The Pride of the Midlands will not get relegated this season, but only because there are worse teams than them in the Premier League…
Last Saturday in the Premier League, a resurgent Arsenal side dismantled a lacklustre Aston Villa team 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium. Certainly, losing to a side that has rekindled its form the way Arsenal have, ever since the remarkable 5-2 victory over Spurs in late-February, is by no means a disgrace. This is an Arsenal side that has its belief and confidence back and have demonstrated, particularly in the last few games, that they are not a one-man team as some have depicted them as, with goals being scored by Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta.
In spite of this defeat of which there is no shame in, it helped to deflect attention away from a bigger issue at Villa Park. Villa currently stand 15th in the Premier League table, five points behind 16th placed Blackburn Rovers and with a game in hand, but with only one win in the league since January and have registered only seven league victories so far this season. Whilst I find highly unlikely that the Villains will be relegated from the Premier League this campaign, I believe this is only the case because there are worse teams below them in the division and that this club has some major problems that need to be addressed.
Since the memorable few recent seasons of consecutive 6th placed finishes and European football returning to Villa Park under the guidance of Martin O’Neil, Villa have been on a slippery slope and it is unclear when it will eventually abate. The once formidable Villa midfield quartet of Ashley Young, James Milner, Gareth Barry/Stiliyan Petrov and Stewart Downing has been well and truly dismantled in the past few seasons, admittedly for a combined transfer fee income of over £70 million.
These players have been sold and simply not replaced by the club. This season, the loss of Villa’s two star performers from last season, Downing and Young, have had a profound effect on the fortunes of the team. Young, although often criticised last season by Villa fans for allegedly having one eye on a summer transfer move as his contract dwindled down into his final year, his ability to deliver crosses and set-pieces with devastating accuracy have rarely been called into question. The Manchester United and England winger would still have been a welcome asset at Villa Park, least of all Darren Bent who all too often struggled for service and has often been left isolated this season.
Similarly, although Stewart Downing has disappointed since his £20 million move to Liverpool last summer, seemingly only beginning to justify his transfer fee in the past month or so, the former Middlesbrough man, along with Young, provided half of Villa’s 34 Premier League assists last season. The loss of these two players have unquestionably led to a depreciation in the quality of the present Villa side. The replacements on the flanks in the form of Marc Albrighton, an immensely talented but still inexperienced youngster, and Charles N’Zogbia, a frustrating player at the best of times and also out injured for a month now, are not at the same level as the two England internationals that proceeded them.
This lack of service, coupled with an ankle injury to Darren Bent that gravely threatens his Euro 2012 England aspirations, help to explain why Villa have scored just 31 goals so far this Premier League season, two fewer than relegation contenders Bolton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers and the same as Wolverhampton Wanderers.
These issues on the pitch have certainly not been helped at all by matters off it. Despite selling the likes of Downing and Young for a combined transfer fee of almost £40 million last summer, Villa still posted losses of nearly £54 million for the financial year 2010-11, and is a deficit that has deepened every year since Randy Learner purchased the club in 2006.
Furthermore, this has been made all the more concerning by reduced attendances at Villa Park this season, as Villa fans attempt to comprehend the trying times that their club is currently experiencing. Despite Villa Park having a capacity of almost 43,000 and being one of the largest grounds in English football, attendances for this season have typically been in the low to mid 30,000s. The highest attendance of just over 40,000 came in the fixture against Manchester United in early December, whilst the game against Wigan Athletic in October proved to be the lowest league attendance so far this season at just over 30,000 spectators, contributing to an average of just over 34,000.
This is my view, is partly a reaction to one man being installed in the Villa hot seat. Granted, the fans never really took to previous manager Gérard Houllier, with the 1-0 home defeat to Wolves at Villa Park in the 2010-11 season prompting widespread chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and banners pleading for his exit being draped from the Holte End. But the treatment of Houllier was cordial and thoroughly pleasant in comparison to that Alex McLeish received when he walked through the doors at Villa Park.
I cannot recollect a managerial appointment being greeted with such widespread vocal disapproval from fans, but the arrival of McLeish at Villa was always going to be a controversial move and one that, ultimately, I struggle to believe will ever succeed there. Villa supporters were always going to be reluctant to accept a manager that has come from their fierce local rivals, Birmingham City, and demonstrations outside the ground against his appointment were, to some extent, an inevitability. But to accept a manager that had taken them down to the Championship twice in four years, with the defensive and negative tactics that would be seldom accepted at Villa Park, means his task appears to be a near impossible one.
Clearly then, Aston Villa have some big problems that require addressing and need to be given proper attention over the summer months. Whether it will be Alex McLeish who will charged with the responsibility to implement these changes and get Villa back to where a club of that stature should be remains to be seen, but the rot that has set in at Villa Park needs to be treated sooner rather than later.