Monday, 31 January 2011

Being Punished For Being Small

Collins rose beautifully as the corner was swung in. He cushioned the ball gently into the net past the keeper’s flailing arms and one minute from time and Aston Villa got their first win in five games. Blackpool walked away with nothing to show for their efforts in a five goal thriller. Indeed, much less than nothing. Because despite scoring twice and only conceding a crushing third in the 89th minute, the Seasiders efforts have been deemed unacceptable by the league and they have been fined £25,000.

The issue of clubs being fined for fielding a ‘weakened’ side has been discussed in many papers and blogs. But it is hard to express how truly idiotic the Premier League have been on this issue. Never ones to be accused of competence in the first place (see 39th game etc), the intransigence they are showing over managers playing whatever side they want is utterly ridiculous. The rule is flawed on two counts. Firstly, it isn’t applied equally as the bigger sides apparently have total immunity and secondly the idea behind each team having to register 25 players before the season starts was to set limits on squad size.

In the interests of fairness, the reason given for fining those who put out weakened sides is to preserve competition in the Premier League. This is totally legitimate. In a league competition, all results affect teams not involved. This is less the case in cup competitions and therefore it is accepted practise for youngsters to be blooded the Carling and FA Cups. La Liga is currently suffering from the problem of sides not caring because very few teams feel they can beat Barcelona or Real Madrid so just don’t try. Why bother in games you cannot win? Indeed there is not the same huge gulf in the Premier League as there is in Spain, which is one of the attractions of the English game. But while the intention of the Premier League is good, the execution is pathetic and unfair.

We all know that Wolves and Blackpool did put out weakened sides. But so did Manchester United in 2009 for their final game against Hull before losing to Barcelona. Just because Darron Gibson scored to beat the Tigers, does this somehow mean that United weren’t playing a weakened side? Of course not. When Fulham performed their miraculous escape from relegation in 2007, it was in no small part due to Liverpool putting out a virtual third string side because the north-west club had a Champions League final coming up. There are numerous other examples but in not a single case did the league act. The big clubs, because they have European commitments are not fined when they do the exact same thing. The inequality and blatant favouritism leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

Secondly, all clubs have to register a squad of 25 players eligible to play in the Premier League at the end of the summer transfer window with any player under the age of 21 not needing to be registered. So given that the league forces clubs to limit how many squad members it has, in the interests of preventing the larger clubs hovering up vast reserves of talent it seems ludicrous to then suggest that 14 out of the 25 cannot be selected. Football has evolved into a squad game. Managers have submitted their squads and can therefore utilise them in any way they wish.

A rule prohibiting fielding an entire team of unregistered players (i.e. an under-21’s side) would make sense. Even going so far as to force teams to select a certain number of senior players is fine. But the insinuation that the smaller clubs must play their best XI for every game, regardless of opposition or fatigue is just wrong. Holloway feels that players like Jason Euell are part of Blackpool’s bid to avoid relegation. And judging by the performance of the side that lost so narrowly to Aston Villa, he has far better judgement than the Premier League.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Spurs To Pay The Price For Their Own Success?

2010/11 will most likely be remembered as very bittersweet for Spurs fans. They finally broke into the Champions League, played some of the best football on offer anywhere in England and recorded some huge results against Inter Milan and arch-rivals Arsenal never mind what happens against AC Milan in the knock-out stages. The team has come from behind more than anyone else this season and the indomitable spirit and attacking verve that Redknapp has installed made Spurs the favourite of many neutrals. Yet it also might be the season that the Champions League takes its toll and Manchester City snatch the fourth European place.

With Chelsea coming back into form after the world’s longest recorded ‘bad moment’ Spurs find themselves three points adrift of the Champions League places with a seriously inferior goal difference. It must be said that the gap is hardly insurmountable and both Chelsea and Spurs have a game in hand over Manchester City. However the lack of killer in front of goal has been a significant problem for ‘Arry all season. Defoe has missed a large portion of the year through injury, Crouch has only one league goal from 23 appearances and it seems that Pavlyuckenko is not trusted despite scoring five in less games than Crouch. Any European hangover from facing the Italian league leaders could prove deadly. The lack of a proven goal scorer, battling on multiple fronts and defensive frailties all combine to make the North Londoners the outsiders in the race.

