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2009/10 season review part 1


BOF
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A gripping and eventful season comes to an end and over the next week or so the site moderators will be reflecting on how each of us feels about it all.

First up is BOF with a recap and his thoughts on what happened, plus some hopes for next season.

At the end of the 08/09 season I had mixed feelings. I had just seen us legitimately flirt with the top 4 for the first time since there was such a thing as a 'Sky 4'. What we saw was a team long on quality and short on quantity. Before we had capitulated, we were 3rd; even 2nd for a game; and the rest is history. But I had seen a glimpse of what might be achieved. Expectations were suitably raised and it made the glass ceiling of 5th look a lot more penetrable than I had previously thought it was.

For me we just needed the same type of player, just more of them. I also didn't subscribe to the view that the season was somehow a 'waste' because we hadn't achieved Champions League football. I firmly believed (and still do) that the experience of being in the top 4, being under that pressure and having that expectancy on us would pay off for the players. It would build character and it would stand them in good stead if and when they were ever in that position again. Which they would hopefully be in 09/10.

The biggest news of the summer was depressingly inevitable. It was very sad to have to say goodbye to a Villa Park favourite. I'm talking of course about the retirement of Martin Laursen. The stalwart had to hang up his one remaining knee because he simply couldn't keep going. The Dane was available all too rarely in his Villa career, but he was a giant at the back (and up front) when he was fit. Genuinely world class. I suppose if he had 2 good knees he would never have left AC Milan in the first place. In other news, summer finally saw the inevitable sale of Gareth Barry to big spenders Man Citeh. The good news was that it happened as soon as the window opened so we were spared a 'saga'. We had the money from the sale and we could move on with our lives.

Those 2 losses meant holes needed filling in both defence and midfield though. The team that had been 4th for long periods of the 08/09 season had now lost arguably it's two most influential players before the window had really begun in earnest. In other moves, Bob Wilson favourite, Stuart Taylor, joined Barry @ Citeh on the same day for considerably fewer column inches and pounds. The only other sale in the summer was Zat Knight's departure to Bolton. So apart from the unavoidable retirement of Laursen and the sale of the one who was always leaving, no other crown jewels had left the club.

Of those who came in, the injured Stewart Downing from Middlesbrough was first for £12m. He wouldn't play until November but I felt he was exactly the kind of intelligent, creative player who could replace Barry in the centre even if he had up to this point in his career been a left winger for Boro. We signed the excellent if untried Fabian Delph from League One Leeds Utd and we then proceeded to buy an entirely new backline. First came the rather ropey Habib Beye from the defensively awful Newcastle (Spurs signed the one gem in that defence - Bassong). And after the season started, we signed the excellent Stephen Warnock from Blackburn and then on the last day (though the deals were started long before that) we brought in the seemingly disappointed (but not disappointing) Richard Dunne and the vastly under-estimated James Collins from West Ham. In one transfer window we had completely rebuilt and, as it turned out, significantly strengthened our defence.

The one area that went worryingly untouched was the strike force and that in my opinion was a big, possibly terminal, mistake. We had Carew & Agbonlahor coming off their best ever scoring seasons for Villa. Apart from those 2 we had Emile Heskey who, with the best will in the world, you can never rely on to score goals and we had the promising but unproven Nathan Delfouneso. Again, a player it would be unfair to have to rely on for regular first team goals. So for me, we had 2 first team strikers, one of which (Carew) had questionable fitness, we had a promising youngster and we had a goal-shy backup. All fine if the front 2 stay fit, but surely you can't assume that they will - and as it turned out they didn't...

Apart from a "what the hell happened there?" 2-0 opening day defeat at home to Wigan, Villa got off to a good start. We won four of our first five league games and had gone to Anfield and beaten them 3-1. My fears (that I kept to myself) that we would actually really suffer without the calming influence of Gareth Barry in the centre were now thankfully gone. This new team was scoring goals and keeping clean sheets. Warnock, Collins & Dunne were not even signed by the time we'd beaten Liverpool.

An early exit from Europe at the hands of Rapid Vienna, while disappointing, didn't really bother me. After the Champions League chase of last season, that had to be the main priority this season and a ridiculous amount of Europa League matches (in fact ANY cup matches) would only get in the way. We still had a squad on the small size if a club was to try and compete on 4 fronts. In my view, the fewer 'fronts' the better.

December was amazing until 2 Christmas defeats to Arsenal & Liverpool took the shine off it. Downing coming into the side late in November had pushed Milner into the centre in order to accommodate Young on the right. Milner was to become one of the revelations of the season not only for Villa but for England and the entire Premier League. Where had this mysterious central midfielder been hiding all these years? I think MON lucked into it but sometimes fortuitous things like that will happen and you just run with it.

