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.