I’m going to start by saying this because there’s not going to be a great deal of kind words to follow.
I like Martin O’Neill. I was thrilled when he was appointed as Villa manager and I still believe he is the best man for the job to this day. You’ll find no petulent name-calling here. I respect him both as a man and a football manager and I am going to try and pose questions of him in as graciously as possible (which after tonight’s match is going to require some resolve). In twenty years of following Villa I’ve seen us change manager every three years or so, always going back to the drawing board and starting again. Our best chance of success is most likely going to be with O’Neill at the helm. Clubs that are run from a platform of stability and continuity are always the ones the ultimately produce the most consistent results. I’ve never known such consistency as a Villa fan and you probably have to go back some way to feel that such a structure was ever in place at the club. We have that now and we have to believe it will get us where we need to go.
However, I am writing this after witnessing an absolutely dreadful performance by our manager. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of players who need to look at themselves and seriously question their contribution – and not just tonight – but everything about our appearance at Upton Park just about summed up the very worst tendencies of the O’Neill regime that we continually allow to handicap our challenge, such as it is, to the Premier League elite. The short, simple version would be to dismiss the match as yet another failed opportunity to position ourselves as the most likely to muscle in on one of the coveted top four positions. Having given ourselves the chance to go fourth after a solid start to the season through grit and resolve (traits I am happy to applaud O’Neill for instilling in our squad), we have again spectacularly failed to take advantage of the base provided by our own hard work in getting us there in the first place and the ongoing inability of rivals such as Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham to string together the kind of results that are ever going to worry the true title contenders.
I haven’t seen or heard O’Neill’s comments after the game and quite frankly at this point, I’m not interested. There is little variation in his assessment of our performances and his interviews often leave me pondering little other than exactly when were the periods of ‘exciting’ or ‘scintillating’ football he often speaks of being so ‘delighted’ by. Whether you hear it from him or our fans, I’m sure there will be many complaints about tonight’s referee and I’ll acknowledge he was pretty poor. The key moment before halftime in which West Ham were awarded a penalty was wrong on two counts – firstly because their striker was offside when he was played through and secondly when Beye clearly touched the ball in the challenge that was given against him – a challenge that resulted in his first yellow card of the evening that would later be followed, quite rightly this time, by a second caution putting us down to ten men for those crucial and costly last few minutes. Yes, we should not have been a goal down at half-time. Yes, we should not have been a man down as the match entered the injury time in which the Hammers won the game. But if anyone believes these were the only two reasons – much less the decisive ones – that have lost us this match, then they are deluding themselves.
The last thirty minutes of the match were awful from a Villa perspective. Having clawed our way back to level terms, this was a golden chance to take the game to a West Ham team low on confidence and quality (and now lacking their best goal threat with Carlton Cole withdrawn through injury) and claim that fourth place. What happened? The players resorted to long ball after long ball, hitting it up front and hoping for something to drop our way. The match descended ino a completely scrappy affair and Villa looked anything but a side competing for such a lofty place in the league. Too many players on the pitch are not comfortable on the ball and lack both the intelligence and instinct to move into the kind of spaces that produce chances and goals. Time after time we started to move forward only to end up going sideways and then backwards and then simply hoofing it in desperation. Right from the outset, West Ham looked here for the taking. I actually expected more from them in terms of possession because they do have players that can pass it around nicely and we do allow team to come on to us. But it was acually Villa that had more of the ball in the first half, but aside from a couple of half-chances, we looked toothless and unmotivated to punish West Ham for letting us dictate play. By the second half though, our midfield predictably tired and big holes started to appear in the middle of the pitch. Instead of putting them to the sword having put West Ham on the back foot after equalising, we encouraged them by giving them a firsthand demonstration of our limited technical abilities and lack of ideas when we don’t grab goals on the counter-attack.
