Eyebrows were raised when Aston Villa appointed Alex McLeish as their new manager in the Summer, not least because he was the manager of rivals Birmingham City. Half way through the season the appointment seems to have back-fired somewhat as Villa under McLeish, like under Houllier have failed to recreate the sort of form that had them challenging for fourth under Martin O’Neil only two seasons ago.
McLeish was not only the manager of rivals Birmingham City, but also relegated them making it even more of a bizarre change. It is not the relegation that was of most concern to some Villa fans but the manner in which ‘The Blues’ went down, having scored the least goals out of any other team, they were widely regarded as being incredibly boring to watch for Blues fans and neutrals alike.
McLeish has adopted the same sort of safety first approach to managing Villa which has paid little dividends as whilst the club sit in 12th place they are only four points off the relegation zone, a far cry from their high finishes under O’Neil. There recent goalless draw with Stoke further testament to their lack of attacking prowess.
McLeish at Birmingham
At Birmingham as stated McLeish adopted some incredibly defensive tactics as the side went down with only 37 goals scored the lowest out of any other team in the league. Birmingham’s statistics made equally dismal reading with them creating the least amount of chances out of any other Premier League team, a stat that will not surprise any Birmingham City fans. McLeish unsuccessfully took the safety first approach to management consistently leaving out more attacking players like Alexander Hleb, David Bentley and Obafemi Martins in favour of less effective, industrious options such as Barry Ferguson, Keith Fahey and Lee Bowyer. His side only won 8 games last season, the second least amount of wins after bottom placed West Ham which is why McLeish was such an odd appointment.
Villa form so far
So far Villa have flattered to deceive, adopting negative tactics and worse of all not getting the results to vindicate the defensive tactics. Statistical analysis of Villa’s season makes for dull reading. They boast the second lowest average possession at 42% and play only 296 short passes a game which is the third lowest, contrast that to the 497 passes per game played by the much more expansive Swansea.
There cagey tactics mean that they only have 11 shots on target per game again the second fewest chances created in the Premier League this season. For a team of Villa’s illustrious history this is far from good enough. Even under O’Neil, whilst not being expansive Villa still produced more attacking football with the likes of Downing and Milner in the squad. McLeish’s tactics so far involve mainly relying on the goal scoring threat of Darren Bent whilst keeping the rest of the side compact, something that is not working terribly at the moment having only conceded 23 which is less than Arsenal this season, as well as conceding on average 15 shots per game which is about average in the Premier League. Although in the context of their negative tactics they should arguably be defending better, something McLeish himself has noted lately.
The lack of potency in front of goal has led to Villa only recording four victories so far this campaign and makes any chance of European football next season look incredibly unlikely even at this stage in the season. In fact only Wigan and Blackburn have recorded less victories than Villa this season
The side are also not helped by the fact that despite all his goal scoring qualities Darren Bent does not get involved in attacking play other than scoring goals. His contribution to general play is limited at best as he only produces on average 15 passes per game the same as keepers Guzan and Given and less than half the 38 passes per game that Petrov delivers. The implications of this mean that when Bent plays Villa are creating with one less player.
Other problems at Villa
Not all of the fault lies with McLeish, arguably he has been forced into negative tactics somewhat after the sale of two of the clubs most influential attacking players in Downing and Young without significant reinvestment other than the out of form Charles N’Zogbia. For Villa to progress they’ll need to spend in January especially in the attacking third of the pitch, although considering the form of Dunne and Collins McLeish may look at the back first. Regardless, McLeish has been far from brave in his selection this season often playing a defensive 4-4-1-1 with Heskey in behind Bent and Agbonglahor wide which is evidenced by the creative Albrighton only gaining four starts this term. A 4-4-2 with Agbonglahor and Bent up top and Albrighton and N’Zogbia, whilst leaving Villa open somewhat would provide much more attacking impetus.
Villa’s future under McLeish
McLeish is seemingly recognizing the problem and with Heskey injured they will certainly look to invest. Villa have been linked with young Chelsea playmaker Josh McEachran who could provide flair next to the reliable and industrious Petrov. However it remains to be seen whether Villa will be able to adequately strengthen and even if they do whether it will result in a shift in emphasis for McLeish.
Regardless it seems that there is little danger of McLeish being sacked as Villa’s five point gap on the relegation zone is far larger than it appears and despite their lack of attacking flair the quality of both Bent and Agbonglahor should provide enough goals to secure Villa a mid-table position.
It is long term that things may need to be addressed, as on the face of it Villa appear to be a side stagnating, rather than progressing under McLeish. Although much of this as stated is down to Lerner selling off the clubs prized assets over recent years with Barry, Milner, Downing and Young all leaving.
The fact of the matter is as long as teams pick up points fans usually do not care about the quality of football, but to justify such dismal football results are absolutely essential and at Villa they have not been coming.