone would be asking the question if we were still 6 points clear of Arsenal.

So, why did it all go pear shaped and why was our squad unable to maintain their level of performance up until the end of the season? Some will point to our lack of transfer activity in January and that certainly did not help. But, with transfer funds not unlimited would it have been the right thing in January to bulk up the squad with numbers rather than to wait until the right player who could add quality to the squad in the long term became available? We need to weigh the signings of players such as Ashley Young and James Milner against quick-fix signings who may do a passable job short term but who would then need to be replaced in the long run. Martin made that decision and came down on the side of quality. That decision left him bringing in only Emile Heskey to offer the cover and competition for John Carew that Marlon Harewood had been unable to provide this season. It also left us with a wafer thin squad that Martin would need to keep trying to protect. Would we really have wanted to bring in signings of the sort that were no better than those we already had on our books when doing so might impact on our ability to pay the money we need for the right players when they become available in the next transfer window?

Thinking of Big John we also were hit by his absence through injury and this put pressure on Gabby to perform in the role of a lone striker which he did effectively for a lengthy period. The lengthy injury to our club captain also dealt and continues to deal a body blow to our hopes as he is the rock on which our defence is built and his absence has placed a lot of pressure on both Curtis Davies and Zat Knight to perform day in and day out. Our first choice starting eleven is a match for most teams but injury and suspension is something we find harder to manage with than do the current top 4 teams. For us to face these problems was unlucky but it was not unpredictable.

There is also the weight that effectively placing all our eggs in one basket placed on our players. They had been carrying all before them when fighting on three fronts. But, the two exits from both cup competitions and Martin’s implicit acceptance that we were in the race for a top 4 spot which he had been reluctant to say previously did stoke up the pressure on our team. It could be said that this pressure ultimately proved too much as Arsenal clicked into gear, narrowed the gap and produced a lengthy run of good results at a time when we had gone on a dismal run and were easily passed to prove Wenger’s annoying prediction true.

We have given a passable impression of a marathon runner who has hit the wall a few miles from the finish of his race since mid February. The feeling of invincibility we had built up has ebbed away with each defeat. This has affected the confidence of our own players and has made opponents see a game against us as something other than the mission impossible it had appeared earlier.

Martin nursed his squad through the season from mid July to mid February by fielding weakened teams whenever he had been able. On occasions he was able to do so without undue detriment to our progress on the field. But, on other occasions his gambles did not pay off such as when we exited from the Carling Cup at home to QPR and were defeated in our last two UEFA Cup group games leaving us facing in CSKA a team like Everton that we had started a cup tie no better than even money to progress from.

But, why could we not play our strongest team more often? Think back to the teams of the 60s & 70s who played 50, 60 or more games in a season on surfaces such as the bog like Baseball Ground without compromising on the quality of their output. Think of our championship winning side in 1980-81 who won the league using only 14 players before the days of squad rotation, did they look tired in the run-in? Think of the likes of the top 4 of today who although they do rotate their squad to some extent will have players who will play as many games this season as will our own but with less devastating results. Why can the likes of Gabby not produce the same level of performance in March as they did earlier in the season? Or is this something that comes with experience and being tested in this way in the past?

During this week’s Sky Sports “Time of our lives” programme Frank McLintock addressed the issue of why players now appear to have difficulty in maintaining their level of performance through a season. He used as an example his own 76 games in Arsenal’s double winning 1970 – 71 season, which were followed by 3 internationals after the FA Cup Final. The double winning skipper said, “Now I sometimes wonder why; I know the games supposed to be a bit faster but the pitches are perfect now but we did that with only 16 players and so did Liverpool and Leeds United before us we played with 13 & 16 players and now players play about 35 games and they say they are tired and I can’t quite get my head around that yet you know”.

George Graham responded, “But, I think that Frank that we were very, very, strong mentally and that was it I mean nowadays when I see some of the young players, you know let’s say some of the Villa young really talented, I don’t think its anything to do with the physical condition, I think mentally they’re not up for it, just how its actually drained them because physically now the players are really fit Jeff, really fit nowadays, we were mentally strong so we just went out there and played our normal game”.

Is George Graham right? Were our players not mentally up for it? Does this apply to us in isolation or to other clubs and players as well? How many games can a professional footballer now be expected to play in a season whilst still performing at his optimum level and why if it is that less than players such as Frank McLintock were able to manage 38 years ago is that so? Is this something that Martin can teach our young players so that they can become strong mentally, up for it and go out there and play there normal game throughout a season?

It is also worth mentioning that this is not the first time that our football club has fallen away at the business end of the season. Back in 1989-90 we finished runners-up having lost 4 of our 7 league games between 24/2/90 and 1/4/90 and in 1992-93 we lost our last 3 games of the season when finishing second and 10 points behind Manchester United. Of course other teams have also faded at the end of a season; Ipswich for example won only 2 of their last 6 games in 1981 and we all remember Newcastle’s 12 point lead at the top evaporating 13 years ago.