People have been debating whether performance or results matter most and, of course, without the right results the question is entirely irrrelevant. But the fact of the matter is that the modern Premier League is not a place where you simply ‘battle’ to success – the best teams are simply too smart for that. You hit someone off their guard once, you rarely get that lucky again. The opposition work out where your most likely threat is going to come from and they nullify it as best they can. The best teams are where they are because of the variety and flexibility of the threats they can pose at any one time – for all our players’ qualities, we are simply too predictably one-dimensional and, as such, too easy to defend against. This has been the case for at least twelve months (and that is probably being generous) and though we have still achieved enough good results to put us comfortably in the right half of the table, we are never going to go any further playing like this. I think we have hit the ceiling (and arguably gone further than we should have) playing in the manner that we do. And I’m not just suggesting we need a Plan B in games that are tight – we need Plans C, D, E, F and beyond and manager and players alike should be accustomed to moving fluidly through these different gears when they are required to. That is the name of the game in this league and stubborn refusal to accept that whatever might have traditionally proved successful in our domestic league is no longer goin to work in this day and age is only going to produce a lot more false dawns. I don’t want Villa to be merely competitive – I want us to be successful. Again, people can argue what success looks like in a league that has been dominated for so long by such a select few and that when you consider the fates befallen big clubs such as Leeds and Newcastle in recent times but I say forget all that. Success means trophies. Pure and simple. I genuinely do wonder sometimes exactly what the ambitions are behind the scenes at Villa and, in particular, what constitutes success in O’Neill’s mind. Is it making a good showing and earning a respectable placing at the end of each season? Or is it tangible honours? I put it that bluntly because we don’t ever give the impression that we are ever going to do anything but politely knock at the door of the so-called top four and walk away with our tails between our legs when it shuts firmly in out place. I want to see us charging at that door full pelt, determined to bust it off its hinges if that’s what it takes. So I get extremely frustrated when with thirty minutes remaining of a game that could see us take fourth place, however temporarily, our players look like they are willing he referee to blow the final whistle.
One of the key characteristics of this Villa side is the way we wilt in the second half of games. Regardless of whether we are playing 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 (and, for the record, I don’t think we have the personnel best suited to 4-4-2), our midfield looks leggy and laboured. Petrov and Sidwell have so far emerged as the first choice apiring and neither are exactly the most athletic in the game. They get through a lot of work but they struggle to last the pace over ninety minutes (setting aside the fact that they hardly produce enough of what you have to expect in terms of quality from a pairing in such a vital part of the pitch) and this is due to the fact that our style of play, determined by the manager, requires them to do so much chasing, and the inexplicable reluctance to see substitutions made, again determined by the manager, at the first onset of fatigue, relieving one or both of them of the physical burden that sucks the life-force out of our entire forward play. If I can see it and you can see it, why can’t he? It seems such a facile question, but is there any other way to put it? Why doesn’t he react to what is so glaringly obvious? Supporters are getting as tired as our midfielders in these numbing second halves of matches because it’s bloody hard work watching it – and this is no doubt having an effect on the decision-making of those going, or more pertinently, now not going every week. I don’t question the effort of our players – or at least most of them – but I’ve been saying that since O’Neill’s first game in charge. Three and a half years later can we really say that we are producing football that is any better to watch? We have a stronger defence, no question, and this gives us a fighting chance of achieving something, but it has been a long time since Villa won a game convincingly by playing real quality football. There was a period in the spring of 2008 when we had a run of free-scoring victories – the glorious 5-1 demolition of the Blues following the impressive 4-0 and 6-0 victories against Bolton and Derby respectively – that seemed to promise the move up to a higher level but it hasn’t happened. At all.
In the last three games against Wolves, Everton and West Ham, we have produced some of the most turgid, unconvincing football you’re likely to see in any Premier League fixtures this season. All were perfectly winnable in their own ways but the fact that only two points have been taken from a possible nine is proof enough that playing like this will only get you so far. These are the kind of results that seperate those who qualify for the Champions League and those that again miss out.
