WSR's Ben Schneider asks the question: Is Martin O'neill's departure from Aston Villa the end of an era or a great opportunity?
The shocking departure of Martin O’Neill from Aston Villa has thrown the West Midlands club into a tailspin with just three days before their first game of the new campaign. After four seasons with The Villans, three successive sixth-place finishes, and a Carling Cup Final appearance this year, he abruptly resigned on Monday without a clear explanation for his decision. The speculation has been that O’Neill was upset by the impending sale of James Milner to Manchester City and a possible deal with Tottenham for Ashley Young, and refused to continue in such a financial straitjacket. The former Celtic boss guided Villa to their best league finishes and cup showings in several years, but O’Neill’s success was always restricted by his tactical approach and football philosophy. For Villa, the timing of his departure could prove very damaging to their aspirations this season, but the club also has a vast untapped potential for growth that O’Neill’s resignation could reopen.
O’Neill’s Villa were largely an orthodox and counter-attacking 4-4-2 side, reliant on pacey wingers and a deep-sitting midfield pair to shore up the defence. They were excellent at stretching the play across the pitch and could give serious problems to many top teams because those sides were willing to come at Villa and leave themselves exposed on the counter. The archetype of this was the 2-1 victory over Chelsea last season at Villa Park. O’Neill’s team took full advantage of Chelsea’s narrow midfield by having Ashley Young and James Milner hug their respective touchlines, bypassing the midfield and pushing high up the pitch. While both Villa goals came from corner kicks, they limited Chelsea’s attacking options by attacking The Blues’ two attacking fullbacks and preventing Cole and Bosingwa from providing width for Chelsea. The width of O’Neill’s 4-4-2 combined with the aerial power of John Carew made his side a constant threat against sides that were out to beat The Villans, even against three-man central midfields like those of Arsenal, Liverpool, and (occasionally) Manchester United.
The flaw in O’Neill’s system, however, was that it relied on the opposition being interested in breaking Villa down. Sides that were perfectly happy to set up for a draw proved harder to crack; this is why Villa frequently drew games with lower quality opposition while achieving much better results against top sides. A central midfield pair that is mainly defensive is not conducive to breaking down a stubborn defence, and against weaker opponents it is far better to have a central attacking midfielder between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines than to have another striker. The wingers were also less effective against more conservative opponents as the fullbacks would tend to sit deeper and not be caught upfield. Shifting James Milner to a central role was a good progressive alteration (and contrasts fascinatingly with a similar move by Louis van Gaal at Bayern Munich using Bastian Schweinsteiger), but Milner was still burdened with defensive duties and Villa’s system was also vulnerable to opponents packing the midfield.
One of the hallmarks of Villa in recent years has been that their success has come by using so many English players. It has certainly been a factor in making O’Neill and Villa rather well liked in the Premier League, and certainly an important piece in many calls for O’Neill to take charge of the Three Lions. While a commendable strategy, it is partly due to that tact in player acquisitions that O’Neill has now left Villa – there is a premium on English players, and had he chosen to bring in foreign talent he would likely have had more financial flexibility this summer. In addition to his rather old-school approach to building a team – reliance on English players, using a traditional English formation – O’Neill also seemed almost disdainful of modern rotation methods, preferring to stick with a small but successful group of players. This, unfortunately, has backfired on him repeatedly, no more so than in 2008-9, when Villa led Arsenal by six points and were secure in fourth place over Christmas, but ran out of steam in the second half and finished ten points adrift of the final Champions League place. O’Neill’s tactical set-up combined with his squad-building and lack of rotation produced what amounted to a glass ceiling for Villa’s success – while these various elements brought the side up to a very healthy level in terms of cup performance and league positions, his approach was self-limiting as well.
Villa have deservedly been one of the top sides in the English game under O’Neill’s stewardship, and his resignation obviously leaves them in a very difficult position. While relegation seems far-fetched, it does appear possible that The Villans could have a season like that of Everton last year – a bad start stemming from structural instability in the club followed by a red-hot second half. Of course, this all hangs on O’Neill’s successor on the touchline at Villa Park being able to re-form the squad using a more fluid system with (probably) fewer resources. The obvious choice for such a task would seem to be David Moyes, but he’s in a good position at Everton and would not see Villa as a step up from his current post. Martin Jol has also been suggested as a possibility, but if Fulham couldn’t pry him away from Ajax, Villa will probably not be able to do so either. The identity of O’Neill’s replacement is not all that important, what is key is that his philosophy remove at least some of the elements that created the glass ceiling Villa has been operating under.
As the second-biggest city in Britain, Birmingham offers tremendous potential for Villa to grow beyond their current top-half status. The basis of football clubs has always been local support and ticket sales, and Villa should be able to compete with all of the top four clubs in this regard. To compare, the West Midlands conurbation, which includes Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and the surrounding towns and suburbs, has a population of 2.28 million, while Greater Manchester has a population of 2.24 million, and there are 1.1 million people in the Liverpool metro area (London is not included because it’s an anomaly in terms of population and saturation of clubs). While the West Midlands conurbation also includes West Brom, Wolves, and Birmingham City, Villa are certainly the biggest club in that area and with a successful team they will continue to dominate. It’s unlikely that they would be able to fill a stadium similar in size to Old Trafford, but it is wholly possible that a major renovation of Villa Park or a new stadium to bring capacity up to between fifty and sixty thousand combined with an improvement in corporate facilities could significantly increase matchday revenue and, therefore, Villa’s budget for new players and wages.
This is dependent upon a significant commitment by Randy Lerner (or a future owner), but with a fair investment in infrastructure and a manager prepared to work through a few hard years to establish a more progressive style and formation, Villa could certainly push into the Champions League spots and contend consistently for trophies. There is always the Chelsea/Man City philosophy of buying titles and fans, but expanding the club’s reach with stadium expansion, local outreach, and international marketing will ensure a better long-term financial footing for the club and help to fund future successful sides.
The future for Martin O’Neill can be similarly bright, but like his former employers, he needs to significantly change his approach. The best way to do this is by moving to manage a club outside of the British Isles. For all the passion and love of the game in Britain and Ireland, there is less tactical sophistication and few different and interesting styles. Clearly, each nation has its own footballing identity, but exposure to a different culture will be an excellent learning experience for O’Neill, and one that could prove quite useful. As the example of Steve McClaren shows, an intelligent English manager can be successful on the continent and improve the team he manages as well as his own managerial ability and reputation. For a top-level club or international manager, it is crucial to have a wide view of football and understand other footballing nations, their philosophy, and how best to counter it. Simply, while O’Neill’s resignation leaves both manager and club with an uncertain future, some thinking outside the box can improve both far beyond their current state.