A Season to Forget: an Aston Villa 2011/12 review

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 04/06/12)

To put it bluntly, last season for Aston Villa was an absolute clusterfuck.  Villa ended the season in 16th place with a mere 38 points after being sucked into the relegation battle due to some shocking second half of the season form.  Quite a turnaround in fortunes considering they were challenging for Europe, League Cup finalists and FA Cup semi-finalists just two years previously.

Now that the dust has settled on Alex McLeish’s unceremonious stint and now Paul Lambert has taken the reins Villa fans will hope that this spells the start of a rebuilding process in a brighter chapter of the club’s rich history.  Furthermore, it provides me with the ideal opportunity to run the rule over the last 12 months.

McLeish’s tenure was always unlikely to be successful from the start.  While he was never going to fully win over the Villa faithful due to his connections with fierce rivals Birmingham City, it was ultimately results and the worrying future direction of the club, not tribalistic grudges, that provoked the ire of the fans.  From about the midway point is was become evident that Villa were heading for trouble, as predicted by Tom Julian

Stats don’t always tell the full story but in this case they make for stark reading.  Villa’s seven league wins was the worst in 121 years (when there were only 12 teams in the league) and the last time Villa Park crowd witnessed a victory was all the way back in November.  The 17 draws equalled the record for most in a single 38-game Premier League season and in Europe only French side Brest drew as many.  An average of 43% possession and just 37 goals scored – half as many as Messi! – saw Villa amass their lowest points tally since the ill-fated reign of Dr. Jozef Venglos back in 1991.

The fact that Birmingham were relegated last year with more points (39) shows just how close Villa came to the drop and underlines McLeish’s serial failures.  Big ‘Eck contrived to draw 42% of his matches in the last 2 seasons, scoring 0.97 goals per game – the highest draw rate and lowest goal rate of all Premier League teams.  In 152 Premier League matches with Birmingham and Aston Villa, he has accrued only 162 points and his teams have scored only 158 goals.  It is not a surprise that attendances were down 9% and, simply put, shows that McLeish is simply not good enough at this level.

So what went wrong? Frankly, a lot.

Onenoticeable and well documented area in which Villa struggled was with their SET-PIECES.  At Birmingham, McLeish forged a reputation for well organised and effective set-pieces, both defensively and offensively, and the minimum most fans expected was that McLeish would incorporate this into the Villa setup.  However, the exact opposite was true.  Villa did not score a single goal resulting from a corner and conceded a higher percentage of goals from set-pieces (47.2%) than any other Premier League team in 2011-12.  Given that Norwich conceded the lowest number of goals from set-pieces (17%) suggests that hopefully these frailties will be ironed out by Lambert next season.

Another hallmark of McLeish’s tenure was the negative and overly defensive tactics,  highlighted by the amount of games drawn.  The example that most stands out was the decision to play Heskey and Hutton on the wings in the 2-0 loss to Spurs.  The amount of times Villa went ahead first in games and then sat back at 1-0 only to be pegged back or lose occurred with a frustrating frequency and in total Villa dropped 22 points from winning positions, more than another team in the top flight.  Notable examples were the capitulation from 2-0 up at half time to lose 3-2 to Arsenal in the FA Cup and the 2-1 loss to Bolton late on in the season.  Even more agonizing was the number of times that these goals came in the final 10 minutes of the match.  The injury-time own goal from Richard Dunne against QPR in the 1-1 draw in September plus late equalisers against Sunderland, Liverpool and Blackburn highlighted Villa’s inability to hold on and grind out a victory when employing these negative tactics.

This lack of metal was endemic of what I see as a general indiscipline around the squad.  From Bannan’s drink-driving incident to the end of season scuffle involving Collins, Herd and Delph these off-the-field misdemeanours were further unwanted sideshows and to a certain extent had a destabilizing effect.  While the players have to take a degree of flak, it also represented the lack of control on McLeish’s part.

Then of course an element of BAD LUCK certainly played a part.  Darren Bent’s injury in late February ruled him out for the rest of the season and robbed Villa of their main goal threat – painfully evident considering he ended as top scorer with 9, four more than the next highest scorer.  Captain Stiliyan Petrov’s diagnosis of acute leukaemia was awful on a purely human basis but it also meant Villa lost the heartbeat of the side and crucial experience in the centre of the park. Furthermore, the loss of Dunne to injury for a while meant that at the business end of season Villa were without the spine of their team.

In a league where such fine margins can be the difference between success and failure it’s possible to look at a few moments which quite possibly ensured the Villains their top flight status.

The first was Andreas Weimann’s dramatic late winning goal versus Fulham.  In a game that looked destined for a draw, deep into injury time Bannan turned and squared to find Gary Gardner whose shot from the edge of the area was fumbled by Mark Schwarzer where Austrian youngster Weimann was on hand to force the ball into net after his initial diving header was saved.  Scrappy it most certainly was but nevertheless it was a great and thoroughly unexpected win in which three young subs combined for the winner.  That win proved to be vital as without it Villa would have only survived on goal difference.

A second key moment was Given’s late save against West Brom to keep the score at 0-0 and give Villa an all important point.  Given has been one of Villa’s better performers this season and that fantastic save in a closely fought derby late on the season seemed particularly valuable.

Finally, the third thing that helped keep Villa was Robbie Keane’s loan spell.  Although the move was mocked a bit before, the Irishman’s contribution turned out to be essential as he provided a spark of creativity that Villa were desperately lacking.  In particular the game against Wolves in which Keane scored two fabulous strikes – the first an instinctive first time swivelled strike from the edge of the area, the second a thunderbolt that crashed in off the crossbar from 20-odd yards – which gave Villa a much-needed 3-2 victory.

These three incidents, in my mind, were absolutely crucial to Villa avoiding the drop and once again it underlines just how close we came to going down.

Not wanting to sound all doom and gloom, there have been a few rays of light. The main positive has been in the form of the YOUTH in the squad.  The likes of Nathan Baker, Eric Lichaj, Gary Gardner, Chris Herd and Andreas Weimann have all gained vital first team experience and have performed admirably, especially given the circumstances, and could become important figures in the future.  Ciaran Clark was dogged with a few injures and while the progress of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso may have somewhat stalled under McLeish they remain players who are still young and hopefully will thrive under Lambert .

However, Villa can’t rely on youth alone and need to strengthen the squad in order to give the talented players the environment to improve.  Brett Holman will join on a Bosman and Lambert has reportedly been given a 25mil war chest to revamp the squad.  How much of this is actually available is debatable but nevertheless this summer should see some new faces (which will be discussed in an upcoming blog) arrive at Villa Park.

So to conclude, it has been a season to forget by all accounts but rather than dismiss it as a one-off we must learn from previous mistakes in order to move forward.  The appointment of Paul Lambert is a massive step in the right direction and I, like many fellow Villa fans, will be hopeful of steady progress under a no-nonsense manager who is clearly intelligent, ambitious and hungry for success.


Stats provided by Opta and WhoScored