Houllier prepares for Aston Villa bow but avoids Stoke baptism of fire

Gerard Houllier might not technically be in charge of Aston Villa yet, as he waits to finalise his departure from the French Football Federation, but the former Liverpool manager’s first involvement in English football since leaving Anfield in 2004 could hardly come in a more demanding setting. The 63-year-old’s new side tonight face the usual hostile welcome Stoke City reserve for every visiting team, and having been charged with replacing Martin O’Neill, the Frenchman faces an uphill task in both the short and long term.

The departure of James Milner was, in many ways, the catalyst for O’Neill’s departure and Houllier’s first dilemma is how to fill the gap left by the England international. Stephen Ireland may have arrived in exchange but the two are very different players – each may nominally play in midfield but Milner’s deeper role is not one Ireland would excel in. The former Manchester City player started in an orthodox central role against Newcastle United and was largely anonymous, and missed the victory over Everton with an injury sustained in the warm-up, and under O’Neill, there would not have been space for Ireland in his best position, behind either a lone striker or a pair of forwards. Houllier may have to be more flexible than his predecessor when he officially takes control.

Houllier will also find himself having to deal with a problem that was of O’Neill’s making, and yet one that plagued the ex-Northern Ireland midfielder – an anaemic squad. O’Neill may have intended to solve that issue with the Milner money, but when it became apparent that would not be an option, he walked away. Houllier will need every contact he has developed across world football to unearth bargain players if the same restrictions apply again. What happens to Villa between now and the January transfer window may determine that, but Houllier’s patchy record in that market during his Liverpool years, when he lavished millions on the likes of Salif Diao, for £5m, and £4m Bruno Cheyrou, two high profile flops. In Houllier’s defence, however, he did bring modern-day Liverpool legends Sami Hypia and Gary McAllister to Merseyside, and no manager can boast a spotless transfer record.

With plenty of time to assess the squad O’Neill has left behind, Houllier will find some promising young players, chief among which would be 20-year-old Marc Albrighton. Albrighton, who impressed against West Ham United but struggled with the greater challenge of Everton, is the kind of precocious talent that needs nurturing in English football. Asking the youngster to regularly influence games may be a touch too demanding at this point in his short career but Houllier’s success at Villa Park could depend on guiding the future of the likes of Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso and Barry Bannan. In the face of tight purse strings, turning one or more of those hot prospects into consistent Premier League players could make or break Houllier’s Villa tenure.

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