Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa can take a lesson from Manchester United's squad system

17 April 2010 04:48
You would not have the same chances under Sir Alex Ferguson, Aston Villa's manager said. You might be "in a more rotational business", as he put it, rather than profiting from O'Neill's patented policy of trusting in the same starting XI every week. Milner may be tempted, as he prepares on Sunday afternoon to face a relegated Portsmouth team who still unlike Villa have a hope of ending the season with some silverware, that this is precisely the problem.

The core members of Villa's team have effectively been run into the ground.

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O'Neill, showing the type of autocratic leadership to echo his old mentor at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, has transformed Villa's Bodymoor Heath training complex into a personal fiefdom, where every last detail of the players' regimes are subject to his scrutiny. The spectacle of a perfectly fit player sitting in the stand, which he suspects could be the fate to befall Milner at Old Trafford, remains anathema to him.

There have been rewards for O'Neill's disciplinarian approach, notably in Milner's fast-improving versatility and the more metronomic scoring of Agbonlahor, but the trajectory of a Villa season under his tutelage is becoming, to the club's supporters, wearily familiar: a surge into Champions League contention, a sustained assault across several competitions, followed by a late-season dip that leaves only the consolation of Europa League qualification dimly in their sights.

The demand from the fan-base is a straightforward one: it is for squad investment, and much of it, to ensure that Villa's progress over 38 league games maintains momentum and that prestigious cup games are not devalued by a line-up of reserve players. O'Neill is still not forgiven by some staff at Villa for the decision he took in February 2009, fielding a pale facsimile of his normal side for a crucial Uefa Cup knockout match at CSKA Moscow. The understudies lost 2-0; the manager lost a good deal of credibility.

O'Neill could hardly have arrived at Villa Park in the summer of 2006 with more fanfare, having amassed seven trophies, including three Scottish league titles, in three years with Celtic. None of it was of this cerebral and circumspect man's making; he has always spoken of his work at Villa as an essentially fragile, long-term project. But a trophy was coveted, possibly expected, after two Wembley dates in the last eight weeks, and again it has proved maddeningly elusive.

Since a whirl of conjecture was stirred up over O'Neill's future a fortnight ago, it has appeared certain that a defining strategic decision would be taken at Villa this summer. Should Manchester City secure the fourth Champions League place, Randy Lerner, the club's understated American owner, will indeed have to act, for Villa will find themselves drawn into the Premier League's equivalent of an arms race. City will, most likely, stockpile more marquee signings in an attempt to shoot higher, while more modest clubs in the mould of Villa and Everton could be at risk of total eclipse.

If O'Neill does conclude, despite his apparent dissatisfaction, that he does still have an important role to discharge at Villa and that his team have not reached their ceiling, he must realise that progress depends on more than just 11 players, even if they are all as good as Milner.

Portsmouth v Aston VillaSunday, kick-off: 4pm TV: Sky Sports 1

Source: Telegraph