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Aston Villa: Documenting their free fall from grace

Article written by: @joescarc

Aston Villa have long been at the forefront of English Football.  Seven first division titles, seven FA cup titles, five league cup titles, and a European Cup make for a decorated history.  However it was some time ago that the silverware was won and right now seems longer ago than ever.  Inevitably, there are few teams more accomplished than Villa.

Since the inception of the Premier League back in 1992, Aston Villa have never been relegated, yet at this current time of writing (and admittedly since at least Christmas 2014) they look closer than ever to the drop. And with only eleven matches left including bouts with Spurs and Manchester United and City to come, the claret and blues look a good bet to be heading straight to the Championship.

So what has happened? A mere five years ago, Aston Villa were consistently pushing to be in the UEFA Europa league (then the UEFA Cup) and could almost always be found situated in the top half of the English Premier League table. The decline however, started with poor business decisions from Randy Lerner. When Lerner first took over the Midlands Club, he freed the purse strings and splashed the cash spending £24.6M in his first year, including the signings of club icon Stiliyan Petrov, cult hero John Carew, and the often maligned Ashley Young. The owner simply wanted to support then manager Martin O’Neill, and subsequently the American billionaire splashed out a grand total of £92M on player signings over the next four years.

But after selling studs like James Milner and Ashley Young in the summer of 2010, Martin O’Neill resigned from his role as Aston Villa manager on August 9th, just a matter of days before the start of the Premier League. Randy Lerner then had to act quickly and make a quick decision, resulting in the hiring of manager Gerard Houllier who had been out of work for three years at that point but in his previous job however, he did manage to keep Lyon at the upper echelon of Ligue 1, winning titles both years he managed there. Yet due to a medical complication, Houllier was forced out of his position in April of 2011. Circumstances aside, the Aston Villa supporters appeared to be quite happy with the forced managerial change.

Randy Lerner however, has had a history of not listening to the supporters. In some ownership groups, this is sometimes not necessarily a bad thing, however Lerner does not understand the intricacies of English football as his next decision can categorically be called his most unpopular and statistically worst decision. The American Billionaire decided it was in the clubs best interest to hire Scotsman Alex McLeish, hailing from crosstown rivals Birmingham City. The decision was followed by outrage from the fans; to hire a rivals manager who just led the team to relegation – what on earth was this “businessman” thinking?

That same summer the incoming transfer deals began to dry up. £13M was spent on Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia to replace the departed Brad Friedel who departed on a free and Stewart Downing who left for a sum of £20M. Whether this was down to a poor scouting pipeline, a lack of faith, an incompetent manager or a mix of all three, is anyone’s guess but this was a real turning point for Villa. Houllier who had guided the Claret and Blues to a 10th place finish had been forcibly replaced by a manager whose win percentage remains the worst in club history at a paltry 21.43%, alongside guiding a once prestigious club to a 16th place finish, leaving Aston Villa a mere two points above the relegation zone.

Lerner fired Alex McLeish that summer and to replace him was an inexperienced yet up and coming who had just guided Norwich City to back to back promotions, named a certain Paul Lambert.  The fans were ecstatic – finally a manager that could possibly replace the success Martin O’Neill experienced. Unfortunately however, Randy Lerner and then CEO Paul Faulkner decided it was time for a change in the transfer policy. Lambert had to scour the transfer market bargain deals for players with small salaries. He created what is now known as the “bomb squad”, which included players like Shay Given, Alan Hutton, and Darren Bent, who broke Aston Villa’s transfer record to acquire him and essentially banished them to the reserve side or alternatively loaned them out. Unproven, cheap deals were used to supplement the loss of these players, with players such as Karim El Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Joe Bennett, Jordan Bowery and Yacouba Sylla joining the club during Lambert’s first season in charge. A combined four goals from a combined total of just under one hundred and fifty apps was not the return the manager, the fans, or the owner were looking for. Stastically, Aston Villa at this point had paid £1.31M per goal.

