“Winning football games in this Premier League is exceptionally hard.” Even Martin O’Neill is drastically simplifying things. He has no choice. In just over a month, he’s watched his stylish, eye-catching fourth-place side go from showing cracks, to cracking up to outright imploding. Forget the Champions’ League. The new target at Villa Park is damage control.
For that, O’Neill must go simple. The old acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is appropriate here. The manager might well have already inscribed it on the chalkboard. It’s really the only strategy he has left. After all, he’s already tried resting his best players while the reserves flew to Moscow; he’s taken the whole team to Dubai for some beach and breeze.
And really, you can’t fault him for any of it. Each decision he made seemed quite sensible at the time. Don’t forget, he was strategizing an assault on the top four. To his credit, everything went according to plan for five months. Then it all went to hell, and for a very simple reason. His team simply isn’t good enough.
Sure, overachievers sometimes go the distance and do the unexpected. Remember Everton in 2005? But those occurrences are few and far between. You can’t count on them. And you certainly can’t plan your season around it happening. O’Neill did that, and it didn’t work. It’s really no big deal, so long as he can put an end to the slide and consolidate Villa’s current position.
To do that, he just has to simplify. Play the next game. Don’t worry about the Champions’ League; don’t worry about what Arsenal and Everton are doing. When Villa went on the tear that vaulted them into the Champions’ League places, they recorded eight clean sheets in 13 outings. They played simple football, taking care of the defensive third before pouncing on mistakes. It’s a strategy that did them well.
Ironically, the acquisition of Emile Heskey that was supposed to aid the squad’s depth and improve its offense proved Villa’s undoing. Now deploying two strikers and a pair of active winners, O’Neill complicated his tactics by attempting to go on the front-foot. As we know, it backfired miserably. The simple game-plan that had worked so well for much of the season was abandoned, and Villa became a team defeated as soon as it conceded the first goal.
That said, it’s hard to blame the manager. He saw an opening in the Champions’ League places and he tried to make a run at it. He shouldn’t be chastised because he didn’t make it, and neither should his players. They just weren’t up to it. They’re a fifth-place side and will spend the remainder of the campaign securing that position.
To do it, they’ll have to play it simple. No more making as if to come out like gangbusters and take the game to the opponent. That hasn’t worked. And if they keep at it, they’ll wind up sixth or worse. Simplify. It’s what’s got them this far, and it’s the only way to save face.