There are clearly more questions than answers at the moment. The first is whether we may yet produce a strong finish to the season by winning our last six league games and threatening Arsenal’s Champions League place. The second is will we keep the likes of Barry & Petrov at our football club in the event of a fifth or worse league placing this season? The third is whether Martin will be able to add the quality and numbers he will need in the next season so that we can maintain a challenge on one or more fronts throughout next season by being able to rest players without compromising results?

But, for me there is no question concerning whether or not we are making progress and have the right manager and owner in place. In Randy & Martin I still trust 110%. Rome was not built in a day and the faults that Martin & Randy inherited were never all going to be put right by the end of this season. Our expectations have been raised and perhaps they are a little to high just now. The team may have been performing above themselves and having been brought back down to earth they will come good again sooner or later. But one thing that is certain is that this football club has a proud past and a bright future. A few bad results can’t change that!

Up the Villa!

John Lewis

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Cast your minds back to mid February. At that point we had played 39 league and cup matches.

Therein lies the answer, IMO John.

We were knackered. We lacked the freshness of others, and the squad was not big enough to cope.

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You raise some very interesting points, particularly the weakened teams in the last 2 UEFA group games and the league victories that followed. Surely this must have been at the back of Martin;s mind when he, quite reluctantly IMO, made the call for Moscow? Either way I don't think anyone really thought back in August that we were really ready to compete on numerous fronts and this has proved to be the case.

I think the problem we had that started the slump was mental in so far as we lost the momentum we had built up and have never recovered it. Moscow twice, Everton away and Chelsea is a very tough run of games and was a season defining period for us. We then followed this with the Stoke game and that must also have been a huge mental blow in the dressing room and the rest is history. It should also be noted that the sequence of games we have played since then hasn't been as easy as some would suggest with Man City having an impressive home record, Spurs were starting to play a bit under 'arry and of course being away to Liverpool & Man Utd. But we could quite easily have picked up some points from these had we been if better form/frame of mind then the preceeding games had left us.

We are always going to hit a patch of tough games one after the other in any season, so this shouldn't be used as an excuse. However, I do think our inability to get over this does show where the faults lie, which to me is a lack of mental toughness, a lack of strength in depth and maybe we're simply not quite as good as we looked up until February. Points one or two are linked by the fact that we were missing Laursen during this period and he would have lead by example in the meantal toughness side of things.

Looking forward, I think that this could prove to be a key period for us in our longterm re-building plan as it's the first real set back, if you can call being 5th a set back! Lessons need to be learned by the players and our manager, who will also have learned a great deal about eachother over the last 6 weeks. I'm confident that this will be the case and we'll be better prepared next season, both in depth and that mental toughness that does seem to have cost us this term!

Still haven't given up on 4th though :D

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An excellent article John. I do think that people underestimate the mental/psychological aspects of the game of football. Physical fitness is relatively straightforward to attain and maintain but the mental strength and stamina needed for the long-haul is a completely different matter. Because it’s harder to visualise or grasp I think we often overlook that.

Interesting to see the thoughts of footballers from the 70s. They may indeed have been tougher, physically and potentially mentally but I also wonder if there were less inherent pressure upon them without the 24 hour media-driven circus which surrounds today’s modern game.

I wonder if Villa employ Sports Psychologists? I know they’ve been used my many top-flight sports stars in the world of tennis and snooker etc. I wonder how long before we see this in mainstream football? Or maybe we’re there already?

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We signed Heskey - I beleive he is a libility to the team - hence the glut of goals since he has not been in the first team. Come up with all sorts of clever theries if you like - but I reckon we would have more points on the board had we not signed Heskey.

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We signed Heskey - I beleive he is a libility to the team - hence the glut of goals since he has not been in the first team. Come up with all sorts of clever theries if you like - but I reckon we would have more points on the board had we not signed Heskey.

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Hippo, I think Martin signed Heskey because he had no acceptable cover for Big John and was worried that Gabby may burn himself out if he was asked to continue playing as the lone striker. He was available, he knew what to expect from him and in my opinion although that does not include a glut of goals (although his one at Portsmouth came in handy) it does include acting as a target man who can hold the ball up and present an ariel threat.

Drew'sMilitia, I think we had a sports psychologist in the days of GT or was it DOL? I'm not sure if we have one in place now but it may be worth looking at.

Jon, I agree we were knackered and that the squad lacked depth.

Johnny M, those were a tough bunch of games and I'm sure Martin would have liked to try to take CSKA on with a full strength side had he thought it would not further hamper our top 4 hopes. I also haven't quite given up on 4th either.

