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Time For A Deep Breath: The Case for Gerard Houllier and the Case Against Aston Villa's Danger of Relegation

Clearly Gerard Houllier does not want to be here; let's bring back the guy that threw his toys out of the pram and quit ten minutes before the season started. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Clearly Gerard Houllier does not want to be here; let's bring back the guy that threw his toys out of the pram and quit ten minutes before the season started. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Things aren't going real well right now. I think we can all agree on that point. Aston Villa haven't won a game in the league since November 10th and since October began they've taken only 7 of the 30 points available to them. Things got off to a less than promising start this season and over the past two months they've only gotten worse. We've gone from Champions League aspirations to two points above the drop, and at this point a finish in the top half of the table would come as a pleasant surprise. It's been an incredibly bumpy ride ever since Martin O'Neill resigned back in August, and many Villa fans have moved to a state well beyond concerned.

That's understandable in a lot of ways. Seeing your team just two places above the relegation zone this far into the season is a scary thing, and while earlier in the season most of us could look at the results as not really being representative of the play on the field, but with Villa's more recent efforts it's difficult to feel similarly. That goes tenfold after the effort against Liverpool; there have been hard losses this season, but only two that qualify as embarrassing. The Newcastle game was bad, but it came in a period of flux hot off the heels of an impressive win. Monday's match was an absolutely soul-crushing game in the midst of an incredibly rough patch, and it's difficult to picture this team pulling themselves out of this hole any time soon. Optimism gave way to resignation quite some time ago, but as Villa creep closer towards the bottom that's turning into fear. This time last season the thought of relegation would have seemed absurd, but now it seems all too real. And that fear has lead to many calling for the head of Gerard Houllier.

People aren't especially good at viewing things in context. For many, the fact that Martin O'Neill's departure was immediately followed by such a disastrous start is all the proof that is needed of Gerard Houllier's incompetence. Similarly the fact that Aston Villa currently sit in 16th place just two points clear of the drop zone (with a -10 goal differential) is sufficient reason to anticipate a lasting relegation battle. Neither of those positions are in and of themselves at all rational though, largely for the same reasons.This season has been largely miserable, and not just because of games like the Liverpool match. For me, knowing that your team is likely without any chance of coming back from being a goal down against clubs like Blackburn is a pretty miserable feeling. The jag of dropping points from winning positions that the team went on earlier in the season was beyond demoralizing, but not nearly as much as the fact that I find myself missing those results. A frustrating draw is still worlds better than an absolute waxing. But with all that being the case, there's just not any real reason to be afraid of relegation and even less reason to wish for Houllier to be shown the door. Not yet anyways.

The injuries have become so much a part of the season to this point that I think for most people they're background noise, but it cannot be overstated how absurd the situation has become. Nigel Reo-Coker was, on the balance of performances, Villa's best player early in the season and as wonderful as Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark have been, his presence as a stopper and his ability to create through sheer determination and guile have been missed. Emile Heskey looked like a player reborn this season, his always excellent target and hold-up skills sharpened and a new-found ability to actually present a threat at goal combining to make him a serious presence up front. It should be noted that we barely got to see Heskey and Agbonlahor working together, and the Emile Heskey we saw early in the season is exactly the kind of striker pairing Agbonlahor needs to play to his full potential. Stiliyan Petrov was poor early on, but there were occasional flashes of the player he's been in the past and if he is utilized in a deeper holding role upon his return it would play to his strengths and allow Barry Bannan to play to his. 

And those are just the big, long-term injuries. Key players have been missing here and there all season long. They've been replaced by kids, and while the kids have been better than I think anyone could have possibly expected, they're still kids. The overarching narrative has been one of the youngsters being tremendous, and I'm not necessarily questioning that. But it's important to remember that they haven't always all managed to be tremendous at the same time. At Anfield, they all managed to be bad and/or injured at the same time, and the result was one of the worst performances most people can remember seeing from this team in quite some time. That's the nature of relying on kids; they're going to be inconsistent and sometimes they're going to be flat-out bad.

The problem that a lot of people run into is that once they've seen a great performance from a young player it can hit a sort of mental reset button; that performance can become a new baseline of expected performance, whether that is reasonable or not (and it usually isn't.) Because we place so much hope on the younger players, we don't want to blame them when things go wrong. Angry people like to affix blame, and in this instance it's mostly been placed squarely on the shoulders of Gerard Houllier. Some of that is fair; I don't love everything he's done from a tactical standpoint, I don't understand why several of his players have seen little to no action in the League since he's taken over and his seeming desire to bring Michael Owen to Villa makes me really nervous.

For the most part however I'm pretty happy with what we've see from Houllier. He's shown no fear in giving the youngsters a lot of playing time (even when injuries weren't forcing his hand) and even though the results haven't been there the football has been quality for the most part. He's willing to make adjustments based on the opposition or the progression of the game and he seems to understand his players strengths and use them accordingly. The players are still learning his system, but when it's clicking this team looks very dangerous. It's important to note as well that this isn't really Gerard Houllier's team; the only player he has brought into the team is Robert Pires, and that move was almost certainly made for the purpose of providing the younger players with a mentor. By all accounts Houllier will be given some flexibility to bring in new players in January, and we'll have a much clearer idea what we have in Houllier at that point.