As for the 'fewer fronts the better' thing? It didn't really work out like that. Two tremendous cup runs off the back of some very favourable cup draws meant that we got all the way to Wembley in both of them. The final of the League Cup was a debacle that Martin O'Neill was still talking about a month (and counting...) afterwards. A shambles of a refereeing performance widely criticised by anyone and everyone who saw the match meant Villa were very hard done by. An 11-man United side, that should have been 10 men early on, ended up winning a tight contest after the ref bottled sending Vidic off. A 2nd trip to Wembley for the semi-final of the FA Cup saw another shambles as Villa were knocked out (almost literally) by Chelsea. The literal part being more pathetic weak refereeing that saw John Terry avoid a definite red card for a disgraceful assault on James Milner. So we learned in no uncertain terms (if we didn't know already) that when you play a Sky 4 side you will get nothing from referees and the opposition will get basically everything. Some might say that this sounds slightly bitter and that 'sh*t happens'. I'm sorry but I'll just point out that we can only comment on what we saw. Played 2 - Robbed 2. As Rafa would say, "these are the 'factshh'".

Meanwhile back in the league, there was a battle growing for 4th place. Could we see off the threat of a gifted but fragile Citeh, a Liverpool in disarray and a Spurs side who were badly missing Aaron Lennon? I was hopeful because our run-in was easier than theirs. We would look out of it for a while - and we did; we were 7th for a period - but the fixtures would come to us. Unfortunately while March was better than usual and we were almost unbeaten that month, it also, in hindsight, put the nail in our Champions League coffin. Consecutive home draws with Wolves & Sunderland were followed by March's sole defeat; a 7-1 thrashing at Stamford Bridge. Despite the 5 game unbeaten run that followed, the dropped home points were to be our undoing. To our credit, we went into round 37 still with a decent chance of getting 4th IF we could win a tricky away tie at Eastlands. That would have meant a final league game potentially only worrying about Spurs. But a 3-1 defeat meant we would once again have to be content to ply our trade in the Europa League next season.

I think those who would say "I told you so" to missing out on 4th would probably admit that they didn't expect us to go into May still in with a shout for it. I would also suggest that those who thought our season would fade were proved wrong. You don't 'fade' in game 37. You fade in March as we did last season. We picked up 13pts from 15 before going to Eastlands on the first of May so in that sense the claim rings slightly hollow to me. It's not a capitulation to miss out on 4th because you lose away to a main rival in the penultimate game of the season. Sometimes a loss is just a loss.

I have had some very good chats with some VillaTalkers about whether Martin O'Neill's approach towards team selection is the right one. The question of rotation comes up time and time again. My attitude towards it is this. Last season we picked the same team for as much of the season as was possible. Results showed that when the team was not tired it was able to be a top 4 side. Only when the side got tired in the latter stages of the season did it struggle. So surely if you were to augment that squad with more of the same standard of player, you should in theory be able to go further into the season with the same approach to team selection and stay in 4th for longer - hopefully you could go ALL the way into the season and remain 4th. I think that's the logic Martin applied. I think his approach this season was a sound one given the evidence of last season and given that we were still in with a shout in week 37.

Now don't get me wrong, I acknowledge that ostensibly it has failed again. After all, we did not finish 4th. But on the other hand it was very marginal and we also can not ignore the massive changing of the goalposts that Man Citeh provided. You can't legislate for a team using football's equivalent of a 'cheat mode'. Spurs were also always likely to be a much improved side from the one that stumbled through the 08/09 campaign. They were too talented to do otherwise. So given that a team does not have a divine right to be 4th (even Liverpool) and given that Man Citeh cherry-picked every rival star they could get their hands on, I would be reluctant to say that missing out on CL this season is something we can overly criticise O'Neill for. In fact I think league position is irrelevant in this particular scenario. It is your proximity to 4th that is important. Think about it. Hypothetically, would you rather be 3pts from 4th in 7th place or be 10pts from 4th in 5th or 6th? Given that both provide Europa League football, I would rather be 3pts off in 7th because you are that much closer to cracking it.

We were 10pts off CL in 6th last season and this season we were only 6pts off - and that includes a pretty unmotivated final day home defeat. That is progress.

Now the discussion about what we should do with team selection for next season is an interesting one.

Do we give Martin's 'strongest side as often as possible' method a 3rd go? Given that it was that much closer to working this season? Or do we try and perhaps change the odd player here and there both to a) keep the substitute fresh and B) give the first teamer a breather that might benefit him later in the season? It's hard to say. Ideally you would like option 'B' but very few teams actually do that outside the top 4.