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Well I think this "they did it in the 70's" is a bit overated. Most teams in the 70's challenging for everything through a season ran out of steam too - it was rare for a team to be successful on all fronts.

Also, maybe any individual team of players could do it with, say 16 man, but not if the teams you are challenging are using 24 !!

That is why fatigue IS relevant, the mental rest afforded to other teams players has not been available to ours. Things like Man U sending Ronaldo home on holiday every Christmas as he was developing.

But i think the single biggest factor is simple, and it disturbs me, as an unashamed 100% MON fan, I love the bloke and wouldn't ever want him gone, but it was the switch from 4-5-1, just as it was in his first season.

No other team that I can think of plays 4-4-2 where two of the midfield are wingers. Chelsea succeded but that was 4-5-1 (4-3-3) under Murinho. The gaping holes in our midfield have simply place far too much onus on defence and attack meaning neither has had room for an off day. Look at our results when Sidwell played (although like many I couldn't easily discern his contribution) or when NRC played in midfield.

4-4-2 works fine but not with 2 wingers. And it hasn't mattered greatly whether it's been Carew or Heskey, the results have been far better with just Gabby.

I'd like to think it wasn't tactics, but to me the statistics (and the performances) bear it out. Just watch the first 20 minutes against Everton again. The space they had compared to the problem we had against their holding player.

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Excellent post John. Square pegs in round holes leads to not having enough in-depth quality? Signing players and then not having the faith to play them in their correct positions? Style of play and the correct system used against the right opposition?

Quickly identifying problematic positions and buying the correct players to fill those positions and not afraid to pay the going rate for those players, allah, Rednapp?

Identifying players when they are spent (Gabby) and NOT purchasing an able replacement, when you have a transfer window, to do so?

Arsenal faltering, unexpected CL place up for grabs and not acting quickly enough on the above aforementioned problems to give the club every chance of realising the dream before the 'five year plan' is finished?

We still have a limited chance of securing that elusive CL place, but at this late stage, will we revert from the too open 4-4-2, to the 4-5-1 system?

Only one person can answer my questions?

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That was a really good, thoughtful piece. Thanks for taking the time to produce it.

A couple of comments on some of the questions you pose.

"So if it was necessary to prioritise one competition above the other then with the chances of Champions League qualification seemingly the more likely to be rewarded and the more glittering potential prize then surely that was the target to take aim for?" Yes it was, and if we have, as seems likely, lost the CL place, that doesn't make the decision wrong.

"...would it have been the right thing in January to bulk up the squad with numbers rather than to wait until the right player who could add quality to the squad in the long term became available?" This is the long-term vs short-term issue. Those who say we should have strengthened more in January are right, of course, but if the players weren't available who MON saw as the right players long-term, should we just have bought whoever we could? I would say no. If that means buying people who don't fit the team ethic, they might add to the squad strength on paper, but detract from it in practice. Robinho, for example.

"Is George Graham right? Were our players not mentally up for it? Does this apply to us in isolation or to other clubs and players as well?" No, he's not. It's a self-serving, self-congratulatory answer. The game was dirtier then, and pitch conditions were far worse. Training methods were more basic, dietary techniques unheard of. And yet the game was played with one substitute only, and with players who smoked. This is not mental toughness, George, it's an entirely different scenario. Harder challenges, but far slower pace, far less demanding levels of fitness, nothing like the media attention (imagine George Best under the media spotlight lijke Beckham, or, for different reasons, Tommy Smith's fouling getting televised like Fellaini's). You just had it a lot easier, George.

"Our expectations have been raised and perhaps they are a little to high just now." Yes, I agree. It's great that we have higher expectations, and I welcome it. It's just that if we don't immediately live up to the vaulting expectations we are developing, maybe the answer is to reflect on the overall direction of travel, rather than complain that we haven't arrived quite as quickly as we would like.

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terrytini, I agree a midfield 5 seemed to suit us better at the time although that was forced on us by Big John's absence rather than by Martin's choice.

Sting, you have some very valid points to add to my own suggestions for our we trust temporary failings and I think we both may know the answer to your last question.

Peterms, yes the decision was not the wrong one just because it did not work but the worst case scenario did open Martin up to critics. I'm not quite so sold on the point that players had it that much easier in the past though and I think George Best's media attention was more than a match for what Becks had as I recall it, but I think that Becks may just have dealt with it better.

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I believe it all went wrong when we coughed up two goals to Stoke at the end of the game.

That result took the air right out of our sails, and we've looked a completely different side since, with the exceptions being the Man U and Everton games, which can't even be considered successes!

It all points to Stoke for me. It was a devastating result.