But going back to tonight’s second half – from the sixtieth minute onwards I was crying our for a change to be made. Carew was having another of his largely ineffectual games to the degree that we are essentially left with ten men on the field for much of the time. I honestly can’t see where his cult status comes from because he is as inconsistent as Dalian Atkinson without the flashes of occasional brilliance (let’s be honest, all the talk of Carew’s ‘unplayable’ days revolve around his ability to impose himself on games through sheer force of will rather than ability) and his fitness, much like Heskey’s (and we’ll come back to him shortly), is a constant puzzle to me. How can these players look so tired after ten minutes of a game? They look like men out of their time; they probably would’ve fitted in quite nicely twenty years ago but today matches just pass them by before they know it. Agbonlahor has never really ‘clicked’ with a strike partner because he doesn’t have the ‘football brain’ to read another’s play so it figures that he should be so well suited to playing upfront by himself. Why then, with Carew clearly struggling to do much of anything, does our manager not do the obvious thing and withdraw our sluggish striker for fresh legs in a midfield crying out for support to stem the tide of oppositon attacks that were becoming more and more frequent?
‘The obvious thing’? This is a term that is rarely used when it comes to describing our manager’s decisions. Knowing that James Milner was likely to be fit for the game, media reports confidently predicted Nigel Reo-Coker would step in to fill the gap. Now, Reo-Coker is not exactly a perfect replacement – aswell as being one of those players with distinct limitations to his play, his style isn’t really suited to wide play – he is an experienced midfielder and his physicality and tenacity are welcomed by the other players in the middle of the park. Failing that, O’Neill also had £6million signing Fabian Delph waiting to come in. Delph has not yet looked confident in the first team and his naivete has been exposed in the 4-4-2 formations he’s been unfortunate to only have been selected in to date but with the option of reverting to a five-man midfield, I would be fairly sure of seeing him fare much better and add both creativity and stamina in the process. Failing that, he could also choose to take a chance on young Marc Albrighton, a player who provides the most natural replacement for Milner on the right wing. I’d noticed there was more than an little hopeful talk among Villa fans that O’Neill may go with Albrighton – a sign of the regard in which expectation for his development is held – though without any real senior experience to speak of, it would’ve been a gamble.
Does anyone who watched the game think he could possibly have done any worse than the man who ultimately got the place in the team?
And is there anybody out there who has ever thought Emile Heskey could possibly play in midfield, much less play well?
Thanks to our manager we now have confirmation for anyone who thought that may be possible. Unsurprisingly, he can’t. He’s a striker – sort of anyway – and he has enough on his plate at the moment proving to people he can play in the position he’s spent his entire career. I would think the last thing he needs is the added challenge of jumping on the Martin O’Neill position merry-go-round. What on earth could possess our manager to make this choice ahead of the aforementioned options? Has Heskey done anything since the season began/joined the club (delete as you see fit) to justify any kind of place in the team, much less in a role he is totally and utterly unsuited to? Is O’Neill still that unwilling to bring Reo-Coker back into the first team after their training ground spat? Is he willing to risk the fortunes of the club on personal differences between the two of them? Is he that uncertain in Delph’s ability to get to grips with the Premier League? Is he that nervous about taking the kind of rational gamble on a young player like Albrighton who would at least give the side balance? I don’t know about you but after seeing so many players played out of position in the last three and a half seasons, I’d really like to know the answers to some of these questions.
Heskey looks good for England because he plays with Rooney and Lampard and Gerrard and Owen. They are top class players who know how to recognise what strengths Heskey does have and they play off them to their advantage. When Villa have players of that calibre throughout our team we can maybe look forward to seeing similar results but until then we will only see the slow, plodding target man who doesn’t win that many headers, struggles to keep up with play and can’t finish when he does, on those few occasions, get on the end of a ball anywhere near the opposition goal. By playing him in such unfamilar territory (out on the left wing as it turned out with Ashley Young switching to the right), we played the first half effectively with ten men. He did no more than fill a shirt. I don’t blame him – he can’t help where he’s asked to play. The blame resides with the man who told him to play there. The only decision O’Neill got right tonight was recognising his mistake and bringing him off at half-time.
This was costly though – arguably more so than the penaly erroneously given against us. We could and should have driven our dominance home in that first period but despite our possession we didn’t have the cutting edge to do it and playing with the handicap of having a player so shut out of the game just made the task harder. I was saying just prior to the penalty incident that this had been a wasted half because we’d had a great opportunity to put ourselves into the ascendency but there didn’t seem to be anybody on the field willing to take the initiative. When we do have possession, we rarely do enough with it in areas of the pitch to seriously worry the oppostion and so it proved again.
