On Friday, Aston Villa were fourth in the Premier League, three points clear of Arsenal in the race for Champions’ League qualification. When they woke up this morning, they were a fifth-place side in the midst of a seven-match winless skid. Where do they go from here?
In a word, Anfield. Given their deteriorating quality of play, Villa simply don’t have time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. They must only look ahead to the next opponent. No sulking about the fans’ treatment of Gabriel Agbonlahor. No ruing the loss of Martin Laursen. Anything other than total, forward-looking focus is an unnecessary sideshow.
Ironically, Martin O’Neill will have to take a page from the past as he forges ahead. The Villa manager struck something of a magic balance in his squad when John Carew went down to injury in November. The Norwegian’s absence forced O’Neill to pick a counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation. Agbonlahor operated as the fulcrum of the attack, with Ashley Young and James Milner providing quick, penetrating runs down either flank.
If Villa are to salvage their season and qualify for Europe—never mind the Champions’ League—O’Neill’s best course of action would be to revert to the tactics that vaulted his side up the table in the first place.
This would bring about the much-needed reunification of Stilyan Petrov, Gareth Barry and Steve Sidwell in the centre of midfield. With Laursen expected to miss at least another two matches (and Zat Knight bumbling about in defense), the back four could certainly use the shield. Villa have yielded two goals in each of their past four matches. They can’t afford similar defensive performances against Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton.
As for Agbonlahor, he’s played himself into a starting role on the bench. Two goals in three months just doesn’t cut it. Carew has an identical tally in his past five outings—many as a substitute. He’s O’Neill’s in-form striker and should be rewarded with a place in the starting XI on Merseyside.
Sure, Agbonlahor’s already brittle confidence will likely be further stripped away if he is left out of the team on Sunday. But he’s a professional. And if he’s worth his salt, he’ll play his way back into the reckoning.
In hindsight, it’s clear two of O’Neill’s recent, crucial decisions did not pay off. He did not reap the rewards of a fresher squad by sending the reserves to Moscow. And given Villa’s tired showing against Spurs, his players did not benefit from a brief holiday in Dubai.
But this is not an occasion for hindsight. There’s no time for it. If Villa busy themselves with looking back at what might have been and what they might have done, they’ll only coast further and further down the table.