With the change in transfer policy, came a natural change in tactics which Lambert brought with him. Lambert pushed for a possession oriented team in his first year in charge. As admirable as the idea was, the execution was poor. Young players with little to no premier league experience were asked to keep the ball and get it forward and subsequently the results were nearly as disastrous. Aston Villa survived with forty one points, with the highlight of that season either coming with a 3-1 away win at Anfield or the 7-1 demolition of Sunderland at Villa Park which all but secured safety. The lowest moments came from the 8-0 battering suffered at the hands of Chelsea, followed by a 4-0 thrashing spearheaded by the now Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale. However, it was a young team and everyone on board knew it was going to be a process.

In his second season in charge, Paul Lambert once again delved into the lower leagues and the minnow leagues of Europe for bargain deals. A further £20M was then spent on unproven and relatively unknown players, with the gem of them all being Jores Okore, a youngster that was on the radar of most major clubs in Europe following impressive Champions League appearances for Nordsjaelland. The worst of the bunch, with the joy of hindsight, being either Nicklas Helenius or Aleksander Tonev, who would probably be better suited as a place kicker in the NFL. Lambert drastically changed his team again in his second season too, moving from a possession based side to a bunker and counter side. The problem though for Aston Villa was in the defence with the then current crop of defenders proving to be either not good enough or simply not mature enough at that point to absorb pressure for roughly two thirds of the match. And When club captain and center back Ron Vlaar was absent with injury, Aston Villa was a completely different side. Inevitably, they had to rely on young, inexperienced center backs, two below average left backs, and an attacking midfielder turned right back to protect Brad Guzan’s goal.

More importantly than anything, that 2013/2014 season resulted in the worst home record in Villa’s illustrious history and this was unacceptable. A team with that history should be filling the stadium week in week out and so, so used to routinely taking points there.  The opposite had happened and Aston Villa once again barely survived, narrowly staying in the English Premier League.

Villa boss Lambert never seemed to know exactly how he wanted his team to play, often opting for four at the back but switching to three on regular occasions. His defensive uncertainties was further exemplified as Lambert brought back Alan Hutton from his infamous “bomb squad” to start the year, whilst he brought in experienced center back Phillippe Senderos to help shore up a leaky defense.  And initially it was met with some instant success and worked well, but a change of heart saw Paul Lambert and his Claret and Blues go to Germany to learn the training regimen of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.  The change saw possession swing back towards Villa but possession for possession’s sake did a struggling team no good.

Now fast forward to the current 2014/15 season, and Aston Villa have arguably been one of the luckiest, complacent and streakiest teams in this seasons English Premier League campaign..  Ten points from the first four games including another win over Liverpool, followed by six straight defeats with only one goal scored.  Ten points from the next seven matches saw Villa’s last league goal for almost ten hours of football, including no league goals in January.  The same happened in October when Villa had to cancel their goal of the month competition because there were no goals scored.  No league victories in 2015 will have management fidgeting and naturally frightened about the drop.

And as of this moment in time, the change in management from Paul Lambert to Tim Sherwood has not yet had the immediate impact and desired effect that both Randy Lerner and CEO Tom Fox would have hoped for but most importantly, the fans do seem to be behind the new manager and the boys.  Important fixtures against rivals West Bromwich Albion followed by a match against fellow struggling side Sunderland loom ahead for Tim Sherwood’s Claret and Blues. Six points in those matches would be pivotal and really could turn the season around for Aston Villa, possibly saving the Villains from relegation. Who knows what the future holds for Aston Villa, but after several years of upheaval, you do wonder whether the thoughts of some fans can be heard loud and clear from the sidelines as B6 supporters chants bellow from round Villa Park – ‘We Want Our Villa Back’. A return to form short-term to secure Premier League survival however would make for a great start for the B6 supporters in their quest to get their beloved Aston Villa back.

Article written by: @joescarc

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