The magic within Aston Villa: Chemistry, Sorcery and Alchemy

As we all slowly come back down through the stratosphere to the reality of planet earth, isn't it worth taking a second or two to consider just what act of witchcraft has transformed our team from a battling, competitive difficult-to-beat side into one which can go to Old Trafford and - for long periods - outplay champions.

It's strange. There hasn't been a massive change in the molecular structure of the squad. Argue as long as you like about formations, essentially Martin O'Neill is relying upon the same fundamental elements. Athleticism, muscle, pace, commitment and high levels of kinetic energy.

So what the hell has changed?

I'm sure of one thing: Martin O'Neill hasn't gone back to the drawing board. He hasn't sat the team down with some footballing version of the Periodic Table and asked them to reassess the basics of Villa's approach.


So something else is at work here, and it clearly isn't incidental. Fluke doesn't see a team start to play more fluidly and more creatively, and to use space more dangerously for three games in a row. Many of the universe's bizarre happenings can be attributed to chance - but this, at least in my view, isn't one of them.

As a counterpoint, it may be interesting to look at the way Manchester City are stalling and stuttering. In terms of the composition of their team, it makes no scientific sense. It defies logic. Pound for pound, every player in every position is first class, and it stands to reason that they should be pushing their more glamorous neighbours and the Kings Road wide boys, not hanging around 4th and 5th with the likes of us dowdy Midlanders.

And this, I think, is where a little bit of magic comes in. Or, better said, quite a lot of magic.

We all sort of welcomed the £12m signing of Stewart Downing, without being bowled over by it. Firstly, he was injured when we bought him, which some of us thought made O'Neill look more like the court jester than Merlin the Magician. Secondly, that £12m tag sort of grated with us: it confirmed us a club who were always going to be in the second-most-expensive seats. You know what I mean: not also-rans, but not really pushing the boundaries of the possible.

Yet I'm beginning to think that Martin O'Neill has some powers of sorcery underneath that dour, Price Waterhouse aspect. Since Downing has come into the side, Villa's entire approach has changed. Milner, Young and Downing move and switch with each other so effortlessly that as an observer, I lose track. If I were Stan Petrov, I'd be livid: how the hell can he work out where any of them are?

To a certain extent, this can be coached on the training pitch. But on the whole that sort of fluidity demands players of immense intuition, players with natural coherence who play on each other's wavelength. And during the 90 minutes of a game, it relies completely on the intelligence and communication between those players.

James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young cost Villa £35m between them. They are all young, and all English. And they are playing football at a level right now which is approaching the scientifically unexplained. So much so that during a first half at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson didn't quite know what was going on.

And it proves a point. A really, really important point.

And that is (Mr Hughes and Mr Redknapp), that you can buy individuals all you like, and bankrupt clubs in the process. But teams win things, not individuals. And the greatest teams, all of them, have a little bit of "something else" about them. A little bit of magic. A whole lot of chemistry.

And that's what's excited me about the emergence of Stewart Downing in the Villa first team. Another England fringe player, signed for (in Big 4 terms) a modest fee.

But a superb example of one Ulsterman's sorcery. Because Downing has transformed the way Villa's midfield play, allowing Ashley Young to pop up in all sorts of unexpected places, and freeing James Milner to work as Villa's creative engine in front of Stan.

Managers with less imagination, and who aren't card-carrying members of football's magic circle, might think the way to do it is to buy loads of really expensive midfielders.

But we have an alchemist at the helm. And I genuinely believe that the entrance of Stewart Downing onto the Villa stage is turning James Milner, Ashley Young and also Stiliyan Petrov into gold.

You may look like an accountant Martin, but we're not fooled. It's Merlin, really, isn't it?

Because Doc sent this in and because I have a preview post to do for tomorrow and bit of regular work to get through today, the post-mortem is going to come late this week.