Something in Lorber’s post on the transfer needs of Aston Villa stuck in my craw. And perhaps what’s about to follow comes offer as sour grapes, but it really has to get off of my chest.
As anyone who visited Unprofessional Foul, the site in whose comment section our incredible staff incubated their wit and wisdom about the game, with any regularity knows, I could be quick to ire when discussing the one-dimensional deficiencies of O’Neill’s Villa side. I stopped listening to the Times’ TheGame podcast because of presenter Gab Marcotti’s constant insistence that MON was little more than a pocketbook manager. After all, the wee Ulsterman was continually improving the team’s points tally and cup progress. And look at the way he jumped after every goal! Who wouldn’t want Martin O’Neill as their club (or national team) manager?
And then it happened.
At the year-end Villa awards banquet in May of 2010, Martin O’Neill delivered what many considered to be a valedictory address, including the odd remark “I don’t think Randy Lerner has to ring up Mark Hughes just yet.” O’Neill stayed through the Summer, and then, almost inexplicably, left Villa hanging on August 9, 2010, just five days before the first match of the season.
Plausibly, O’Neill had the excuse that he was watching his best players move on Summer after Summer. James Milner was about to be sold, for 24 million plus Stephen Ireland, and Gareth Barry had gone the summer before. But in May 2011, the Guardian released its financial reports on the Premier League, and it turned out that O’Neill had, at least according to the finances reported (I am quoting this very gingerly, as O’Neill has sued the Guardian based on this article), rung up a wage bill of 80 million pounds to go with Villa’s turnover of 91 million. Without Champions League payouts to subsidize further spending, and O’Neill not using his whole squad enough to attract buyers for his surplus players (despite complaining constantly to the press about having a “small squad”), Randy Lerner had no choice but to take back the blank checkbook. And this was O’Neill’s response- to walk out rather than suffer a potential setback year and do harm to his reputation as Villa’s white knight in a tracksuit.
I used to joke to Spurs supporters about how Harry Redknapp had left his previous employers in the financial shit, and that they’d better watch out that he doesn’t do the same to them. Given that Villa are still digging out from the high wage bill appropriated by O’Neill, I would like to formally apologize for that. But that’s not why my hackles were raised; that just sets the first point of warning for Sunderland supporters- unless Niall Quinn can be the Daniel Levy to MON’s ‘Arry, you might not like what happens when he leaves.
My hackles were raised because of this line:
Under Martin O’Neill, [Aston Villa] played scintillating attacking football
To be fair, that was true of Villa on their best days under O’Neill. However, in many matches where O’Neill was either technically outmatched or the opposing team set out to defend, Villa could be ponderous and slow to break the opposition down. Arsene Wenger famously referred to Villa’s play as “long ball” in 2010, with the Daily Fail later deducing that 15 percent of Villa’s passes in O’Neill’s last season were over 35 yards. Indeed, O’Neill had sold or let walk cultured central defenders like Gary Cahill and Olof Mellberg in favor of hoof-first-and-ask-questions-later James Collins. He even preferred playing Spanish Colossus Carlos Cuellar (and Mellberg before him) at right back over Luke Young, who either played on the left or not at all during his term with the club.
But let’s look objectively at O’Neill’s term tactically. In the chalkboards linked below, I’ve selected two “low point” matches for Aston Villa, with the idea that a team in struggle is a better indicator for a manager’s intent than their high points. The first match is that selfsame Arsenal match that led to Wenger’s comment, a nil-nil draw at Villa Park. The second is Villa’s 2-0 defeat to Tottenham at the Lane this season, in which Alex McLeish famously selected a defensive lineup, including two right backs, that had trouble defending. I’ve decided to use the three constants in those matches, Stiliyan Petrov in central midfield, Carlos Cuellar at Right Back, and Gabby Agbonlahor as a center forward, to illustrate my points. The interesting thing here is that both managers play a 4-4-2 in these matches, which is MON’s preferred formation, while McLeish’s 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system in this match supercedes HIS preferred 4-2-3-1.
Petrov has a similar role in both managers’ favored formations. Under O’Neill, he served as the holder in a central two of a 4-4-2, often allowing James Milner to run around like an excited puppy dog or Gareth Barry to play traffic cop in directing Villa’s attack. Under McLeish, he usually plays in the holding bank of a 4-2-3-1, in this match alongside Fabian Delph, but alternately with Ciaran Clark or Chris Herd. In the match under O’Neill, Petrov stays primarily in the center circle, just holding and distributing either to Milner or the backline. Against Tottenham, however, Petrov seemed to have been given more license to join the attack, spending only a plurality of his time at the center, but also popping up at varying positions in the final third. And this is during a match with Villa largely on the back foot.
Moving onto Cuellar, we see a right back doing largely right back things in both matches, with the interesting point that he spends a fair whack of time just on the corner of the Tottenham penalty area under McLeish, this despite the tactical remit, alongside Hutton, to contain Gareth Bale at all costs.
Finally, there is Agbonlahor, who as the strike partner to Emile Heskey in the match against Arsenal, winds up very oddly on the left flank for much of the time, which ends up removing the sting from Villa’s attack– both combine for only three shots, with only Agbonlahor reaching the target for Villa all match. In the match against Tottenham, Agbonlahor ens up playing as a second striker, dropping deep to link play between the midfield and Darren Bent, who took the side’s only three shots of the match.
And this is where perception comes in. Yes, O’Neill’s Villa was capable of matches like the 3-2 thriller at Goodison (apologies, Brian- had to bring it up). But they were just as capable of dour 0-0 stinkers like the match at home (at HOME!) to Arsenal. Yet because he jumps when the team scores, and he’s a good interview, he’s seen as a more attacking manager than Alex McLeish, who yes, introduced what was practically a 6-2-2 visiting the Lane, but also produced a dominant attacking performance in Villa’s 3-1 win over Chelsea to close out 2011. All I’m saying, Sunderland fans, is don’t believe in the wings just yet. When O’Neill leaves, they’ll turn out to have been made of wax the whole time.