Aston Villa’s sojourn in Dubai comes at the perfect time. Having not won a match since early February, getting away from the Premier League pressure cooker will be a relief to manager Martin O’Neill and his charges.
The tired squad will get a good rest and an uplifting bit of sunshine. Here’s hoping they didn’t bring a ball along. Football is the last thing these players should be thinking about this week.
But while his squad goes into relaxation mode, O’Neill has no shortage of work to do. He’s got until next Sunday to fix what’s gone horribly wrong and renew his side’s assault on the top four.
The tinkering should start with his formation. When Villa sacked Emirates Stadium in November - escaping with a 2-0 win over Arsenal - and proceeded to rattle off an unbeaten run of 13 matches, they did so with a quick, counter-attacking 4-3-2-1 formation.
Most of the 31 points accumulated over that period were secured before Emile Heskey arrived from Wigan in January. And while O’Neill was right to sign him, he would have been better off using the big centre-forward in Gabriel Agbonlahor’s position while allowing the 22-year-old some much needed time off.
The formation had worked wonders for Villa. With Ashley Young and James Milner operating on the wings behind Agbonlahor, O’Neill had the Premier League’s quickest trio of forwards at his disposal. Stilyan Petrov, Gareth Barry and Steve Sidwell, meanwhile, spread the ball around nicely while providing excellent coverage for the back four. Over the stretch of 13 games, Villa kept eight clean sheets.
As it happened, Heskey’s arrival and John Carew’s return from injury prompted the manager to begin deploying a traditional 4-4-2. It’s been a disaster. After a quick start at the club, Heskey has been largely irrelevant while the over-played Agbonlahor has tailed off as well. Villa’s midfield - cut down by a third - has been easily cut apart.
Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time for O’Neill to make the necessary adjustments. Villa remain three points ahead of Arsenal with ten rounds to play. If the squad can return rested and rejuvenated after their time in Dubai, all the better. Arsenal have a glut of fixtures on the horizon and another batch of 0-0 draws is likely. But more to the point, O’Neill must revert to the tactics that got Villa into Champions’ League contention in the first place.
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