The harsh reality is that if Tottenham do not manage to get back into the Champions League this season then the biggest clubs in Europe will be targeting key players such as Bale and Modric. Rumours linking the young Welshman to Inter Milan or Real Madrid have only grown after his devastating performances in the group stages while Ferguson is said to be a very keen admirer of Modric. Today the Guardian announced its massively underwhelming (check the comments) exclusive that Inter will bid £40m for Bale this summer. It seems incredibly cruel that such wonderful football might be the downfall of this side.

If there is a bright side, it would be that chairman Daniel Levy has proved repeatedly that he is a tough man to bargain with as Manchester United found out when they were forced to hand over nearly £50m to purchase Berbatov and Carrick. Bale would command a fee of at least £30m at a conservative estimate given his age and potential and likely much more. Modric also has good re-sale value, a huge determinant in the cost of any given transfer. With an additional £50-60m in the kitty wheeler-dealer ‘Arry might just be able to replace Bale and Modric and add some firepower. Not an easy pair to replace but Redknapp is nothing of not savvy in that department.

Even if the duo are sold, other key members of the squad such as Dawson, Lennon, Van Der Vaart and Assou-Ekotto should all be retained. Huddlestone is growing into his midfield role and hopefully Sandro will be bedded in by next season. Some of the fat can be trimmed such as Keane and dos Santos. New faces might be brought in. Steven Pienaar has already arrived from Everton and more will follow if money allows. But it would be a real shame if the creative heart of this young and attractive side is picked off by the elite after only one season in Europe. Tottenham might just be paying the price for their own success.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Changing Role Of Wayne Rooney

The lack of goals from Wayne Rooney this season is akin to the royal wedding. A phenomenal amount of media coverage given to a truly uninteresting story. But never let it be said that FTW has written about innovative or original tales when there is generic tat to be peddled. One solitary goal from open play has been his haul reward after a torrid World Cup and early season. But the supposed loss of form is not precisely what it seems. Last season Rooney stepped up to replace Ronaldo and netted 34 times. But it looks increasingly like 2009/2010 was the exception rather than the rule due to another change in position.

Before the departure of Ronaldo, Rooney was often sacrificed for the team by being pushed out wide or having to drop deeper. There is no denying that the system was successful (two league titles, two consecutive Champions League finals) but it is also undeniable that Rooney was not fully utilised with Ronaldo in the side. So when the Portuguese forward left, Rooney was liberated and filled his boots until Bayern intervened and crocked him. However now Rooney seems to be reverting to his old self:

by Guardian Chalkboards

The chalkboard above shows Rooney is once again drifting wider and dropping deeper. He is spreading the play with a broader range of passing that he was not attempting last year. This change in position could partly be explained by a lack of confidence after the revelations about his personal life and the damage to his relationship with the fans after his transfer request. The energy and determination has returned but the effortlessness in front of goal that comes with confidence has not. No man is immune to pressure especially when he isn’t receiving full support either at home or at work.

Secondly the injury to Valencia was a big blow to Rooney. The interplay between the two was a critical component in Rooney’s 34 goals. When Valencia was stretchered off against Rangers United were not only deprived of a first choice winger but their aerial threat was also diminished. While Nani has been in excellent form this season he is a distinctly different sort of forward to Valencia cannot offer the pin-point crossing that is characteristic of the Ecuadorian.

But the crucial factor is the form of Berbatov. The Bulgarian leads the scoring charts with 17 and it isn’t even February. With Berbatov leading the line Rooney has the flexibility to drop deep and dictate where he needs to as opposed to being a poacher. Although Rooney has missed a big chunk of the season, Rooney still has nine assists and has adopted a role closer to Ozil or Sneijder than Drogba. He won’t get 20 goals this season but alongside Nani he is the indispensible creative force in this United side.

Given the rise in stature of Berbatov at Old Trafford, how will Ferguson line up his sides for the big games this season? Controversially Berbatov was dropped at home to Arsenal but then he did play away to Spurs which is arguably as big a game. If Berbatov were to play in the bigger matches then it would suggest that Ferguson is shifting from the flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 where the two wide players react depending on whether United have the ball at the time. With Berbatov leading the line and Rooney dropping off the system becomes much closer to the 4-2-3-1 that Holland and Germany deployed at the World Cup with three interchanging attacking midfielders behind a Klose or van Persie.

