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Aston Villa
Posted by Kevin Hughes on 10/26/2011

We are in those twilight days between autumn and winter, and a murky gloom threatens to descend upon all things Villa.

Saturday's home defeat to West Brom - Villa's first reversal against their nearish neighbours since 1979 - simply reinforced the shortcomings of the current squad and manager, and emphasized Villa's fall in stature and standing.

No longer can we presume to dominate Midlands football, as we once did, and no longer can we expect such games to casually translate into victories; life in the Premier League moves quickly, and while Villa have stood still for the last 18 months, a handful of clubs have rushed to join us. We're now in the middle of a pack of ten or so clubs that are on very equal footing.

The West Brom wasn't so much a wake-up call, more of another nod in the direction that Villa are heading. Which is nowhere fast. An unbeaten start to the season masked a few inadequacies, and while a 4-1 defeat at Man City was more or less expected - and actually not a bad result given the astonishing hammering they handed out to Man United at the weekend - losing 2-1 at home to Albion stung deeper.

Truth be told, this defeat had been coming. Performances so far this season have been far from convincing; we should have lost at QPR, at Everton. We could have lost at home to Wolves. And while some could point to extenuating circumstances against West Brom, I'm not so sure. Villa were unlucky to have Chris Herd sent off, with an hour of the game remaining, yes - and the fact that his three-match suspension has since been overturned is correct, perhaps the easiest review decision the powers-that-be have ever had to make.

That aside, Villa benefited twice from luck. Whatever your view was on Alan Hutton's challenge on Shane Long - tough but fair, reckless and dangerous - you could not have argued too strongly had Phil Dowd sent him off for sliding into the striker. Secondly, Albion's Chris Brunt wildly blazed wide the penalty awarded for Herd's 'foul' on Jonas Olsson, so a let off there.

Once that had settled down, Villa remained 1-0 up, at home, albeit disadvantaged by being a man down, and facing 60 minutes or so with ten men.

It's what happened from that point on which Villa manager Alex McLeish should be focusing on. Both from the point of view of how his players reacted, and also the decisions he made.

When Herd left the field, McLeish would have searched his substitute's bench for options. The Australian has been used this season at right-back, but against WBA, Herd occupied a more familiar midfield role; so, midfielders available to replace him?

No Fabian Delph, unavailable through illness (and, worryingly, it seems by his own admission recently, unable to play more than a game a week because of the serious knee injury he suffered 18 months or so ago), and no Jermaine Jenas either, perpetually injured since his transfer deadline day move from Spurs.

Ciaran Clark was on hand. A natural centre-back, Clark has played in a defensive midfield role for Villa on several occasions, and looked at home there. He'd have been a good choice, giving Villa height in midfield, a presence at set-pieces at either end, and a defensive discipline that could have proved crucial in coping with the one-man deficit.

McLeish overlooked him. Alongside Clark was Stephen Ireland, admittedly not the most combative or disciplined of midfielders, but a midfielder nonetheless, who could have slotted neatly into a central midfield role and filled a Herd-like gap.

He didn't get the nod either. Having been forced to replace Hutton - suffering a nasty head wound - with the fit-again Carlos Cuellar, McLeish stuck it out until half-time; shortly before which, Albion equalised, with a header from Olsson.

A header from a corner. Now, being a man down has repercussions for a team in almost all areas of the field, but not at set-pieces. Not if organisation is right. Conceding from a corner has nothing to do with being a player down.

Little over ten minutes into the second-half, Albion scored again - and again from a corner. Again, nothing to do with the opposition enjoying a numerical advantage and everything to do with Villa failing to deal with a ball into the penalty area, failing to clear their lines, and failing to prevent an opposing player - Paul Scharner in this case - hooking in the loose ball.

Conceding unlucky goals after harshly being down to ten men? Not in this case. Sloppy defending, from players already clinging to a convenient excuse? Perhaps nearer the truth.

Minutes later, McLeish made his substitution; Charles N'Zogbia off for... Emile Heskey. A switch that did nothing to strengthen the obvious weakness in Villa's line-up in the heart of the midfield. Chasing a game with half an hour to go, Villa now had both strikers - Agbonlahor and Bent, plus Heskey - with just Stilian Petrov and Barry Bannan to actually get hold of the ball and use it.

With 12 minutes to go, a third and final substitution - Bannan off for Marc Albrighton. An offensive move, but with the net result of Villa actually finishing the game with one recognised midfielder.

Little wonder Villa barely a sniff of the ball in the last 30 minutes. The team lost all shape and cohesion almost from the moment Herd was dismissed; Albion took control from that point on.

McLeish made bad choices. His players surrendered any responsibility. Not a good sign from a team and a squad supposedly reunited in spirit and endeavour in 2011-12.