In spite of all this, a fair number of people have turned on Houllier rather quickly and the calls for his sacking increased once the comments he made to the media following the Liverpool match became public. While I found nothing particularly egregious in what Houllier was quoted as saying, given the uproar it's fair to say that a case could be made that his statements were ill-timed. I think the reaction was largely unfair, but a lot of the anger seems to have died down since Houllier posted an apology on the official site. Still, the fact that we're even talking about this just eleven games into his tenure is pretty shocking. It's been bad, and people are afraid that it's going to get worse. And when people are afraid, they make rash suggestions.

And let's be clear; suggesting Villa are legitimate candidates for relegation or that Gerard Houllier should be fired are very rash suggestions. The past few months have been fairly miserable, but there are reasons that explain the poor stretch and reasons to expect things to improve. Ciaran Clark and Jonathan Hogg are not very good midfielders. Without a target up front, Villa have been forced to push the ball from the back as opposed to playing a longer game, and without a solid midfield to link the defense to the forwards Villa have a tough time keeping possession. Things have been better when Barry Bannan has been in the game, but without another threat to make plays the diminutive Bannan can be neutralized by physical defensive play. Ciaran Clark has shown some flashes, but he's not anywhere near ready to be playing the midfield in the Premier League. When the ball has gotten into the final third Villa have looked dangerous, but as soon as the ball gets back into the midfield the threat is gone; one of Stiliyan Petrov or Nigel Reo-Coker returning from injury will do wonders in this regard.If Villa can begin to maintain pressure rather than simply applying it briefly, that will go a long way towards getting things headed back in the right direction. It's not just those two either; as much as I hate to say it, Steve Sidwell is a more attractive option (in football terms only) than Chris Herd or Jonathan Hogg.

Villa also have a tendency to be one-dimensional in the attack, and that's caused them some pretty serious problems as well. The most dangerous attacks are always going to involve the wingers, and if Downing and Albrighton are able to cut inside and pressure the center the offense looks truly dangerous. When the opposing full backs are able to contain the wingers to the outside, the opposition are able to camp the center backs in the middle. Downing and Albrighton are both good crossers of the ball, but without an aerial threat to get on the end of them, it's tough to capitalize. Not having a target forward has taken away a lot of Gabriel Agbonlahor's effectiveness as well, forcing him to spend far more time than is desirable with his back to goal. Gabby has played increasingly well since returning from injury, but a big part of his game is missing in the role he's been forced to play. It's bizarre to think that Emile Heskey's presence has been sorely missed, but here we are. This really is bizarro-land.

This isn't Aston Villa and more specifically it's not Gerard Houllier's Aston Villa. I've been following all manner of sports since I was three years old and the injury struggles this team has endured this season are unlike anything I've ever seen. How is that anything other than bad luck? How is the fact that Villa have dominated so many games only to come out with a draw or a loss chalked up to anything other than a large measure of bad luck? Certainly the players deserve some measure of the blame, but there have been an inordinate number of games that would have gone their way had it not been for the woodwork or an unfortunate bounce. Those types of things have a way of working themselves out over the course of a season, but sometimes a large portion of a season's bad luck ends up lumping itself into a fairly small window of time. And when that happens right on the heels of the turmoil that kicked off the season, it's fairly easy to understand how a black cloud has come to hang over Aston Villa as of late.

At times like this, it's important to keep perspective. Key players will return from injury. The schedule will not always be as difficult as it has been during this stretch. Reinforcements will be brought to the club in January. It's not fair-not to the manager or to the players-to panic just yet. If we're still here in February, back at full strength and transfers completed? Sure. And I'll be the first to the lead to call for Houllier's job at season's end. But there are too many mitigating factors, too many unknowns and too much season ahead to call for yet another change in course. We're not even halfway through the season yet and a whole lot can change between now and May.

Every one of us knew that with Martin O'Neill's resignation and Gerard Houllier's appointment would come change. And generally, change takes time. Houllier is trying to put his stamp on the club, and he's allowed a chance to do so. Ask yourself this; where did you see this club finishing when you heard of O'Neill's resignation? Top eight? Mid-table? That's about where I envisioned things ending up. And despite what some would have you believe, there's still a reasonably good chance that's what ends up happening, and I'd wager there's a far greater chance we see Villa playing in Europe next year than playing in the Championship. It's not all sunshine and roses ahead, and it's entirely possible that it turns out Gerard Houllier is not the right man for the job after all. But we've absolutely no way of knowing that at this point. The man deserves a chance, with a healthy squad and the opportunity to bring in the kind of talent that can make his system work to its full potential. He hasn't had that yet, and whether you agreed with his appointment in the first place or not calling for his ouster just eleven games into his tenure is unfair, irrational and potentially destructive.