Trying to follow in the footsteps of Martin O’Neill has proved a difficult task for Gerard Houllier. O'Neill led Leicester to the top half of the Premiership and into Europe, he won the treble with Celtic, as well as reaching the UEFA Cup final; additionally, he led Aston Villa to three consecutive sixth-place finishes, as well as the Carling Cup final.
It is difficult to argue that O'Neill did not achieve impressive things at his previous clubs, however, when he walked out on Aston Villa—only days before the season started—he left an enormous challenge for his successor, Gerard Houllier.
Before we look at how Houllier has coped, it is interesting to look at previous successors to Martin O’Neill. O’Neill has a gift of being able to get the most out of a certain type of player. However, he often seems unable to motivate players with a different style or mentality than his own.
We have seen this act previously. In the years after he left Celtic, few doubted that he had done a wonderful job, but worries developed that he had left them with an aging squad with big contracts that struggled to perform under a new manager. Leicester had similar problems with players seemingly unable to replicate their form under O’Neill for the new manager.
Even now, we appear to be seeing the same pattern forming at Aston Villa under Gerard Houllier. Certain players, such as Richard Dunne and John Carew, have been poor this season without Martin O’Neill, as such, questions are being raised about their futures. Conversely, Houllier seems to have resurrected the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey, who have gone from bench players last season to key players so far this year.
From this evidence, we can see that attempting to follow O’Neill can often be a difficult task.
Thus far, Houllier has had an average start. He has hardly got the team firing on all cylinders, but it is far from a poor start, as he has also been unlucky with injuries. In the short period since he took over there has been a spate of injuries, including Marc Albrighton, Luke Young, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Houllier has also been rocked by the news that captain Stiliyan Petrov will miss at least two months.
However, in this short spell, it is clear that he is trying to change the style of football Aston Villa play. Under Martin O’Neill their game was based around quick counterattacks when possible, and more of a long-ball game in general. It is already noticeable that Houllier is encouraging the side to play with a more measured build-up by utilizing more passing of the ball on the ground.
Whilst the fans like to see this approach, it is difficult to implement it immediately. He still has O’Neill’s squad, and he will still be learning about his players. He did not have a pre-season to work with the players to push his ideas. Therefore, it seems natural to give him some time before judging too much.
Houllier has also had to deal with the loss of last season’s player of the year, James Milner, who has not really been replaced. Stephen Ireland joined as part of the deal, but he is a different type of player, and has barely played in the Premiership for over a year. Virtually any club would be affected by the loss of their top star. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Gareth Barry has not really been replaced, either.
The other worry that is emerging from Villa Park concerns the fitness of the players.
Houllier and his new fitness coach, Robert Duverne, have been running double fitness sessions since the players are apparently not fit enough. It was a question that had been raised over the past few seasons with Villa’s customary late-season slump, and raises questions of whether O’Neill was focusing adequately on this aspect of training.
It would be surprising if some new players were not brought in during the January transfer window. Houllier will have had the opportunity to assess and get to know his squad and build opinions on which areas need strengthening. The obvious position is at striker. John Carew appears to be on a rapid decline—he was inconsistent at the best of times, and his work-rate is simply appalling this season. Further, Emile Heskey has been playing well, but is never going to guarantee many goals. Gabriel Agbonlahor has missed virtually the entire season thus far through injury. Additionally, Nathan Delfouneso and Andreas Weimann are good prospects for the future, but unlikely to make an immediate impact now.
This is hardly a new concern—it was a problem throughout O’Neill’s reign, and even before that. Indeed, no Villa striker has scored 20 goals in all competitions since Juan Pablo Angel in 2003-04, and no striker has scored 20 league goals since the early ‘80s. Villa have regularly been accused of creating chances, but having no natural goal-scorer to convert them.
Next weekend looks set to be a big one for Gerard Houllier. Whilst many fans are happy to be patient for a while until he has a chance to develop his own squad, few would forgive him if Villa were to lose the home derby with Birmingham. After Birmingham went unbeaten for the first six Premiership derbies between the two, bragging rights have been with Villa in recent years after six consecutive wins against the Blues.
Neither side is in particularly great form.
Birmingham secured a much-needed win last weekend against Blackpool, but it was only their second win of the season following six games without one. Aston Villa have only one win in their last six games in the league in the derby with Wolves. However, with home games against Birmingham and Blackpool, and trips to Fulham in their next three games, they hope to start getting some points on the board.
So whilst it has not been a wonderful start for Gerard Houllier, it is far too early to draw firm judgments. He is working with an O’Neill team, having not had a preseason to press his own input onto the team. It appears that this is likely to be a season of transition. It would be surprising not to see a number of transfers, both in and out, in both January and next summer, as Houllier moves out some of the traditionally "O’Neill-type" players and replaces them with his type.
A sixth-place finish this season would be an excellent achievement. An upper mid-table finish is far more likely, hoping to press on again next season. However, Houllier needs to be given time. Many managers in the past have struggled to succeed O’Neill, but any new manager must be judged once he has had an opportunity to build his own team.