So what’s changed in the last 12 months? Try one win and two points. Improvement? Yes. Measurable improvement? No.
Sure, Aston Villa flirted with Champions’ League football for a few months this season. Maybe even a month longer than last year. And while that might count as progress in some minds, don’t be fooled. Villa could just as easily be scrapping to finish in the top half of the table next semester.
That’s how tight it is. Unless owner Randy Lerner opens his cheque-book and manager Martin O’Neill goes on a summer spending spree, Villa may not be able to keep up to Everton, Spurs, Fulham and Manchester City.
The reason is simple. O’Neill doesn’t have the bench strength to go the distance in the Premier League, especially when other competitions are factored into the equation. But while some of that is down to good, old-fashioned business sense on the part of the owner, a good deal of it is the manager’s making.
What, for instance, was the benefit of signing Emile Heskey? All the striker did was destabilize a squad that had been humming along quite nicely, thank-you very much. O’Neill would have been better off spending the money on a central defender. Lord knows neither Curtis Davies nor Zat Knight was up to the job.
The gaffer also completely underestimated the fans’ expectations in Europe. They were disheartened when he fielded the reserves in Moscow. And while he admitted the mistake, his players were demoralized enough by the loss to blow their six-point lead over Arsenal in the standings.
In a way, Moscow was the defining point in Villa’s season. But there were other moments that turned the tide against them as well. Martin Laursen, for one, would surely have been worth a few points in the table had he played as many matches as Gareth Barry, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Those three combined for 144 appearances this term. In other words, far too many. Although none of the three can be said to have had a poor season, they would have been far better off with fewer appearances and more time to rest.
Below, in order of total appearances, is a scorecard of Aston Villa’s 2008-09 squad. Each player’s name is followed by a letter-grade and brief explanation.
Gareth Barry: B. Sometimes you felt his heart wasn’t in it.
Ashley Young: B+. Superb start to the season; faded in 2009.
Gabriel Agbonlahor: C+. Read above.
Stiliyan Petrov: A. Earned himself a four-year extension.
Brad Friedel: B. Solid, but not spectacular.
Curtis Davies: D. He gets a D for his complete lack of it.
Luke Young: B. Played both full-back positions well.
James Milner: B+. A few more goals would be nice, but a good season.
Nigel Reo-Coker: D. O’Neill lost faith in him down the stretch.
Carlos Cuellar: C+. The best centre-half available after Laursen’s injury.
John Carew: B-. Finished strong, but did not combine well with Heskey.
Nicky Shorey: C-. Was benched frequently.
Craig Gardner: C-. Took a step backward, but the upside is there.
Zat Knight: F. Enough said.
Steve Sidwell: C-. Was dropped when O’Neill switched to 4-4-2.
Martin Laursen: F. Superb when healthy, but he wasn’t when it counted.
Marlon Harewood: F. Just one goal in all competitions.
Emile Heskey: F. Completely disrupted team chemistry.
Nathan Delfouneso: C. A good prospect for the future.
Moustapha Salifou: D. Not so good a prospect for the future.
Brad Guzan: C-. Not as good as he was hyped up to be. But still young.
Isaiah Osbourne: D. Didn’t really make an impression.
Wilfred Bouma: F. Missed entire season through injury.
Stuart Taylor: D. Only two appearances.
Barry Bannan: D. Was on loan at Derby. Just 19.
Marc Albrighton: D. Didn’t get many opportunities.