Until Europe restarts it is all speculation but dropping Berbatov against Marseille would be far bolder than it would have been last year. The Bulgarian is almost certain to get more than 20 this season, barring injury or a regression in form. He leads the line in a very different way to Rooney and would necessitate the change in style outlined above if Rooney is to be accommodated but the pair are increasingly linking up well and it might be the only way to fit both into the side and still retain the shape that Ferguson values so highly in European games.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

What Is Joga Bonito In German?

After the World Cup there was a general stirring among fans globally and some sheepish looks. We’d all been waiting for the festival of football to delight and entrance. Instead it was flat and forgettable. Aside from the lunacy of Diego Maradona reaching global audiences once again, easily the best thing about South Africa 2010 was the German side. They were outstanding. The destructions of Australia, England and Argentina were all major tournament highlights. The lightening quick counter-attacks of Ozil et al must still leave Barry with nightmares. And the best (or worst depending on your stand-point) is that the 2010 side was just the appetiser. The Germans might just be the ones to give Brazil a lesson in Joga Bonito on their own soil in 2014.

Three reasons suggest that the Germans might triumph in Brazil. Firstly, the side in South Africa was already packed with young players who will only just be entering their peak in 2014. Ozil, Muller, Khedira and Boateng were all first choice and will be around the 26 year old mark in Brazil. Muller and Ozil were two of the breakthrough players of the tournament and three of the four moved to bigger clubs after the tournament. Muller was already at double-winners and European finalists Bayern.

Secondly, some older squad members will still make it to Brazil and, although for those who won’t the replacements already exist. Klose won’t be spear-heading the attack in four years time but Mario Gomez has rediscovered his Stuttgart form and looks very able to take on the role. Only 25 this season he will most likely be the forward pivot of the German side in 2014. Mertesacker and Schweinsteiger both shone in South Africa and will be only just turning 30. Having two stand out goalkeepers is already more than most countries can dream of and the Germans already have Neuer and Adler. Only Spain will have selection problems as they struggle to narrow it down to three out of Casillas, Valdes, Reina and De Gea.

Finally, there is Mario Gotze. A child even in the incredibly young German squad, aged 18 Gotze has been the revelation of the season at Dortmund. Honigstein remarked that he was the only player ever to be substituted for being too good. Although the hype might be too much given that Gotze has only made 12 league starts in his entire career, it’s hard not to be excited about such a talent. Very excited.

The last German side was quick, technically gifted and enjoyable to watch. With four years to mature, the side that kicks off in Brazil should surpass even that. Of course four years is a long way off and Lowe might be sacked or find employment elsewhere. Key players could get injured just before the tournament. But then Ballack was sidelined just before South Africa and nobody gave the Germans a real shout before the start. As a nation the Germans have a knack for tournament football matched only by the Brazilians and possibly the Italians. It is never smart to write them off and in several years they might be the very best Europe can offer against the South Americans.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Liverpool Need A Manager With Long Term Vision To Partner Comolli

It could be said that the choice of next manager is the biggest one Liverpool have faced since deciding to promote Joe Fagan rather than look outside the club. Even with the most optimistic will in the world Dalglish is not the man to provide long-term stability to the club, something desperately needed. NESV claim to be guided by the Moneyball principles which supposedly accounts for the Red Sox World Series triumphs in 2004 and 2007. Now John Henry and his associates should begin applying such ideas to football management. After a turbulent period under Benitez which saw the highs of winning the Champions League mixed with the lows of the Hicks and Gillett era, Liverpool need to reassess their short and long term aims as well as how they plan to make them a reality.

Ideally for Liverpool any successor should be young enough to establish himself and his ethos at the club over the course of a number of years. Liverpool of course have a blueprint as a club of how to play, something which has been linked to the sacking of Hodgson. Had the former Fulham manager played in a more pleasing style, the results might not have attracted the criticism that they did. It took Shankly, Ferguson and Wenger time to imprint their style onto their respective clubs. The best case scenario is that Liverpool hires someone in the mould of any of those three and what they achieved at their respective clubs. Furthermore, while this article looks specifically at Liverpool and their new manager, the process of hiring should be reviewed by all professional clubs.