(I will concede that when he did come on, Reo-Coker hardly did much to suggest he should not have been overlooked but that’s another story)
So Beye gets himself sent off and then we’re really hanging on. Luke Young comes on – and why wasn’t he selected in the first place? He’s a much better player than Beye and though he may not have played yet this season, the fact that Beye’s last appearance was over three months ago must mean there can’t be a great deal of difference in their sharpness – but West Ham somehow manage to work a goal out of a melee in the box. Third minute of stoppage time – no time to respond.
The warning signs were there. Gaps were appearing through the centre of the field. Reinforcements should’ve arrived ten or fifteen minutes earlier. I kept looking at the bench and was crying out for a change to be made. Nothing.
We brought this defeat on ourselves. Forget the referee. Forget West Ham. We know we have the players to beat them so whether it be team selection, formation, or decision-making throughout the match, we have once again scuppered our chance to get into the top four. Three points ahead of Liverpool. Two ahead of Spurs and Manchester City. Now there’s a long way to go and obviously being fourth in early November counts for little but every time we see the big time on the horizon we self-destruct.
Can our manager take us any further? He’s transformed us from also-rans and strugglers into a side that has made the top six two years running. His summer signings, when they eventually arrived, were good and they have improved us not enough. They were unimaginative – in fact the kind of players we have become used to seeing come through the doors at Villa park are perhaps the obly ‘obvious things’ about O’Neill’s tenure because they are the kind of players you expect. Can he manage big egos? Can he handle all that comes hand in hand with genuine world-class talent? Because that is what we need. He may say Ashley Young is ‘world-class’ but every other sensible viewer knows otherwise (in actuality Young has barely played well for an entire year). We have a bigger squad but we still don’t rotate. The same players are over-extended and the same players burn out. Every week. Can he come out of his comfort zone and introduce varying styles of play or is this as good as it gets? Is it, in fact, O’Neill who is the real man out of time, unable to tune in to the wavelength of the modern game? Tonight’s performance was deeply concerning for many reasons and the manner with which we shrank from the challenge, resorting to the most elemtary hit-and-hope style of football, most depressing of all.
We will bounce back and we will have further good runs this season. But we will also falter again as we did tonight and this will always undermine any chance we have of achieving anything. Tonight may well be a turning point because it lays out what the likely trajectory of the rest of the season will be, crystalising once and for all just how limited we can be and I think the players know this when they step out on to the pitch. We don’t play with the conviction or swagger that those who truly believe they are going to win play with.
The most frustrating thing of all? I really do believe O’Neill has it in himself to bring success to Villa. Maybe even the biggest prizes. I think he has the strength of character required but it is his bloody-minded stubborness that will also ultimately limot what he, and by extension Villa, can become. I think the bad blood of the vocal criticism vented by supporters during the season opener against Wigan still festers (and maybe even going back to the outcry over the white flag of a team selection brandished in Moscow which put paid to our UEFA Cup hopes last February) and I believe he is aware of the by-now familiar ongoing criticisms of his approach. I believe he still doesn’t fully appreciate exactly how high, rightly or wrongly, Villa supporters set the bar against which he and his players are judged and what our expectations and ambitions for our club are. I believe he wants to show everyone it is he who calls the shots and nobody is going to change that. It’s certainly the only way I can find any rational explanation for what I’ve seen tonight.
That’s fine. There are too many clubs where the key decisions seem to be dictated by too many mysterious parties and I find it comforting that O’Neill is unquestionably in charge at Villa. It’s how it should be even though I may find some of those decisions unfathomable at times. I want to see him stay at the club for the long-term but tonight’s showing – the befuddling selections, the poor quality, the inability to react to the glaring deficiencies in our performance throughout the match – have angered me to the point of writing far more than a match like this could possibly merit. There is no point in changing the manager. We’ve gone down that road too many times before. The only beneficiaries will be our competitors who will take advanage of our then inevitable transitional period. The changes have to come from O’Neill himself.
And the sooner the better because I can’t watch much more of this.
West Ham Defeat, MON Needs To Change
I’m going to start by saying this because there’s not going to be a great deal of kind words to follow.