Aston Villa Tries to Remain on the Right Path
Aston Villa, forced to change strategy, attempts to balance youth with survival.
Game winner and game-winning smile…
Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa five days before the season began. He literally had taken the club as far as he could without receiving the significant sums necessary to move two places up the table.
According to many, another reason that Aston Villa hit the ceiling was the perennial late season fatigue. O’Neill minimally rotated his squad, far less than most teams. By spring, his starters were tired and unable to make that final push to challenge for a top four finish.
Owner Randy Lerner might attribute this to O’Neill’s failure to promote promising youth, where O’Neill would attribute this to a lack of investment, despite spending £120m in his four years at the club. The American owner had done everything in his power to reach the next level except spend even more. This acquisition strategy (30 players brought in over four years) had reached its limit and was replaced with promoting from an already strong academy system. This new direction was becoming clear even before O’Neill left.
There were promising young players bubbling up through Villa’s reserves, many out on loan. Beady-eyed O’Neill showed no indication of giving up his way of building a team to challenge the best. He’s not wrong. So far the only way to break into the top four is to spend significantly or excessively. His insistence to stick with established players—players he purchased and whom he therefore needed to succeed—will lead eventually to their best young players leaving for first team opportunity elsewhere.
Gérard Houllier, technical director and manager, replaced O’Neill with the purpose to develop comprehensively the academy, which included giving young players first team experience. A repeat top six finish should never have been expected. No benchmark was declared. Even those with severely diminished expectations would not excuse the club falling into relegation at Christmas.
League position was as much a result of injury as anything else. Houllier can’t control injuries unless he’s also a magic snail. If he planned to be more measured and incremental, the rash of first team injuries forced him to give larger roles to the greenest players. The acceleration wasn’t aggressively deploying a youth policy, but using the resources they had at hand to stay in matches from week to week. Despite some questionable decisions, Houllier can’t be blamed completely for the poor results.
O’Neill’s Aston Villa, stuck on their 6th place plateau, rarely conjured the excitement that this year’s promoted youth has. The 2—2 draw with Manchester United, one of the most memorable games of the season thus far, saw Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton start, with Nathan Delfouneso, Jonathan Hogg, and Chris Herd—the latter two making Premier League debuts—coming on as substitutes. As one Villa fan put it:
The young lads didn't look overawed at all, and it does beg the question: would these players have had the chance under Martin O'Neill? Barry Bannan stood out – he's tiny but he has a great eye for a pass. One thing is for sure; Houllier has the team playing with a lot more flair than we had seen in the past.-Jonathan Pritchard, Observer Fans' Verdict
But this was November. For all the excitement, the winter was a grim reality. The question of relegation had to be factored into the policy and strategy.
The rudimentary economics of relegation reorganized priorities. Darren Bent’s £24m is reasonable against the projected£40 losses of relegation. The same £24m in August was not up for discussion. Questioning why the club spent significant money now when they refused to spend it in the off-season, as O’Neill requested, ignores the shifting terms. The circumstances were very different in August. The question is not why did the club spend £24m, but was it wise to invest the sum—and all hope—in one player.
Over the last five seasons, Bent has scored the most goals in the Premier League behind Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba. True but hard to believe, and still hard to believe when he scored the game winner in his Aston Villa debut in a 1—0 win over Manchester City. As the announcer put it, “That’s what £24m will buy you. It buys you goals.” His purchase looked to be justified.
Bringing in one high-impact player may have also been determined by the youth policy. Bringing in three or four players for a similar fee would have upset the balance and been truly contrary to the long-term strategy. But with Gaby Agbonlahor injured and underperforming, John Carew out on loan, and Emile Hesky as Emile Hesky, a player like Bent can just slide right into the void.
The core of young academy players whom we wouldn't have seen and Fabio Capello couldn't have scouted if Martin O'Neill was still the manager.
Marc Albrighton, born 1989, joined Aston Villa 1999.
Barry Bannan, born 1989, joined Aston Villa 2007.
Ciaran Clark, born 1989, joined Aston Villa 1999.
Nathan Delfouneso, born 1991, joined Aston Villa 2006.
Christopher Herd, born 1989, joined Aston Villa 2005.
Jonathan Hogg, born 1988, joined Aston Villa 2009.