Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Where next for O’Neill and Aston Villa?

For a team currently lying in 5th place in the English Premier League and vying for a top 4 finish that would put them among Europe’s Elite in the Champions League Aston Villa are facing a very few weeks. With rumours of O’Neill walking out on the club a few weeks ago and the threat of losing their newly crowned ‘PFA Young Player of the Year’ James Milner to Manchester United the club stand on the precipice; in one sense very much looking onwards and upwards but the flipside is falling back into mid table mediocrity.

Since taking over at the start of the 2006 season O’Neill has revived a sleeping giant of English football. The departing Doug Ellis had steered the club through the initial upheaval of the premier league but did not have the financial means to compete with the top sides in the league. The new owner Randy Lerner moved quickly to appoint the highly regarded Martin O’Neill after his very successful stint with Celtic. He was given the finances to change the appearance of the side and began to bring in young English talent aided with the academy players coming through.

His purchases have been sound and well thought through, mixing a blend of youth and experience in vital areas which has made the side hard to beat and extremely dangerous on the counter attack. Villa’s policy of buying young English players is something the national manager and fans should appreciate with so many foreign players occupying most of the starting positions in the top sides. They have reached one domestic final and were knocked out by Chelsea in the semi finals of the other. But for a terrible refereeing decision in the 5th minute of the game they could well have lifted their first major trophy since 1996.

The dilemma O’Neill faces this summer is whether he feels he can take Villa any further. With the emergence of Manchester City’s bottomless pit of money they have dropped further down the list of possible winners. They have had the last 2 winners of the ‘PFA Young Player of the Year’ award but how long can he hang onto these promising players before they leave for bigger and more successful clubs. In James Milner they have a player who thoroughly deserves his accolade of the best young player this season, he has scored 12 goals and contributed 12 assists from a more central position that he hasn’t operated in before. His dynamism has alerted Manchester United to the real possibility he could be the answer to the question every fan has asked for years – ‘who can possibly replace Paul Scholes?’ I don’t feel he is a like for like replacement but he does possess something United need and that’s a goal scoring contributor from the centre of midfield who is used to the rigours of the Premier League.

Should Villa lose one of their up and coming players the worry will be that O’Neill decides to walk away from the club he has turned around in the last 4 seasons. If he cannot hang onto his best players one has the feeling that he never will be able to continue to develop this team. They are short of a really creative forward who can link up with Agbonlahor, Carew, Downing, Milner and Young. Unless they can find that whilst holding onto the current squad members they will struggle to bridge the next gap. O’Neill has always been a very strong and independent man who will make quick judgements on where his future may lie. The big concern for all Villa fans is that if the bubble bursts this summer they may slip back into mediocrity which will be a massive shame for all football fans and especially the premier league.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

In Wenger we trust??????

As we approach the end of the 2009/10 season one club in particular has more questions to be answered than any other. For the 5th season in a row Arsene Wenger finds himself competing for nothing before the end of April. The same conversations have been heard every year about buying big names and trying to blend his young protégés with experienced, world class performers.

This is the biggest summer of Wenger’s career and it is unthinkable for a manager with his credentials to go 6 seasons without any silverware. The invincibles will live long in the memory of Highbury faithfuls but how long can he bask in previous glories before the club decide on a change of direction.

Certainly there are positions he must look to strengthen the squad in but there is a more pressing issue he must address if Arsenal are to achieve the success both he and the supporters crave. The games at the Emirates against Manchester United and Chelsea respectively showed a gulf in class and a naivety which he can no longer blame on inexperience. The ease in which both sides soaked up pressure and hit them on the break is a failing of Wenger’s tactical attributes. The need for a top class defensive midfielder has never been as important as it is in modern day football. Positioning and organising are two things that Arsenal are crying out for and the emerging Alexandre Song, promising though he is, is not capable of standing up to the tests presented by the top clubs in Europe.

Their nearest rivals spent £18 and £24 million respectively on Owen Hargreaves and Michael Essien, they identified the need for someone to sit in front of the back four and protect the centre backs. Why then have Arsenal not addressed this situation since selling both Vieira and Silva, not to mention allowing Flamini to leave on a Bosman to AC Milan? Obviously there is a question of whether there is money available.

There are very contrasting views on this held by Arsenal fans, some claim to have seen their finances and say there is no money available whilst other say the complete opposite. The move to the Emirates has clearly affected the clubs finances but I find it hard to believe there is no money there after selling Adebayor and Toure to Manchester City last summer making a profit of £35.85 million.