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I'm not quite so sold on the point that players had it that much easier in the past though and I think George Best's media attention was more than a match for what Becks had as I recall it, but I think that Becks may just have dealt with it better.

What I'm trying to say is that if someone at that level of the game was living that sort of lifestyle now, the coverage would be much greater. Yes, Best had a lot of media attention, but people get similar levels of attention now for far less interesting lifestyles. More column inches to fill, more tv stations, more radio sports programmes...never mind the internet.

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That was a really good, thoughtful piece. Thanks for taking the time to produce it.

A couple of comments on some of the questions you pose.

"So if it was necessary to prioritise one competition above the other then with the chances of Champions League qualification seemingly the more likely to be rewarded and the more glittering potential prize then surely that was the target to take aim for?" Yes it was, and if we have, as seems likely, lost the CL place, that doesn't make the decision wrong.

"...would it have been the right thing in January to bulk up the squad with numbers rather than to wait until the right player who could add quality to the squad in the long term became available?" This is the long-term vs short-term issue. Those who say we should have strengthened more in January are right, of course, but if the players weren't available who MON saw as the right players long-term, should we just have bought whoever we could? I would say no. If that means buying people who don't fit the team ethic, they might add to the squad strength on paper, but detract from it in practice. Robinho, for example.

"Is George Graham right? Were our players not mentally up for it? Does this apply to us in isolation or to other clubs and players as well?" No, he's not. It's a self-serving, self-congratulatory answer. The game was dirtier then, and pitch conditions were far worse. Training methods were more basic, dietary techniques unheard of. And yet the game was played with one substitute only, and with players who smoked. This is not mental toughness, George, it's an entirely different scenario. Harder challenges, but far slower pace, far less demanding levels of fitness, nothing like the media attention (imagine George Best under the media spotlight lijke Beckham, or, for different reasons, Tommy Smith's fouling getting televised like Fellaini's). You just had it a lot easier, George.

"Our expectations have been raised and perhaps they are a little to high just now." Yes, I agree. It's great that we have higher expectations, and I welcome it. It's just that if we don't immediately live up to the vaulting expectations we are developing, maybe the answer is to reflect on the overall direction of travel, rather than complain that we haven't arrived quite as quickly as we would like.

apologies for the dull reposene here Peter, but i can't argue with a word of that. Not one word.

All 100% spot on from my perspective.

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Yes, that Stoke comeback took the wind out of our sails big time maqroll and stopped us having an 8 point cushion on Arsenal.

Pete, I see your point on the amount of media time now available and I'm sure George would have kept the press and everyone else busy had he still been playing and so taken the limelight off the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and the rest.

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apologies for the dull reposene here Peter, but i can't argue with a word of that. Not one word.

All 100% spot on from my perspective.

And mine. Saved an awful lot of typing, and it's a good thread.
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Where/Why did it all go wrong?

As much as I liked your article although some of it was highly speculative along the lines of 'they don't make em like they use to' yet entertaining comes down to one moment and one player.

Martin 'the King' Laursen:

Not only is he our Captain, our Best Player, the Heart and Soul of the Team, Our Best Defensive Player(he wins everything in the air, everything) but he is also behind Big John and Gabby our most reliable Second Scoring Threat from Set Pieces, how many games has he won, tied or nearly won or tied in the dying moments of matches.

A sensational player and leader, irreplaceable.

I love MON, he's the best manager we've had in years and up until now his constant Positive outlook has been refreshing after bleak DOL but when is he going to stand up and acknowledge that while yes,yes,yes we are 'terrific,beautiful,wonderful,magnificent' going forward we have been absolutely dreadful at the back for a couple of months now especially last night against West Ham who played basically a reserve/youth team don't forget and still managed a point.

This turn in defensive proficiency is of course linked directly to the loss of Laursen and unless Cuellar gets a hell of a lot better next season or Davies can produce his best form much,much more consistently then we are in a lot of trouble next season if Laursen's career is over/on hold.

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  • 1 month later...

its not rocket science,in a nutshell we did not have a large enough squad to cope with a 50 game season and the squad we had included too many mediocre players.Add to that the poor show in the transfer windows and the inevitable injuries we incurred i dont think the outcome was a surprise to any logical thinking villain.i totally blame oneil and randy.We will never get a better chance for champ league football and the way we capitulated was disgraceful.in my opinion the way forward is to clear out the poor players,drop this crazy english player policy and sign at least 10 quality names including cover in all the main positions and the final insult was to lose out to everton for 5th place...feel free to rip my views apart but can i just add i have been a villa fanatic since the age of 11 when i watched a villa team beat the great manchester united at villa park in the league cup semi final in 1971,i fell in love with the whole villa experience that day and that is why i am so angry to see an american running the club as a profit making excercise for him...after all what have his american football team ever achieved...absolutely nothing...so be warned

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