When Villa appointed Alex McLeish back in mid-June I was as stunned as the next fan. My initial feelings of disbelief, disgust and dismay soon subsided, and I figured it would be remiss not to give the guy a chance.
Three months into his tenure and I think we’ve reached an acceptable time to start assessing his performance – you could say the honeymoon period is over.
One thing is clear, McLeish got the job on the basis that he would drastically trim the wage bill. I don’t think he can be blamed for the mass exodus this summer. Some players clearly wanted to leave, some needed to be cleared out, some are more debatable.
But you can’t blame him for following the brief. He seems to have done fairly well with the incoming players. Everyone seemed excited about Given and N’Zogbia. And Hutton and Jenas look like solid if unspectacular buys.
But I don’t want to focus too much on his transfer dealings. I want to focus on the football. The stuff that actually occurs on the pitch. A lot of Villa fans groaned (loudly) when McLeish was appointed. Yet this wasn’t necessarily because of his Small Heath Harriers connection, but more because of the style of football his teams supposedly produce. His reputation for dour, defensive football precedes him.
McLeish stated he would cut his cloth accordingly. Implying that Villa possess a higher quality of footballer than he had at Birmingham or Rangers, suggesting he would play a more expansive game.
Failure to score against Fulham, Wolves and Bolton has done little to allay fans’ fears. Nor has being dominated by Everton and Newcastle.
For me, the problems are clear. Villa are better without the ball than they are with it. The side excels at the defensive side of the game. But in possession, it all breaks down.
The first choice back four are, at best, average in possession. McLeish’s preferred centre-mid pairing of Petrov and Delph offer a decent shield to the defence, but lack imagination with the ball at their feet. Far too many safe passes. You won’t score goals in this league by passing sideways.
The wide men are quick and direct. But they aren’t natural passers. Gabby is all power and speed. Charles is all shimmies and feints. Marc is all about a drop of the shoulder and the early ball. But you wouldn’t trust any of them to keep the ball 9 times out of 10.
Villa have actually looked best this season playing the much-maligned Heskey. At least he’s capable of holding the ball up and bringing others into the game.
Darren Bent? He’s probably good for 5-10 passes a game tops. Say no more.
If Villa are to improve they must start passing to each other. The key may lie in the players that haven’t been involved as much yet. Jenas, Bannan and Ireland have massive opportunities to become first team regulars. They are our best passers. They need to start dominating matches and keeping the bloody football. Otherwise it’s going to be a long painful season. Sadly we no longer have the calming influences of Barry or Milner.
As Houllier and McAllister found out last season, this is still very much a side playing Martin O’Neill’s brand of football. They tried to get the side passing more. We all saw how that worked out.
Sadly for McLeish, in Ash and Downing, he’s lost our two players most likely to hold possession and create chances. I suspect we’re going to see Villa being dominated on the pitch for some time yet.
As for McLeish, I’m not ready to point the finger at him just yet. Fans expecting him to turn Villa into an expansive free flowing ‘sexy’ football side need a reality check. As the man said himself, he’s got to cut his cloth accordingly. We can’t ignore the fact that he’s inherited a side that flirted with relegation last season and has since lost its two best midfielders.
For what it’s worth, in making us defensively responsible and hard to beat, he’s started in the right place for me. Now he’s got the challenging task of making us creative too. Good luck to him.