Some of this money was spent on the Belgian Thomas Vermaelen who has had a very successful first season. He is a very good player with the ball but some of his positioning in the bigger games has been questionable. The centre back is 24 and looks to have a bright future ahead of him but what he and the rest of the young Arsenal players need is someone to go to and look up to at times of crisis. Wenger’s U-Turn in bringing back Sol Campbell reeked of desperation, although he has looked world class in comparison to the other option; Silvestre.

When you look at the Chelsea and United squads there are so many players the young starlets can go to in times of crisis. The look Wayne Rooney (who don’t forget is only 23) gave Nani at half time in the San Siro against Milan was one of frustration but he went and put his arm around the young Portuguese player as they walked down the tunnel. Who do the young Arsenal players turn to at times of crisis? When Arsenal were winning trophies there was Adams, Dixon, Vieira, Silva, and a few more.

If Wenger plans to compete with Chelsea and United next year for the Premiership he must bring in some players in the peak of their powers who will aid the development of the young players and also bring experience. He missed the boat with Senna from Villareal a couple of years ago but should be looking to bring in someone who can take control of situations and add to the blend of youth and technique he has at the club. The Arsenal fans display banners at the Emirates stating ‘In Wenger we trust’, that trust is on the wane, it is now his biggest challenge to prove those doubters wrong!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Jose Does It Again

With all the problems surrounding the journey Barcelona encountered on their Journey to Milan over the weekend Jose Mourinho was presented to the media on Monday looking calm and confident. The ‘eyes of the world will be upon this game’ he said as football fans the world over prepared for the battle between the great tactician and the masterful Catalans, already being talked about as the greatest club side in the history of the game.

The pre match talk was of Inter looking to keep things tight and head to the Camp Nou with the game still very much in the balance. What ensued was a game not many neutrals expected and even the most die hard Nerazzurri fan would have fantasised about in their wildest dreams.

Mourinho’s team selection was straight forward and the team lined up in exactly the same manner as they had against Chelsea in the first knock out stage. Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o lined up in the wide positions of a three pronged attack with two instructions; firstly to nullify the attacking threats posed by Maxwell and Alves and secondly to support the Argentine forward Diego Milito. Pandev in particular seemed more determined to reinforce the defence in the initial stages rather than support Milito, who often found himself with nobody in support in the opening minutes. The intentions he laid out were clear, keep things tight in defence and then get the ball forward as quickly and as effectively as possible. This was not quite Herrera’s Catenaccio but certainly a modern day equivalent. With the two colossal south Americans (Samuel and Lucio) at the heart of the defence Barcelona’s passing and movement would have to be at its best in order to catch them on the back foot.

Any side preparing to play against this sublime Barcelona side will not expect to have much possession, the key however is to press and maintain a small gap between the lines of defence and attack. The real surprise came in the way Inter moved the ball so directly and at such speed when going forward. The ball was often played behind one of the full backs which in turn then separated and isolated Puyol and Pique, Milito, who was an ever willing runner, was continually winning the race.

It came however as no surprise that Barca took the lead after 19 minutes. The lines of defence that Mourinho would have talked about all week disappeared the moment Maicon allowed Maxwell to race passed him and pick out Pedro from the by-line to finish calmly for his 20th goal of the season. As soon as the ball hit the back of the net everyone, including the majority of the fans in the Guiseppe Meazza stadium would have feared the worst. Out came Mourinho from the dug out, encouraging and remonstrating with his players to start again and maintain focus.

What followed is something that became synonymous with Mourinho’s teams in the past. Firstly, Milito missed a great opportunity to pull level before Eto’o managed to escape Maxwell and deliver a cross towards Milito. The Argentine cleverly controlled the ball and just before the on rushing Alves could close him down he laid the ball neatly to Sneijder who passed the ball into the net. There was certainly an element of fortune in the third and final goal of the evening but one that any neutral would find hard to deny a team that had shut down the most creative side of the last 30 years.

The realisation of the players that Mourinho’s belief in them had substance spurred them onto a dramatic victory that has put one leg in the final at the Santiago Bernebeu on 22nd May. The performances of each and every player is one that will have to be repeated again in the Nou Camp but one feels that only a team managed and run by Mourinho is capable of going there and finishing the job.