Villa's form under Houllier puzzles
The 4-3-3 formation that England twice turned out in this past week wasn't quite as groundbreaking as Fabio Capello appeared to think, but his choice of personnel (particularly for Tuesday's 1-1 draw against Ghana) was change enough to tickle the nostrils with the scent of progress. It's already becoming difficult to imagine England without Jack Wilshere, Gary Cahill's first start was an assured one, and Liverpool striker Andy Carroll looked at home winning his second cap. But it was the Aston Villa trio of Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Darren Bent that really got tongues wagging.
Collectively, they had started 15 internationals in the previous six years; this week they added four starts (two for Young and one apiece for his teammates) and the verdict in the English press was unanimous: they and the formation should stay. Young was based on the left of the front three but roamed pretty much where he fancied, bringing a Djinn-like menace to England's attack. Downing's movement is perhaps more predictable, but his passing is an asset few others can really match from the right. Bent's goal was coolly taken. "The manager said he was going to bring change to the squad and he has done that," said Young.
As well as talking up their futures on the international scene, the three have also spent the last few days insisting that they can transfer their performances to club level. "Coming away with England gives you confidence if you play well," said Downing to reporters. We're more accustomed to wondering how players capable of single-handedly carrying their club sides through matches can suddenly lack any hint of influence when they pull on an England shirt. But this week England's most talked about performers came from a club just one point away from the Premier League's relegation zone. How has Aston Villa managed that?
It's not just Young, Bent and Downing; Villa is one of the few Premier League clubs to have developed reserves of such quality that they have transferred -- in numbers -- into the first XI. Marc Albrighton's exuberance betrays his youth but his decision making, like his delivery, is reliably mature. Though England's Under-21s lost to Iceland on Monday, he was singled out for praise by manager Stuart Pearce. Ireland's Ciaran Clark was also on the losing side against Uruguay on Tuesday, but has had a similarly impressive breakout season. Barry Bannan, Nathan Delfouneso, Nathan Baker, Andreas Weimann, Chris Herd and Eric Lichaj ... the squad list is a mouthwatering inventory of young talent, yet Villa's future hasn't looked so precarious in a long time.
Bafflingly, these names seem primed for the kind of changes coach Gerard Houllier says he wants to make to Villa's play. It's been clear during the side's better performances that he envisions something more commanding than the counterattacking soccer of recent years. Recent testimonials from coaching staff such as Gary McAllister and Gordon Cowans (who recently told the www.avfc.co.uk club website that Houllier had implemented a Barcelona blueprint in training) back that up. Yet Bannan, whose use of the ball is terrific, was allowed to leave on loan last month; the alternative pairing of Jean Makoun and Nigel Reo-Coker (used against Wolves) is conservative at best -- and still failed to cure the defensive weaknesses that have cost Villa at times this season.
The campaign did not get off to the best start, with Martin O'Neill walking out of the manager's post five days before the first match kicked off. The arrival of Houllier (who had barely been mentioned in English football since leaving Liverpool in 2004) six weeks later did not occasion too many street parties in the West Midlands. His first gaffe was to describe Villa, which had finished in sixth place for three consecutive seasons, as a midtable club, and his PR skills haven't much improved since.
Before Villa's last match (a bewildering home defeat to Wolves, the league's worst travelers and a team that hadn't won at Villa Park for 31 years), fans in the Holte End strung up a banner reading "Had enough. Houllier Out." Spectators on all sides jeered "You don't know what you're doing" as the manager made changes in the second half, and unleashed boos from the pits of their bellies as Houllier hurried away from the pitch at the final whistle. The board was forced to reiterate its support for the manager it courted for weeks.
At least now the manager -- who has overseen almost as many defeats in 31 games in charge of Villa (13) as he did in 108 matches at Lyon (14) -- is starting to say some of the right things. Though he seems as bemused as anyone by the position Villa is in, he has acknowledged that the club is too close to the drop-zone to cling to any belief that it is too good to go down. "There has been too much discrepancy between what we are capable of showing and what we have showed," he said recently to reporters. "Everybody is concerned; we are not dreamers. Whatever we say, only the results are what we will be judged on."
He has described Villa's remaining matches as "eight wars" and goalkeeper Brad Friedel, dispatched this week to spread a message of peace and harmony after a testing spell for intra-club relations, told Sky's reporters, "We've got eight cup finals; I can assure the fans that we're all pulling together as one." With unrest in the stands, supporters have become an essential part of Villa's battle rhetoric. "The fans must feel a bit of anxiety, like us, [but] everything that can help the team in terms of support will help us improve," Houllier said. The message is clear: we need to improve, but we also need you onside.
It's unlikely that Houllier will do enough in the remainder of the season to win his detractors over -- if Villa avoids relegation, he will be seen by many only to have cleaned up his own mess (though perhaps not by those who suspect that O'Neill's departure was timed precisely to avoid this scenario). Those who insist he needs more time are outnumbered, and if O'Neill's exit was precipitated by Randy Lerner's reluctance to allow him more money to spend, the owner may feel the same way about giving Houllier a summer transfer window.
It is tempting to see Houllier in the same terms as Roy Hodgson at Liverpool: the wrong manager at the wrong time. For every good move, he has made at least one to negate its effect or undermine his assertion that he has plotted the right course for Villa. His relationship with his players, he says, has been misreported, but the fragility of his tenure is evident, and will be worse if Villa takes its atrocious away form (two wins in 15) to Goodison Park this weekend.
What may save him, if nothing else does, are questions over what can be achieved by axing a manager at this stage. Fulham has twice bounced with late changes (2002-03 and 2006-07), but was further clear of trouble than Villa is currently. Ian Dowie and Alan Shearer both had eight games to rescue Hull City (2009-10) and Newcastle United (2008-09) and failed. With some of Villa's biggest performers seemingly hitting a purple patch, it may be a case of "better the devil you know" for now.