Why Alex McLeish must now leave Aston Villa.
Well, thank God the season has finished. BBC Sport – now firmly ensconced in Manchester - has witnessed the establishment of the Capital of the Football World and the commencement of the hegemony of the Mancunians. More opportunities for high-pitched hyperbole from mediocre commentators like Alan Green, no doubt.
London, too, has something to talk about: Chelsea’s mid-season resurrection and a place in the champions League Final; the re-birth of Arsenal after a very slow start; the continued glorification of Spurs as The Most Attractive Football-Playing Team in the UK; and the survival of QPR in the top flight (despite Joey Barton’s best efforts).
Meanwhile, the misery of Midlanders knows no bounds: Baggies fans are congratulating themselves because they’ve finished as the region’s top team; an underwhelming tenth, with a points-haul that would have had them dicing with the drop in other seasons. Their reward? – to lose their manager to the England job.
Wolves fans were given the coup de grace from the antics of a manager who has failed to rise above failure for most of his managerial career; being sacked before having to witness the inevitable. And Birmingham once again bounce around at the top end of their natural level; in the second tier of English football and without the excitement of a play-off final to enjoy. At least they had their European Adventure, to give some mid-season cause for optimism. And they have a manager that many regard as under-rated and capable of leading them back to the promised land of the Premiership.
Which leaves Aston Villa.
The region’s only credible contender for footballing royalty (albeit based on a fast-fading historical credibility) has had an “annus horribilis”. It started badly with the appointment of a manager whose previous EPL record was poor, to say the least; having taken his previous team down to the Championship twice in three seasons. Before that, his club-management record in Scotland was, again, unconvincing at both Motherwell and Rangers.
His job was always going to be tough: the Villa Chairman had, after all, put himself in the firing line of the club’s supporters’ ire by bringing in the Birmingham City manager (yes, the one that had overseen the relegation of said club twice in three seasons). He furthermore demanded that the unfortunate McLeish manage on what some perceived to be a shoestring, only around £20m of the £38m garnered from the sale of Downing and Young being released for squad improvement.
Set against that, the previous season had been pretty poor for Villa, their final position of 9th masking the fact that they’d spent most of it in the lower reaches and had not secured premiership safety until a couple of weeks from the end of the season. Their final points-tally of 42 gave them the security of being above the traditional 40-point safety threshold, and their neighbours took the tumble on 39.
However, the season just finished makes last year seem positively serene. Consider the following summary of McLeish’s record:
- Win ratio of 18.5% for the EPL season.
- Worst points haul at Villa since 1986-7.
- Highest number of draws in the Premiership: 41% more than the next team (Stoke and Sunderland).
- Highest number of draws in a Villa season since 1975-6.
- Lowest number of goals-scored in the bottom 6 clubs (and only surpassed by Stoke in the whole division).
- Lowest number of goals by a Villa team scored in a season since 1969-70.
- Worst record in the league for losing from winning positions – 22 points lost.
- Conceded more from set pieces than any other team.
- The only EPL team not to score from a corner all season.
- Villa’s worst-ever league home record for games-won - a miserable 4 home wins in the league.
- VP crowds down by 9% this season.
Even in his use of the money given to him by the chairman, his three outfield-player purchases (including Jenas on loan) failed to ignite the team, particularly N’Zogbia of whom many had high hopes.
McLeish will point to the constraints under which he was working: let’s interrogate these excuses.
1. The Chairman made it very clear that reducing the wage bill was a key target this season, ready for the introduction of the FIFA FFP rules (a trading condition that many believe will be ignored, and in preparation of which many clubs seem to be curiously inactive).
The claim that McLeish was financially-constrained holds no water: yes, the squad lost Downing and Young but there was money for the new manager, he still had the services of several well-paid experienced players and he also had the emergence of virtually a whole team of youngsters from the academy. The squad of players was not, itself, a reason to think that Villa could not perform to upper-mid levels of the table in a Premiership season that was to be generally of poor quality.
2. The spate of injuries that forced key players out of the team at key times in the season (Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Darren Bent and Stylian Petrov all suffered long periods out of contention).
Yes, McLeish suffered injuries, as all teams do through the course of a season; and they came principally to key experienced players. However, the reality is that during Given’s absence the team had its best run of results; during Dunne’s absence the team stopped conceding needless set-piece goals (Chelsea at home, aside). Losing Darren Bent was bound to reduce goalscoring and even after missing the last 12 games of the season Bent remained the team’s highest scorer with a paltry 9 goals.
Stylian Petrov’s absence has been welll documented; and he has been sorely missed.
The point is, McLeish experienced no worse or better an injury problem than other managers in the league to which he feels he is naturally suited; despite what he might say. The reality is that he induced a mind-numbing style of play and an unwillingness to release the talent at his disposal in positions that would maximise their abilities.
3. He’ll claim that this was not his squad of players and that he needs time to put together his own team.
The fact is that he brought in three players at a cost of nearly £20m, also brought in a loanee (Jenas) and had the benefit of a whole squad of academy-developed youngsters to utilise and mould into his squad. He also had the opportunity – at the very least – to tighten the defence (as he claims to have done in his previous roles) and address an issue that had blighted the club in the season under Houllier.
The defence – particularly at set pieces – has been pretty poor; he demonstrates no great squad-building prowess from previous roles and has failed to make anything of the resources available to him.
4. The fans’ natural antagonism toward a manager previously in charge down the road at Birmingham City.
McLeish may have felt the pressure of being a former Birmingham City manager but the fans were not responsible for creating that pressure. In fact, apart from a half-baked effort to rouse antagonism against him pre-season, the Villa fans have been remarkably restrained. Until the away game at Wigan at the end of February - when the manager’s tactics, team set-up and substitution policy were uber-cautious and frankly bizarre – there had been no outpouring of negativity toward him. And it was only in the aftermath of the home defeat to Bolton (a result that could well have put us into the Championship) on April 24th, that large-scale antagonism erupted.
The reality is that McLeish’s appointment has been a disaster: a badly-judged selection of an apparently-nice bloke hopelessly out of his depth; as his previous club-management roles prove. The facts of the season reproduced above should convince any sane Chairman that the manager responsible cannot possibly retain the confidence of the Board or the fans. His departure cannot come too soon, and the general view is that this will indeed happen.
Given that the fans of most other clubs regard Villa’s games against them as abject, boring and tedious in the extreme this season, can Villa fans take anything from this season on which to build hope of a bright future? Or is next season going to deliver the relegation that - without changes - many regard as inevitable?
Well, there are reasons for cautious optimism as long as a prudent choice of replacement is made following McLeish’s departure. Chief amongst these is the emergence of some promising players from the Academy – Lichaj, Baker and Clark in defence look like they have Premiership credentials. Herd, Carruthers and Gardner have established the right to be given further Premiership games in midfield. Up front, Andreas Weimann appears to have good goalscoring instincts and a willingness to chase lost causes (which we saw against Fulham, possibly the decisive moment in securing Premiership status). Bannan, Delfouneso and Johnson are yet to prove their Premiership worth even if the former has played several games for the full Scottish team.
The club has also got to the point where many of Martin O’Neill’s expensive, journeyman signings can be removed from the books – Beye, Heskey, Warnock and Cuellar are out of contract finally, and Dunne and Collins are into their final year. This gives the new manager the opportunity to find the replacements required at prices that can be afforded in order to blend the talented youth we have with experience brought in.
As you’ll see, this is job for a manager in the new mould of Rodgers, Martinez, Adkins and McDermott; rather than in the old style of McLeish, O’Neill and McCarthy. Here’s hoping that Randy Lerner doesn’t botch it again.