I think we can't even begin to answer until we see what happens in the summer transfer window. It is my personal opinion that I think someone 'big' will be leaving. I also think all the articles about having a limited transfer budget probably have an element of truth to them. Our higher profile players have now been here for 2 failed CL-chasing seasons and it is not implausible that they may have their heads turned by a team who are already there. Put those things together and I think we will cash in on someone in order to have a useful budget in the summer. If the right 'crown jewel' is sold for the right money and it is re-invested properly, then it would benefit us in the long run I'm sure of it. How the world cup will affect the window is anyone's guess.

In addition to the above I would obviously ideally like to see Martin putting more (putting any?) faith in the younger players. Delfouneso has been knocking around the senior side for 2 seasons now and has been starting to get more game time recently. This bodes very well for next season. I think Nathan is clearly ready at this point. He certainly has not looked out of place when facing the likes of Chelsea and he is now too good for the reserve level. Albrighton is another whose time will have come next season in my view. He practically won the Peace Cup on his own in the summer as an outfield player (Guzan notwithstanding) and as the best crosser at the club and someone with superb technique he will surely have to get more minutes on the pitch. Along with Ciaran Clark who has the unfortunate position of being behind several very good centrebacks, this group of 3 are the stand-out class amongst the current reserves and it is my view that they are fully ready to become regular players in the first team.

So to sum up with an analogy, I would compare this season to the 2nd film of a trilogy. The 1st film (08/09) was the real beginning of the journey; and all the more enjoyable because of it (the previous seasons were merely getting us to the standard to compete). This latest season kind of carried on where we left off in 08/09 but didn't quite have a satisfying ending. The hope now is that it will lead into next season which will be the final and successful conclusion to the journey. I just hope Martin can instill this into the players; not to lose hope that Villa can make the Champions League and that they don't need to go elsewhere to satisfy their ambition. We are getting there. We have got closer than ever this season even in the face of improved rivals and a new threat from Manchester. We just need to convince the better players at the club to give it one more big shot next season and hopefully convince them (and make it easier on them...) with our actions in the summer transfer window.

Have faith people. It won't always be smiles, but as I said, we are getting there

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Well written and well thought-out.

I suspect we are in for a summer of incremental change. This may actually help matters, provided MON starts to use the academy graduates as you suggested. That said, I really can't see us breaking into the CL without another quality forward as good, or better than, Gabby/Big John.

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Totally agree Grunthos. I think our defence and our midfield is a match for anyone barring maybe Chelsea. It's our strikeforce that for me lets us down. Moreso on consistency and reliability (injury-wise) than on ability though I think the ability could do with an upgrade too. I think those calling for Martin's head are grossly under-estimating the benefits of continuity though. We'll be there again next season. Will Spurs be? With their potential CL commitments? Not so sure. Will Liverpool be ? We can't know given the mess they're in. So in that sense I think we're already probably favourites for 5th.

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Well written BOF, I think you are right in suggesting that things are gradually improving, and you can't really argue with the stats.

I personally think the reliance on the same 11 week in week out can be a good thing, although MON has seemed to rely on a system that has seen us rarely play 'good' or entertaining football this season, and it has been surprising that often our better results and performances have occurred when the likes of NRC have provided energy in the centre, and as you say the youngsters like Delph, Fonz have added flair. Or as with the solid start to the season, we use a system that benefits our attacking insticts ie 433.

The favoritism is acutely irritating and it sometimes seems to me that MON is prepared to sacrifice a result, due to the belief that his methods are correct.

He deserves to manage next season no doubt, by the stats and points improvement alone, but it will be a make or break season for O'Neill. To get to the next level I think we will need to spend roughly 30m on a top class striker, and a top class combative midfielder if he refuses to use NRC. Either that or MON will have to leave behind his 1970s mentality and use systems, substitutions and team selections that best suit our current personnel. Frustrations will continue to grow otherwise, particularly if Citeh and Spuds continue to improve and we stagnate due to archaic management style.

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The favoritism is acutely irritating and it sometimes seems to me that MON is prepared to sacrifice a result, due to the belief that his methods are correct.

I agree that this is very annoying and I feel that it can also be of a detriment to the 'squad' as they possibly will get the feeling that it does not matter what they do they will never break through which surely cannot be a good thing

He deserves to manage next season no doubt, by the stats and points improvement alone, but it will be a make or break season for O'Neill.

Do not agree though with this as his improvement year on year gives much more than a "make or break next season" and for years now I have been crying out for managerial stability I would be gutted to see this be thrown out of the window if next season is a slight drop on this/previous seasons.

Apart from this I agree with the majority of BOF's post.

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