The normal process for selecting a manager is the board gets together, discusses several suitable candidates and then a phone call later a new man is in charge. Many times potential managers never even get to meet the people who make the decision. There is very little in the way of a traditional job interview since it’s a concept alien to football but in no other walk of life would you expect to get hired otherwise. Liverpool have their caretaker in charge and so should invest enough time and research into the appointment that they know what direction each candidate wants to take the club in. Of course, the duh element is that every manager wants to take the club up the table, winning titles etc. But who do they plan to buy? What sort of financial backing would they expect and what do they feel they would be able to provide with various levels of funds available?

I’m not going to recommend that Liverpool hire any specific person precisely because I haven’t been privy to any discussions about what said candidate wants to do with the club. Would the focus be on width and pace or solid defending and building a base from which to attack? Does he prioritise youth or feel that a few big names need to be brought in? Rather than bringing in a manager and telling him how it will be, NESV could reach a common understanding of where the club is heading before anybody assumes control. As an example, Coyle and Klopp are two names that have been suggested to take Liverpool forward but they come from different footballing backgrounds and employ different styles. Where would Klopp strengthen as opposed to Coyle? Would it not make some sense for each man to present their vision to the board?

The situation is complicated slightly by Comolli whom fans will remember from his time at Spurs. Comolli was perceived as having rather a poor record by British fans who aren’t used to the ‘Director of football’ role that clubs like Lyon have employed so successfully, but as Kennett and Tomkins point out he did some rather good business for Spurs. Comolli will have significant influence over who arrives at Anfield but the manager will get his say as to where he wishes to strengthen and ideally with what type of player.

Liverpool’s squad is full of contradictions. They have some outstanding players (Reina, Gerrard, Torres) and capable supporting players such as Kuyt and Agger. Yet the first XI needs some strategic improvement and the squad is too thin compared to their top four rivals. Carragher and Gerrard will most likely need replacing within a few years given the physical nature of their games which takes its toll. Comolli will be looking specifically for young players to add to the Liverpool squad as he did with Spurs. The average age of all Comolli signings for Spurs was around 23. The squad doesn’t need overhaul but it does need clever and careful investment. Nobody can compete with Manchester City and Liverpool will also be fighting the financial disadvantage that not being in the Champions League creates.

If Liverpool get it right however and the new manager develops a strong working relationship with Comolli it would represent their best chance of returning to the Champions League and then the league title. Lyon were the famous case of Moneyball being employed and their record seven titles were achieved by Aulas and Lacombe despite a revolving door of managers including Perrin, Houllier and Puel (see Soccernomics or Swiss Ramble for more details on Lyon) but if Liverpool make a smart choice they could see a union between the success of Lyon and the stability provided by having a manager with long term control.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Sensible Owners Refuse To Sack Grant

Two managerial positions hung in the balance by the end of last Wednesday. Roy Hodgson was eventually sacked by Liverpool after being convincingly beaten by Blackburn. Meanwhile West Ham were trounced 5-0 by Newcastle but Gold and Sullivan decided not to give Avram Grant the bullet. Now, this isn’t a blog to attack or defend the decision by John Henry to let Hodgson go (that would be the Twittersphere which was within minutes exploding with vitriol) but to support Gold, Sullivan and Grant. Many on Twitter suggested that West Ham ‘do the right thing’ and replace Grant with Hodgson. Given the West Ham’s league position and the performances of the first half of the season, coupled with the overall class and dignity of Hodgson it seems a reasonable request. But there are mitigating factors that should be considered.

West Ham’s record in the past six games is W3D2L1. The loss against Newcastle was embarrassing and one of the victories was against Barnsley in the FA Cup rather than in the league but finally the Hammers seem to be finding some form. Having stuck with Grant all the way through until January it seems illogical to sack the man when he finally records four games on the bounce without defeat. Grant has a reputation as a loser having won nothing with Chelsea, relegated Portsmouth and is now bottom with West Ham, but some historical revisionism is needed here. Chelsea only lost the Premiership on the final day and missed out on the Champions League on penalties. Given the difficulty of the situation Grant inherited from Mourinho this should be viewed as a solid achievement rather than failure. Portsmouth was a lost cause and not a manager alive would have rescued the situation and were it not for the financial problems surrounding the club Grant might well have saved them from the drop. Also let us not forget his strong cup run that year.

At West Ham the Israeli has again been dealt a bad hand. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean that a bad hand can’t be played better than he has managed. After all the team is still bottom having played a game more. There is a huge reliance on Scott “Captain Fantastic” Parker and for much of the season the football has been dire to watch. However they are still very much in the mix and could be saved with a few good results. Results which Grant is perhaps slowly starting to provide based on their recent record.

