Aston Villa’s season started amid controversy: they hired their arch-rival’s manager, Alex McLeish, who, whilst winning the Carling Cup with Birmingham thus securing Europa League football for the 2011/12 season at St. Andrews, ran the Midlands side down the table and into the Championship. However, The Blues were not too keen to lose their Scottish manager and demanded that the aptly-named Villans paid off the remaining two years of his contract, amounting to £5m. It turned out to be a costly appointment
Perhaps the Carling Cup had hidden it, but Alex McLeish hadn’t adjusted his style of play appropriately to achieve sustainable success in the Premier League and with Aston Villa last season the point was reinforced. Having been relegated with Birmingham in 2008, McLeish achieved an instant return to the Premier League and recorded an excellent league position of ninth in their return season in the top flight. However, second season syndrome was apparent and relegation followed. Although McLeish joined Aston Villa with a win percentage of 36.9%, simply put, Aston Villa chiefs failed to notice his form was on the turn. In the season Birmingham were relegated his win percentage had slipped to just 21%.
Of his move across Birmingham to Villa Park, Villa’s chief executive stated that, “unquestionably, Alex meets the criteria we set out at the beginning of our search which was based on proven Premier League experience, leadership, a hardworking ethic and, most importantly, a shared vision for Aston Villa.” However, this “proven Premier League experience” amounted to a win percentage of just 27.5 from his two full seasons in charge at St. Andrews. Certain sections of the Villa faithful were rightly dubious, as McLeish himself alluded to, “I know that some of our fans have voiced concerns and I can understand why.” It wasn’t just his crossing of the footballing border that divided England’s second city and almost predictably Aston Villa finished 16th – their lowest finish since the 2005/06 campaign.
Much of Aston Villa’s preseason has unsurprisingly focused on two things: appointing the right manager for the long-term, as his eventual hiring would make him Villa’s fourth manager in the space of two years (compare this to the average lifespan of an English Football League manager – 2 years); and, secondly, addressing a defensive fragility that was either masked by McLeish’s unadventurous football or created by it.
For the O’Neill fans that undoubtedly remain in the Villa camp, it may well be the latter, considering the former Aston Villa boss has just signed Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer following his release from Villa Park, just one season after his now former employers had agreed a deal to sell him to Rangers. It was the Northern Irish manager who brought the Spaniard defender to the Premier League in 2008 for just under £8m. It may well be the same man to benefit from the same signing four years later at £7.8m less.
The defence, which was most commonly comprising of Stephen Warnock (38 appearances), James Collins (34 apps), Richard Dunne (32 apps) and Alan Hutton (34 apps), had consistency, as the stats show. However, it was often left exposed: firstly, by a deep-lying midfield that didn’t lack, but was restricted in, creative output; and, secondly, Shay Given.
A few seasons ago the Irish #1 was among the best – recently he has slumped and this might be an area Paul Lambert wishes to address, either with Brad Guzan pushing for the jersey or a new face providing a third man to fight for the starting spot. Take this data, for example:
The stats at the midway point last season:
Shay Given: 1,208 minutes; 18 goals conceded; 2 from outside the box; 43 saves; 4 clean sheets; 70.49% shots to save ratio; 67 minutes per goal conceded.
Brad Guzan: 592 minutes; 8 goals conceded; 0 from outside the box; 20 saves; 1 clean sheet; 71.43% shots to save ratio; 74 minutes per goal conceded.
At that point last season only four ‘keepers had avoided conceding from outside the box: not only was Guzan one of them, but he was the one with the most minutes to his name too. Pair this with his shots to saves ratio tippling Given’s and his 7 minutes more on average of no concession and a case can be made for the transition in the #1 jersey. As it stands, Brad Guzan has started in both of Aston Villa’s preseason friendlies stateside and The Sun reported in early July that Given was no longer Villa’s first-choice shot-stopper.