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Aston Villa Under Gerard Houllier: It's Not The Players Used, It's How They're Used

That's one snazzy watch Gerard Houllier wears. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
That's one snazzy watch Gerard Houllier wears. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Thus far, Gérard Houllier has been a welcome addition to Aston Villa. He looks classy on the sidelines, he's improving the fitness of Villa players, and he has a lovely turn of phrase. Yet Houllier is receiving praise for things that he alone is not responsible for.

I read this morning that Nigel Reo-Coker had barely featured in claret and blue until Houllier took over last month. I guess if by "barely featured," we discount his appearances in the six out of seven matches before Houllier took over. In four of those matches, NRC got the start. Houllier is also credited for the revival of Luke Young, but defender Young had four matches--all of them starts--before the new manager took over.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to say that Houllier isn't a positive development for Aston Villa. But most people, reporters and supporters alike, are emphasizing the wrong thing. Reo-Coker and L. Young are being used because they are quality players who, for one reason or another, managed to get on Martin O'Neill's bad side. They might not be Villa's shining stars, but they are dependable, and they fit well into a rotation.

And it's that rotation that's key, not the fact that Houllier is supposedly bringing back lost souls (Kevin MacDonald was already doing that). Last year, Aston Villa ran out the same starting XI again and again, seeming to find comfort in familiarity. No wonder the squad started to look ragged in the spring. With Houllier's commitment to rotation, he has yet to use the same lineup in the four matches he's been in charge. Although the Spurs and Wolves lineups looked similar, he used different substitutes. While some of this can be attributed to injuries, it appears more than that. Houllier is giving run-outs, albeit short ones, to young players that he'd like to see more of. But even more so, Houllier is taking into account the style of the opposition.

Let that sink in for a moment. For the past few years, the Villa have been running out almost the same side, no matter who their opponent is, and sticking them on the field in a 4-4-2. Now, the Villa side that showed up at White Heart Lane didn't play badly; they were simply outclassed by a strong Spurs side (or possibly by Rafael van der Vaart). Houllier could have been forgiven for using that same side--with like for like substitutions to account for injury issues--to go up against Chelsea. Instead, Houllier packed the midfield, bringing on Stephen Ireland but keeping both Reo-Coker and Stiliyan Petrov, and gave Stewart Downing a greater role in defense. And Aston Villa managed to hold the champions to a draw.

There's still room for improvement. Houllier needs to seriously consider the contributions of some team members (cough Petrov cough). The inclusion of Ciaran Clark over Carlos Cuellar is still puzzling to me, and it seems as though there's a piece of the story that we're missing. Insisting on playing Richard Dunne when he's not at full fitness is also curious, especially since it appears his already knocked knee likely contributed to the ankle injury he picked up on Saturday.

But keep in mind, Villans--we've only had Houllier for a short while. His emphasis on squad rotation, combined with his desire to increase fitness levels, are encouraging signs for a team with supposed designs on European competition. Rumors abound that he's looking outside Britain for transfers. Yet the biggest story is not the names that are returning to the Villa lineup. Those names returned as soon as Martin O'Neill took off. The kudos go to Houllier not because of the players on the pitch, but because of the way in which he uses those players.