After Martin O’Neill’s European heartache on Thursday, he was wary of facing his own home crowd more so than the opposition itself. Even with empty seats at Villa Park, the true faithful were back and eager to fully support their club. Fulham – who failed to have a single shot on target on Sunday – were lethargic from their European midweek fixture in Russia and O’Neill’s men disposed of a poor Fulham side with a comfortable win.
Once again, O’Neill got it spot on with tactics on Sunday. The 4-5-1 formation that saw his side beat Liverpool a week ago worked perfectly to ensure the team gained back to back Premier League victories. In short, the formation allows Villa to play quick counter-attacking football down the wings, whilst keeping the numbers in midfield to prevent opposition attack. The formation complements the strongest aspect of the squad – the midfield – but time will tell whether or not O’Neill can continue to play his favoured men in midfield. The squad is still lacking depth and injuries or even fatigue (less of an issue without Europe to contend with) could pose selection problems as the season progresses.
The match against Fulham saw Gabriel Agbonlahor net only his third goal in 27 appearances – but what a goal it was. Despite recent criticism for inconsistency in front of goal, Agbonlahor showed his full potential with a spectacular left-footed strike from 22-yards out. The goal, however, was not enough to secure a place in Fabio Capello’s England squad in the following international fixtures. If Agbonlahor is to push into the national squad, which is getting even more competitive, he will have to prove that he is much more of a threat in front of goal.
Keeping with Sunday’s Premier League game, an injury to Curtis Davies forced O’Neill to play Ciaran Clark, a player from the Villa Academy, at centre-back. Clark – who has captained the England Under-19s – is seen as another hot prospect for the future, but his selection highlighted Villa’s defensive problem. Even though O’Neill had to resort to a youth player to replace an experienced first team regular, the 19-year-old had a decent game. He barely put a foot wrong all game and he constantly put a stop to Fulham’s attacking threat. O’Neill was quick to show his delight at Clark’s performance, praising him as “a cool young customer.” The defender is another Villa man who Stuart Pearce could consider for his Under-21 squad.
The result against Fulham marked Villa’s third win in a week. The Villans’ season is well and truly up and running – despite a rocky start. With six points in the bag, O’Neill’s team has moved into the top 10 of the Barclays Premier League. However, if they want to remain in the top half, Villa must continue to get results against the tougher opponents as well as the easier teams.
As the international break gets underway, Martin O’Neill will no doubt be pleased with the six points plus the way his team have reacted since the defeat to Wigan. The performance at Villa Park on Sunday showed that there is much more to come from the team and with a few more defensive signings providing some much needed depth, Villa could pose a challenge for the top four in the near future. With the Richard Dunne deal looking to be finalised before the transfer window ends, O’Neill has set his sights on another central defender. Villa have approached and made a bid for West Ham’s James Collins. If the Villans successfully sign these two defenders by the transfer deadline date, then O’Neill might have just found a solution to his defensive problem. Stiliyan Petrov welcomed the Dunne deal, even though it could mean that his captaincy at the club may end – “It’s going to be a big signing for Villa. It will give us a strong defender at the back and, of course, he’s definitely a true leader.”
With the faith restored in their home fans, a formation that actually works, three victories in three, and a solution to the defensive frailty – O’Neill and his players can relax during the international break with ‘plenty of positives.’ Well, apart from Emile Heskey, Ashley Young and James Milner who have all been called up for international duty with the England squad – and rightly so.
Aston Villa Club Focus
Can Villa handle the pressure? – August 5
Pre-season promises much for Europa League -August 12
Impotent Villa need to regroup – August 18
Improving Villa lack creativity upfront – August 22
Martin O’Neill’s men answer their critics – August 25
Crucial away goal ends Villa’s European campaign – August 28
Villans out of jail after poor start – September 1