Villa are now entering what was always going to be a crucial phase of the season. It was at this stage, last season, that results took a change for the worst, with injuries biting and inexperienced players thrown in at the deep end. The injury situation is by no means as bad this time around, but just as it was last winter, the midfield looks weak.

Jenas is unfit. Delph still nowhere near ready to stamp his authority on a game. Petrov is Petrov; a technically gifted player with his best days behind him and his influence fading fast. Bannan, one of Villa's brighter lights during the last two months, has had a difficult week - he's been suspended by the club following a driving incident and won't be available for Saturday's trip to Sunderland. Options, therefore, are limited. At least Herd, who does provide much-needed drive and energy, is available.

This was always going to be the acid test for McLeish, once he'd lost a couple of games. He hasn't done much wrong so far, but he doesn't have the benefit of a lot of credit in the bank with Villa fans, and he hasn't managed to cajole this side to a level above ordinary, as yet: two wins from nine league games is nothing to write home about.

Particularly when those two wins have come at home against Blackburn and Wigan; teams you'd have to say, if pushed in October, to nominate for relegation.

Villa need to be better. McLeish needs to be better. Or we're all in for a very long and cold winter.


Posted by Anonymous on 10/26/2011

Spot on post.

Posted by Ben on 10/26/2011

Dumb analysis. The loss wasn't because we don't have better players or a better manager, it was because we had a RIDICULOUS red card to a player that was crucial to our structure.

With 11 men we were 1-0 up and cruising. Should have been 2-0 if Bent hadn't fluffed that sitter.

It's only one result. Let's not get carried away eh?

Posted by Stefan on 10/27/2011

I completely disagree with the post above. And again have to give credit to Kevin Hughes for intelligent, acute and spot-on analysis. "Sloppy defending, from players already clinging to a convenient excuse? Perhaps nearer the truth." That's exactly how it is (and was). Football is (also) psychology, and it is refreshing to read the opinions of someone who understands it.

Posted by Lyonsy on 10/27/2011

Also where is Jean Makoun and why did we loan him out when we employed Jermaine Jenas??
McLeish & Lerner out - please Santa give us our club back!

Posted by Amos on 10/27/2011

it's strange though. you would've thought that McLeish coming in would have meant a stingier defence, especially with Given in.

However, that has not been the case. Gabby has been keeping us in for most games thus far. When will the rest step up?

And just to add, we probably should've lost to Newcastle at home too. Given and Gabby: top 2 by far this season.

Posted by Tony Beak Army on 10/27/2011

Spot on Kevin.

What's more worrying is the heart has been completely ripped out of this club this season. Bad decision after bad decision by the hierarchy and players who should have gone last year who are going through the motions. Where's Lerner, where is he? LERNER OUT!

Posted by Bongo on 10/27/2011

Spot on, mate. You really hit the nail on the head.... now if only someone would do the same to AM. He might start to use players in their natural positions. Heskey in midfield? OK, it CAN work, but should it even be tried when we are a man down and in need of a player in midfield?

McLeish isn't doing anything to stop the moans from the crowd every time he selects Heskey. If you are going to pick, pick him as a striker. If you need midfielders, Ireland is there, or even give the young guys like Gardner or Johnson a go.

Posted by alex on 10/28/2011

McLeish makes horrible decisions. Why does he put Bannan on the outside instead of Albrighton? Not to mention how well Ireland has been playing lately, why sub for Heskey? I've watched plenty of games and have never seen him produce.

Posted by Richard Bristol on 10/29/2011

Agree 100pc with Kevin. Look at the empty seats Mr Lerner and remember the Oscar Wilde quote about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Villa are now a poor side and getting worse - no discipline on or off the field. Mr McLeish should resign or be sacked now before it's too late.

Posted by BJP Breen on 10/31/2011

Neat article I would have stiffened the midfield by bringing on Clark for Bannan: height and bite for when it was needed.

Posted by Easy Baby on 11/04/2011

Where have you been for the last 4 years plus? I love Villa, but we have been out classed by the top teams and middling the pack for the last 5 years now. Consider the start Villa had last year with 6-0 losses and no scoring whatsoever. I'm with most of you though Lerner O-U-T! Given and Gabby the only bright spot so far.

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Kevin Hughes Kevin Hughes spent the best part of ten years working and writing for the football magazine Match; once (sort of) inspiring David Beckham to copy his shaved-hair look, getting lost in Paris after the 1998 France v Croatia World Cup semi-final and other such nonsense. As Deputy Editor, he launched and established Sport, the London-based free weekly magazine, before moving on to become a consumer magazine publisher, a position he holds today. Introduced to Villa by his father and grandfather, he attended his first ever match at Villa Park as a seven-year-old in 1982… and has suffered almost constant disappointment since. You can follow him on twitter @KevHughesie

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