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Post Mortem of a Crushing Defeat

As a Villa fan, I am clearly devastated about the result on Saturday. Having gone into the day with quite some optimism that we might at least be able to grab a point, the final result was a bitter pill to swallow. Admittedly, a defeat is a defeat, but it was the manner of it that was so embarrassing. As O’Neill admitted, the team seemed to give up after the third, which for a professional football team, is simply unforgivable. However, it is only a single defeat and the overreaction that has been seen on forums and message boards is quite ridiculous. Demands for O’Neill to be sacked, for the entire team to be dropped and fined, or boycotting the cup semi-final will not help anything, and there is a lot to be positive about for Villa fans.

I am not claiming that everything is rosy at Villa Park. A previous article looked at the growing discontent with Martin O’Neill, and this defeat is only going to exacerbate the situation. As a fan, I try to support the management and the players as much as possible, but there is nothing achieved by permanently looking at things through rose-tinted glasses. We have just suffered our worst defeat for a generation, and despite having been unbeaten this calendar year, performances have been poor and we came into this game on the back of consecutive home draws against two relatively mediocre sides. O’Neill has said it is his most devastating defeat in his managerial career, and I suspect a lot of fans are in agreement with him.

The result keeps up Martin O’Neill’s unwanted record of still having never won a Premiership game in March in his 4 years in charge of Villa. Is it merely an unfortunate coincidence or a sign of something systematically wrong at the club? The team relies on playing a high-tempo, high pressing game, which becomes difficult when players become tired. The team is not renowned for playing possession football – indeed, the players do not look after the ball particularly well at all – meaning that there is a lot of chasing, requiring a high work rate. Against Chelsea, five players had fitness tests on the day of the game, with four of them playing. Furthermore, the players have looked tired in recent matches – a point picked up on by Chelsea and John Terry. So, considering the style of play, it only seems right to question the decision to play tired, injured players.

Richard Dunne has been clearly struggling with injury recently, yet O’Neill decided to drop Carlos Cuellar to bring in the fresh Luke Young. James Milner has been taken off in both of the previous two games with injury, yet he played all 90 minutes against Chelsea, despite being out on his feet by the end. He made a change by bringing in Steve Sidwell to replace Stewart Downing, and was rewarded by a good performance. He was excellent in the first half and was one of the only bright points for Villa in the game.

However, this situation is nothing new. We saw a spectacular collapse last season, which was blamed on our European excursions and a small squad. This season, we lost in the qualifying round for the Europa League and invested in a number of squad members over the summer. However, the situation is the same. He has failed to rotate his squad at all over the course of the season thus far, playing the first team players into the ground to the point where they are virtually all exhausted or carrying injuries. Despite regular claims that he intends to rotate, he has used the second lowest number of players in the league this season – players such as Fabien Delph, Habib Beye, Nathan Delfouneso, Nigel Reo-Coker, Mark Albrighton and Curtis Davies have made a grand total of 28 start and 22 substitute appearances between the six of them in all league, cup and European games.

He also seems to have a tendency to play players out of position. We have two quality right backs in Luke Young and Habib Beye, both of whom have impressed when given the opportunity, yet he continues to persist with Carlos Cuellar in that position. Whilst Cuellar hasn’t disgraced himself, he is a central defender by trade and severely limits our attacking ability down that flank. The conversion of James Milner into a central midfielder is not ideal either. Whilst he has impressed against the smaller sides, he has looked out of place against the leading teams and leaves us with a situation of having Stiliyan Petrov and three wingers in midfield. This is exacerbated by the fact that Petrov is an attacking midfielder by trade, but has been converted into a holding midfielder at Villa. Using Milner alongside two other natural central midfielders would work, enabling him to use his creative abilities, but having the cover of two other midfielders.

However, despite all the negatives, it has not been a bad season for Villa. They are in seventh place in the league, having played all of the top 6 twice, with the exception of Manchester City. Realistically, it could be argued that this is position that we belong. The teams above us have all spent a lot more money and have a better squad, so should be above us. There have been victories at Old Trafford, Anfield, and the derby at St Andrews to enjoy, as well as victory over Chelsea at Villa Park. Before the Chelsea game, Villa had the joint best defence in the Premiership with Manchester United and every team but Chelsea has lost more games. One cup final has come and gone, whilst there is the FA Cup semi-final coming up next month.

Hopefully, the 7-1 to Chelsea is simply a freak one-off result and it will act as the kick-in-the-teeth that both Villa and Martin O’Neill need to finish the season well. A victory against Bolton next weekend will provide 3 points from the two games – more than would have been obtained from two draws. If you remember, Everton got hammered on the opening day of the season and have bounced back strongly to have an outside chance of a European place for next season. With games against Bolton, Hull, Portsmouth and Birmingham to come, there is the potential to bounce back and secure the points needed to ensure European football next season. The Champions League may be beyond them, but a top six finish is still a realistic possibility.

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