Wednesday evening sees the beginning of a new era at Villa Park. Forty-five days after Martin O’Neill sensationally walked out of the club, Gerard Houllier finally takes charge for his first match after successfully negotiating his release from the French Football Federation.
The Carling Cup match with Blackburn will bring back memories of the incredible semi-final second leg match from last year that saw Villa triumph 6-4 in an epic ten goal thriller. A repeat seems unlikely, but it is a good match for Houllier to begin his Villa career in.
Although he only officially took charge on Monday morning, he has already begun to bring in his own staff to fill the roles that were vacated when Martin O’Neill left. When O’Neill walked out, he was joined by five important members of staff—John Robertson (assistant manager), Steve Walford (first team coach), Jim Hendry (fitness coach), Seamus McDonagh (goalkeeping coach) and Ian Storey-Moore (head scout).
Losing these five undoubtedly affected the start to the season, with few specialist coaches. Kevin MacDonald and Gordon Cowans have stepped up to fill the gaps temporarily, even relying on Brad Friedal to stand-in as a temporary goalkeeping coach. Kevin MacDonald will return to the reserves for now, and Cowans has been promoted up from the successful youth team to work with the first team under Houllier.
However, new faces are beginning to appear. Gary McAllister has already been confirmed as the assistant to Gerard Houllier, whilst Robert Duverne, best known for his role in the bust-up with Patrice Evra at the World Cup, has been announced as the new fitness coach. A complete revamp of the scouting system is also anticipated as Houllier looks to Europe and abroad in search of bargains, given the financial restrictions at the club.
With Houllier coming in, we should expect to see a change in the style of play at Villa Park as well. Whilst it will not be instantaneous, he will undoubtedly look to improve the technical side of the play, developing improved ball retention in matches. This is an area that has been missing in recent years under O’Neill, where the team has played high-pace counter-attacking play, but has conceded a lot of possession.
Whilst this can be effective, it puts a lot of pressure on the defensive side of the game, which can explain the occasional hammering that Villa have received over the past few months. An off day from the defence is particularly noticeable when the team plays in this style.
Houllier is expected to field a virtually full-strength side for his first game. Brad Guzan may get an opportunity as he often does in cup games, but Houllier will know the value of a good performance, and a good win, to get his Villa career off to a good start. Blackburn are likely to make a number of changes to their side, so there is the possibility of a good win to boost confidence ahead of the derby game with Wolves at the weekend.