Furthermore, there is the fact that West Ham is a financial disaster zone, a fact admitted by the owners. The excellent Swiss Ramble detailed just how poorly the club had been run prior to the arrival of Gold and Sullivan. So there is little advantage in letting go of Grant and having to pay out the value of his contract to bring in either Allardyce or Hodgson, especially given that West Ham might actually want to go down. Relegation might actually be a rather positive thing for the Hammers. It sounds bizarre on first glance but then consider the case of Newcastle. A season in the Championship and what was a club in slow decline managed to shed the huge earners and re-think its aims in the short and long term. This is exactly what West Ham need. Players such as Benni McCarthy are on phenomenal salaries and yet never play. McCarthy pockets £38,000 a week yet has not scored a single competitive goal this season. Relegation provides the club the opportunity to remove the dead wood, sort the clubs finances into something approaching reasonable order and, given the gigantic windfall that even relegation brings, it would be realistic expect instant promotion like Newcastle.

So West Ham are faced with the choice of holding on to a manager who might just be on the verge of turning things around and is cheaper to keep than sack. Even if he doesn’t manage to avoid the drop there are numerous positives. The desire of Hammers fans to bring in a fire-fighter such as Allardyce or Hodgson (see Blackburn and Fulham for their credentials) is totally understandable but in a league of Mike Ashley’s and Venky’s the sensible approach of Gold and Sullivan is to be applauded. They might peddle smut but there are plenty of dirtier people in football than the current West Ham owners.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

They May Be Contenders But City Are Still Dull

Earlier in this season I wrote a fairly dismissive article about Manchester City. “City won’t win the league.” “Mancini is too negative.” “They should concentrate on getting a CL spot” etc. I suggested that the football wasn’t great to watch, there were problems in the dressing room and Mancini seemed out of his depth. However, like the third rate journo hack I am, I have been proved wrong. Yes, star players are still causing ructions in the dressing room with fights between Adebayor and Toure, Tevez wanting to leave and Balotelli being utterly bonkers. The football hasn’t improved much either given the fair served up against Arsenal last night. The 4-0 hammering of an utterly abject Villa aside they are yet to set the heart racing. But on the point about Mancini I’m going to own up and confess I was wrong. The man is masterminding a team mounting a genuine title challenge.

There are problems of course. The wages paid by City mean that its fairly hard to motivate players who don’t want to be. Two major issues City must address: their inability to score against the top sides and the relative difficulty of their fixture list. In seven games against the other members of the current top four (Arsenal, United and Spurs) Manchester City have yet to score once. This negativity could yet be their downfall. There have been seasons such as 2007/8 where results against direct rivals have had little baring on the outcome but it makes the task that much harder. Secondly, they still need to travel to Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, Anfield and Goodison as well as welcoming Spurs to Eastlands. It’s a much tougher run-in than for example Arsenal who have played all of their major rivals away from home.

Yet for all this, City are very much in the title race. Even though the stated aim at the beginning of the season was Champions League qualification City could well win the thing. Firstly while United, Arsenal and even Chelsea (although defeat at Wolves was probably the final nail in their coffin this season) all have the Champions League to focus on, City will a) be facing much easier competition in the Europa League and b) not exactly care if they don’t win it anyway. Secondly I did not predict City to provide a title challenge because I didn’t believe that the rest of the challengers would be this poor or erratic. United are unbeaten but have only two victories away from Old Trafford, Arsenal remain worryingly inconsistent and Chelsea have apparently been cursed by a shaman (nothing else explains it really). They have allowed Manchester City time to gel without establishing a serious lead, something they may come to regret.

Despite the crises and negative press surrounding City, most notably the Tevez saga, Mancini is pulling the squad together. Silva is looking more influential each week and would have been a vast improvement over the ineffective Jo last night had he been available for selection. Balotelli may need to sleep in a padded cell but his return of 8 goals so far this season is very impressive. Dzeko’s arrival, although most likely meaning the departure of Adebayor and Santa Cruz provides even greater strength to a side with the most depth already. Defensively City have made dramatic improvements since Mancini took over from Hughes. Should a strong partnership develop between Tevez, Dzeko and Silva that forward ammunition could just push the title towards Eastlands. Given I have all the top flight management experience that writing an online blog provides I feel qualified to criticize Mancini’s selection. He should drop Barry, push Yaya Toure back and deploy Tevez of Dzeko flanked by two from Milner, Silva, Balotelli and Johnson but again credit must be given. I, along with many others, criticized the selection of three players each perceived as ‘holding’ midfielders. But Toure has grown into the role linking defence and attack.

