Club Focus – Aston Villa – Fringe players waiting for the nod from O’Neill

Aston Villa’s squad depth has no doubt been an integral part of their recent success in the Premier League. However, with a vast array of talent to choose from, it means that certain players will not get their desired amount of first team football. Martin O’Neill has the difficult job of keeping his fringe players happy with the likes of Emile Heskey, Nigel Reo-Coker, Fabian Delph, Craig Gardner Habib Beye and Nicky Shorey all waiting patiently for a real chance to prove their worth. O’Neill, however, understands the need for a large squad in order to compete at the top of the Premier League: “It is a problem for Sir Alex Ferguson, it is a problem for Arsene Wenger, it is a problem for Carlo Ancelotti and it is a problem for Rafa Benitez. No question about that.” And now it is a “problem” for Martin O’Neill.

With this in mind, Stewart Downing’s expected return in December will be greeted with a sense of ambivalence. On his return, O’Neill must somehow incorporate the left-winger in his current squad, but which winger will he end up sacrificing? Ashley Young and James Milner have already made the right and left wing positions their own with impressive performances week-in-week-out. The obvious replacement will be Ashley Young, but by limiting his performances, the Villa manager could limit his side’s creativity if Downing does not live up to expectations. However, it can definitely be said that Young has not lived up to expectations this season and he has been consequently criticised for failing to emulate his form from last season.

The Villa manager has answered his player’s critics, highlighting that there is more to his game than his attacking flair and intelligent wing play. O’Neill went as far as to describing Young as “one of the best wingers in Europe”, despite the fact that the winger has only got one goal to his tally and only two assists in this campaign. Nevertheless, an aspect of his game which is commonly overlooked is his work ethic. When he is not challenging defenders and creating opportunities for his teammates, the England international is constantly tracking back to help his full-back. Even when he is defending in his own half, Young will still run the length of the pitch to fuel Villa’s dangerous counter attacking football. This therefore poses the question whether or not Downing will be gain match fitness quickly enough to fulfil the role of winger.

Moving onto this weekend’s clash with Wolves, O’Neill has identified the threat the home side could pose for his men, but he has insisted that his side will be fully focused on winning the game. The Villans have been accused of showing signs of complacency in the games against Wigan and Blackburn in which they lost. However, the Villa manager believes that his team have not once let him down this season in terms of performance levels and O’Neill is hoping for more of the same against Mick McCarthy’s side. It was expected that there would be a changed Villa side due to the nature of this fixture, however, the Northern Irishman seems decided on fielding a strong side on Saturday: “I don’t think we’re good enough to treat people lightly – and I don’t think that has been the case in any of the games. It certainly won’t be the case on Saturday.”

The next few weeks will showcase Villa’s desire to retain their current good form as they face four consecutive games away from home. Last season the Villans were able to win ten away games and O’Neill will want his side to use the experience gained from these games in their upcoming fixtures. It will be essential for the Villa manager to switch his squad around to prevent fatigue and in doing so the fringe players will have the opportunity to stake their claim in the Villa squad. With the confidence high in the Villa dressing room since the victory over Chelsea last weekend, the Villans need to ensure that they carry on this confidence into every game in order to achieve the consistency equired to truly challenge for the top four places.

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