Thursday, December 17, 2009
As a round of midweek Premier League games again provides compelling evidence both for and against the case for a new team breaking the so-called "big four", The Good of The Game jumps on the bandwagon by - over the next three days - offering their own insight into the debate that's being dubbed "the new can-Lampard-and-Gerrard-play-together?".
There seems to be an almost unspoken consensus amongst those who follow football - and indeed, those who write about it - that Liverpool will this year fail to finish in the Champions League qualifying places for the first time since they won Europe's top prize yet finished only 5th in the domestic championship in 2005. This of course leaves the door open for a team outside the cartel to break up the party and shake up the stagnant and predictable pond that is the English Premier League. To even the most casual of observers it is evident that the three teams best equipped to launch an assault on the summit of English football (or at least a plateau just below the summit that Sky has told everyone is the top), are Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.
All three sides have shown glimpses of exactly why so many people are backing them, but they've also shown evidence of both mental and technical weaknesses that suggest if one of them does manage the "seemingly impossible", it will owe more to the missed opportunities of the other contenders than to their own superiority amongst the best of the rest.
Indeed, even those who are paid to offer their unrivalled insight and wisdom on the game to the wider public - the journalists and pundits - seem to swing wildly from backing one team one week, to another the next based purely on the previous week's results and performances. This is perhaps symptomatic of the fickle nature of those who follow the game, even those who are paid to do so.
So, The Good of The Game has decided to throw it's hat into the ring and offer the definitive guide to each sides chances of finishing 4th or higher this season. Let's start by looking at the team currently in possession of that elusive 4th place, Aston Villa:
It seems fashionable these days to herald Martin O'Neill as some kind of footballing messiah, a man of almost alchemic powers to transform average teams to very good ones, with his understated and likeable demeanour winning him many supporters amongst football's cognoscenti. The truth of the matter is that he has turned Aston Villa into very real contenders, and a side capable of producing eye-catching results against the very best. Only this season they've managed to upset Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool and have placed themselves in a strong position going into the crucial Christmas period which will see them take on Arsenal and Liverpool, and give us further insight into their credentials for a top-four finish.
There is no doubt that Martin O'Neill has now assembled a squad which contains sufficient depth to sustain a challenge throughout the course of an entire season, putting them immediately in a more favourable position than last season where their squad deficiencies were exposed in the second half of the campaign. Signings such as Richard Dunne, James Collins, Habib Beye and Stephen Warnock in the defensive area drew raised eyebrows in the summer for their apparent lack of ambition, but they have once again proven O'Neill to be an astute judge of character and ability as all three have brought valuable quality to the Villa squad. Dunne and Collins in particular have turned in imperious performances in the very biggest matches to make Villa - along with the evergreen and good-as-ever Brad Friedel - a defensive force to be reckoned with.
Going forward Villa boast an embarrassment of English riches, with Stewart Downing added in the summer to an already impressive attacking arsenal containing World Cup hopefuls James Milner, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Add to that the muscular physicality of John Carew and the much maligned yet extremely effective Emile Heskey and you have an attack that offers dynamic options and an imposing threat on the break and at set-pieces. Milner has developed this season into an integral piece of the jigsaw, while Downing's recovery from injury and subsequent promising performances have only strengthened Villa's hand.
There's clearly no doubting the tools at Villa's disposal - they have a squad that many Premier League managers would kill for. However, there are still those who are critical of the side and what many consider to be an overly pragmatic approach. The great debate over form against function, the aesthetic versus the pragamtic, is one that has dominated tactical debates for over half a century, and it is one that will be again addressed in part two and three of this series as it plays such a crucial role in analysing the three teams in question.
For Villa and O'Neill, the foundation of their success so far this season has been defensive solidity. It was hailed as the reason behind their famous victories against Manchester United and Chelsea, and provides their attacking players with the platform to break at pace and counter attack against sides worn down by the dogged determination of Dunne and his defensive warriors. However, this pragmatic approach has also been their weakness at times.
In displays against Tottenham (when they played more like an away side at Villa Park) and Everton (where they failed to create enough against a side who had lost three and drawn two of their previous five games), Villa dropped points when those hoping for them to break the top-four would have expected more. Against Spurs in particular it was the manner of the performance that planted seeds of doubt in the minds of many. Villa sneaked an early goal despite barely showing the desire to pressurise the understrength Tottenham defence, and were then happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Spurs eventually grabbed a point, but to all who observed the match, clearly deserved all three and Villa defended for their lives to keep hold of that solitary point.
If Aston Villa are to break into the Champions League places this season, shouldn't their supporters - and indeed their players and manager - expect to be doing more to take their chances? After all, it is unlikely to be the points gained against the very top sides that decides where teams like Villa will finish this season, but those against their immediate rivals and those below them. Last season Spurs had the best record against the "top-four" of any side in the league, but finished 8th due to poor results against weaker sides.
Surely Villa could be doing more week-in, week-out to mark themselves out as clear contenders for 4th place? They certainly have the tools at their disposal to do so, but it remains unclear whether Martin O'Neill will use those tools to their greatest potential. They may grab the attention of the country with eye-catching results, but in truth it may be the performances that give a more accurate glimpse of Villa's chances this season.
Click back to The Good of The Game tomorrow (18/12/09), when we'll be looking at Tottenham's chances of finishing in the top-four this season.