However, for all the admissions I’ve just made, I still fervently hope that Manchester City don’t win the title and I’m not alone in that. People really don’t like Manchester City and albeit as a United fan my opinion is worth about as much as a Zimbabwean dollar but I try not to let bias affect my writing and I don’t follow the whole “people hate us because we’re challenging the established order” argument. People dislike City because the football is boring. Spending grotesque amounts, well all football clubs have been doing that for a long while now City have just upped the stakes a little. But last night against Arsenal and at home to Manchester United earlier in the season the negativity was so yawn-inducing as to make a crunch title clash between second and third into a gigantic non-event. Mancini has proved me wrong so far about City challenging this season. But City are winning no friends among neutrals with him at the helm.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

What To Expect Of Houllier And Villa?

How badly is Houllier doing at Aston Villa? That is, what should the expectations of the Villa fans be for this season? The club are hovering just above the relegation zone half way through the season after years of UEFA Cup football and just missing out on the Champions League under O’Neill which does constitute a fairly big fall from grace. But the situation that the Frenchman inherited is far less encouraging than his predecessor. The loss of James Milner to City was a big blow, enhanced by the failure of Stephan Ireland to make any discernable impact while Lerner has tightened the purse-strings, the reason O’Neill walked in the first place. O’Neill did well on a good budget, Houllier has been less successful on a smaller budget. Now isn’t that astonishing?

So there are mitigating factors in the poor start Houllier has made to his Aston Villa career. There are also some positive points to pick out such as the renaissance of certain players, in particular Emile Heskey. Heskey scored against Chelsea today and was dominant in the air. Never what you’d call clinical (in fact it would be generous to say wasteful) Heskey nevertheless offers Villa an outlet up front that was cleverly utilised at Stamford Bridge. Secondly, some of the youngsters coming through at Villa Park look very promising indeed. Albrighton appears the pick of the bunch but Clark, Bannon and Hogg should all have top flight careers based on what we’ve seen so far this season, the highlight being a commanding display by Bannon and Hogg against Manchester United, spoilt only at the death because the crap invincibles will not accept defeat. Houllier has proved during his time in France that he is one of the best at helping young players achieve their potential. The thought of Young and Albrighton on the wings is a prospect to frighten full-backs everywhere.

However the negative impact has been noticeable. Houllier has fallen out with far too many members of the squad such as Dunne and Ireland and ended up dropping both, contributing to strong rumours of unrest and disunity in the dressing room. Worse, some of the performances have been truly dire, the nadir being the utter capitulation at Eastlands. Villa were spineless and abject against Manchester City showing none of the character that allowed them to come from behind twice against Chelsea.

After a thrilling 3-3 draw against the champions Villa find themselves in 15th, three points away from both 20th and 9th place. This is partly a reflection of how tight this season has been but it also suggests that after a comparatively successful period under O’Neill funded by Lerner the club might need to reassess its standing. There is no doubt that Villa belong as a top flight side but whether they should continue to realistically expect 5th or 6th place finishes is not so clear cut. The top half of the table is much harder than in previous years. The resurgence of Spurs and the money monster of Manchester City have changed the face of the league. Liverpool are in decline but have a very potent first XI while Bruce and Coyle have their respective northern teams over performing so far and both look good for a top half finish. Everton have been poor this season but should still place in the top half of the table if their strikers can remember where the goal is.

Given the relative strengthening of their rivals compared to Villa’s own squad a top half finish wouldn’t actually represent a bad season for Houllier. If Liverpool, Everton and Sunderland were to spend in the January window it would make the challenge even harder to nab a Europa League place. However the caveat here is the quality of performances as much as the final league standing. While Houllier might be okay with a mid-table finish insipid displays are totally unacceptable. Against Chelsea they only managed a point but battled incredibly hard, came from behind twice and fashioned some very good chances in the first half. The same can be said for the game against Manchester United. There are problems in the Villa camp and 15th place is not good enough for this team but the league is incredibly tight this year and on the strength of performances like that Houllier deserves at least until the end of the season to see if he can bring out the fight in his side.