It is often said that the sign of a good manager is how they are able to employ a contingency plan during a match when things may not be going their way. Indeed. Ferguson, Mourinho and Wegner are all classic examples of managers who can use change of tactic or a substitution to alter the course and outcome of a game.
Villa’s recent match with Liverpool ended in a disappointing last gasp defeat for the home side. With the otherwise quiet Torres pouncing on an ounce of good fortune to punish an otherwise steely and comfortable Villa defence. Martin O’Neill in his post match interview commented on how the loss was a ‘cruel defeat’ and how “"everyone in the stadium and on the TV would have said that we (Villa) should have won the game.”
There is an element of truth to this and above all of O’Neill achievements this season should be the way in which he has been able to change the mentality of not only his own players but of the opposition teams of Villa’s abilities and strengths. Villa have now become a side who expects to win regularly against the top opposition. Indeed for great periods of the 1st Half a low in confidence Liverpool played and looked like a team who would be happy to take a draw. This should have been a huge compliment and a nod to indicate that O’Neills vision of achieving Villa’s ultimate goal of Champions League Qualifications is not far away. Liverpool’s attitude and play spoke volumes of the potential change in the balance of power at the top of table, with Benitiez’s side in dire need of 3 points to stay in some kind contact with the top 4, seemingly convinced that a draw would be a good result.
However, as the game progressed, there was an evident change in Liverpool’s confidence. It was becoming clear that despite two excellent saves by Reina, that Villa having failed to find that elusive first goal were running out of ideas. Liverpool became comfortable, and it was clear that the game could only be won by either a mistake or an act of brilliance. In the end it was a bit of both, the failure of Villa to clear an innocuous ball forward by Liverpool, led to Torres finding himself with half a chance to grab the win. Torres who had been marginal throughout the game, and spent most of the time looking unimpressed with the Birmingham snowy weather, was able to show true quality to snatch the win. And in many ways Torres highlights the challenge O’Neill faces, in moulding Villa in to truly believable challenger to the top 4. On the evidence of this game it is clear that O’Neill lacks the tactical nouse to change the direction of Villa’s play when things are not going to plan.
He may have a very good reason not to, as he will probably point out in most cases Plan A works and gets the required result. Plan A, which effectively is built on a steady and organised back four, a stable and workmanlike midfield, with the pace of Agbonlahor excellently complemented by the presence of Carew. The upfront paring are superbly supplied by the pace and crossing of Downing and Milner.
However, despite its effectives, there is very little to suggest that if the plan does not work that he has the players or the ability to change things. Ashley Young is at best the most likely player that can offer Villa genuine variation, but he at best has been inconsistent particularly against quality opposition.
So, where do Villa go now. Well as is likely nowhere; Plan A has worked in the majority of cases on opposing teams below the top 4 and against some above it, Man Utd away for example. This in itself may be enough for Villa to gain that elusive top 4 spot, and gain a place in the Champions league.
The real challenge for O’Neill will be to show both his tactical qualities and his skills in the transfer market that will enable his Villa side to show that it is more than a one trick pony.