Friday, December 9, 2011

So where exactly are Aston Villa? Bolton v. Aston Villa, 10 December 2011

Before we get into a very long post, know that Capital Villans will be catching the match on tape delay at the Queen Vic on 12th and H NE, at 5:00 p.m. EST.  We do hope to see you there!

With a frantic festive period coming up for Villa, and rumblings of massive protests of the current gaffer's regime to occur at next week's home match against Liverpool, I felt it might be a good time to dust off our post from June regarding Alex McLeish's appointment, and what positives he might have brought to the club this Summer.

As it stands, Villa sit in 9th place on 16 points.  The worry, for Villa fans, is that this is exactly where he had Birmingham at this point in the season last year, and that ended in relegation.  The other worry is that performances like the visit to Tottenham, where McLeish doubled down on right backs to contain Gareth Bale rather than having a more positive approach, will be the rule and not the exception.

Let's look, though, at those positive points I mentioned in June:

  • The man knows goalkeeping talent.

 Shay Given was the odds-on favorite to come to Aston Villa and fill the void left by Brad Friedel joining Tottenham.  But he wasn't the only name floated.  Ali al-Habsi, Paul Robinson and Kieran Westwood were among the other names mentioned as possibilities for the vacant position.  While Given is currently on the trainer's table having done his hamstring last weekend, few could argue that he's been anything but sensational for Villa.  Point to Eck for picking the right man for the job.

  • He's good at organizing a defense.

He's actually not bad on this one, though set piece marking has been atrocious, and the goals we've allowed have been down to comically bad player performance (Big Ginger James, we're looking at you).  Aston Villa have allowed 18 goals in 14 games, which puts us in 10th in the league in goals allowed; this is, by the way, an improvement of 2 goals over last season to this point (by date, though, it's an improvement of 10 goals, so either bad things are indeed on the horizon, or things will be looking up after the Liverpool match).

  • He's a tactically flexible manager-

I'm about to get my tin hat on for this, because I think I'm about to get a lot of opposition.  The vast majority of Villa's matches have been played as a 4-5-1 (a formation, by the by, people CLAMORED for Martin O'Neill to use during his term at Villa, but I digress).  The exact shape of that, however, varies match to match, and even half to half.  The intent, as McLeish recently told the Villa official site, is to play a Dutch-style 4-3-3, with wingers serving as pincers to meet crosses at the back post.  Villa supporters will recognize this tactic from Graham Taylor's time at the club, with Ian Ormondroyd serving as the main back-post target.  While it's great to have that intent, I don't know if he can take credit for that vision if he hasn't communicated that well enough for players not named Agbonlahor to execute it.

What I CAN give McLeish credit for is the ability to turn a hoofing team into a passing team over the course of a halftime interval, as he's now done for the last two matches.  And even the right-wing lock tactic against Tottenham, while extremely negative, showed some sort of tactical flexibility, as it pushed Villa into a 4-4-2.  The struggle, though, is why the team begins matches hoofing the ball.  Especially when McLeish seems outwardly to be pleading for his team to cut all that out during matches.  But credit to him, he does always seem to have a plan B.

  • He's actually pretty good in the transfer market overall.

McLeish has made five signings during his first window at Aston Villa.  Shay Given, Alan Hutton and Charles N'Zogbia joined permanently for a combined cost of 18 million pounds; Jermaine Jenas came in on loan, and has now gone back to Tottenham after injuring his Achilles on Sautrday; and Enda Stevens will be joining the club in January.  We've already covered Given's excellence.  N'Zogbia has struggled to find form to the point where he isn't even a regular selection, but many saw a move to Villa as the next logical step for a player of N'Zogbia's caliber.  Remember that Stiliyan Petrov, Stewart Downing, and James Milner all struggled to find form in their first seasons at Villa, and all three eventually won Player of the Season honors for the club. Hutton has been, in a word, poor.  While at times he's shown a real zeal to join the attacking play, his passing is also at times atrocious.  His marking is inconsistent, though he did make Ashley Young a non-factor when Manchester United came calling.  Jenas was a tough call.  He was injured for most of his term at Villa, but when he did make the pitch, showed an incredible amount of industry and application for a player who basically missed all of last season at Spurs.  Stephen Ireland might have done well to watch Jenas's performances in a Villa shirt.  That said, 1 for 4 isn't a wonderful record, though N'Zogbia has shown bright flashes, as did Jenas before getting crocked.

  • He has won a trophy in England

And the team dropped out of the very same competition McLeish won away to our next opponents.  But Villa do remain in the FA Cup- this one is to be determined

So that's a yes on identifying goalkeeping talent, tactical flexibility (though nous the jury is still out on),  a no on the transfer market, and a maybe on trophies and the transfer market.

Now, to look at how McLeish has performed against the worry-points I mentioned in June:

  • Two relegations in three seasons is not a "proven record."

As mentioned before, the similarity in record between us now and Birmingham then is eerie; I have faith that our players are better than that, however.

  • His "big-name" buys (Arteta at Rangers; Zigic, Hleb and Beausejour) have all been flops.

I'd consider Given a big name buy, so he's hitting .500 on that at Villa until N'Zogbia improves

  • Again, while McLeish's formations may be flexible, his play is not, and there's a worry that his particular brand of kick-kick-kick-and-rush football will have attacking players like Darren Bent and Stewart Downing looking for the exits

Downing left in the Summer, so at least McLeish's tactics had nothing to do with that!  But Bent does look worryingly unhappy on the pitch, and as mentioned above, there has been way too much hoofball thus far, though

  • He's brought Barry Ferguson everywhere he's been- and that's a player that's nowhere near good enough for Villa.

Well, McLeish has been asking for some January cash, but I don't think I've seen mention of Ferguson save for the opinion part of a James Nursey column.  Please, feel free to correct me in the comments if you have (and in a real source- use the source blacklist for reference)

Of those worry-points, the only one that's looking realized is the level of the football.

In all, while the performances have been at times dire, I don't think they've been as bad as the O'Leary days or an O'Neill March.  I do think the second half against Swansea and the last 20 minutes of the match against Manchester United light a way forward for Villa under McLeish, and I think he's smart enough to follow that light.

So while I don't think sunshine comes out of McLeish's back door, I'm not willing to join the protesting hordes of Villa fans, though poor performances against Bolton and Liverpool could rapidly change that.  For at least the next two weeks, I'd urge the following:

Stay Positive, Villans.

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