The case for and against Martin O'Neill

OK. All sides get spanked sometimes, and when those spankings happen, it's usually a team of quite stunning ability which administers them. Villa were spanked by a superb Chelsea side yesterday, and we should take nothing away from Ancelotti and his men. They were quite ruthless in a second half which made us Villains look like part-timers.

I've been involved in the game for a long time, and I accept the odd thrashing as part of life. It happens.

But I don't think Villa got thrashed yesterday: I think this particular spanking has been built up in its probability over a series of weeks and months.

Before I start asking some difficult questions, let me first begin with some positives.

Transfers


I have no issue at all with Martin O'Neill's transfer policy. While I consider the sale of Gary Cahill a mistake, I think the £5-12m band in which Martin O'Neill has to operate has seen him bring in the best players he can. Within that range, he has taken the decision not to gamble on overseas players unused to the Premier League, but instead to focus on a) youth and b) players used to the pace and physicality of EPL football.

Warnock, Dunne, Collins, Milner, Young (both) and Downing are all good signings - as in my view are those of Delph, Sidwell and Reo-Coker. What's been missing is the coaching strategy which gets all these players involved in regular first team football.

Man Management

Here, again, I have no quibble. Many of the players mentioned above joined Villa because of the immense personal charisma of our manager. There can be little if any doubt that MON is a great man manager who is capable of getting the best out of his first team players - if he picks them. How happy his fringe players are every day when they turn up at Bodymoor is open to question.

Once we get beyond these points, though, I think some serious questions have got to be asked.

Rotation

I'm not a fan of squad rotation for the sake of it. I think that's nonsense. But I do think that a manager owes it to the players and indeed the fans to keep an eye on the fitness or weariness of his squad and plan accordingly. That's why I say this game wasn't surrendered this afternoon but many weeks ago.

As Martin O'Neill says, these are fit young men who want to play. But Steve Sidwell is a fit young man who wants to play, and Luke Young is a fit young man who wants to play. Would it not have been sensible to have fielded these players - and others - in many of our games over the winter...both to give our first choice players a welcome rest, to keep competition for places alive, and to ensure that when we do need replacements that they can actually join the side on the front foot.

When Sidwell came on against Sunderland at Villa Park, he actually looked the sharpest player on the field. When Delfouneso came on at Stamford Bridge, he actually made a thing or two happen. It isn't rocket science, surely.

Use the squad. Trust the players. By all means have your favourites, Martin, but for god's sake keep them fresh.

Many of you will have seen my comments after returning from Villa Park on Wednesday (Sunderland). The (neutral) mates I watched the game with both thought Petrov and Milner looked knackered after 20 minutes.

That's not good management.

Tactics

I guess this is linked to the transfer point above, but MON seems wedded to the idea of a bully centre forward. Or even two bully centre forwards treading on each others' toes.

Up front, we have both pace and height at our disposal, as well as power. But that too often means that we don't play the ball through midfield - and as a result we surrender possession far too quickly and end up playing too many games on the back foot.

Villa have fine defensive qualities (though it galls me to say that after a 7-1 defeat), but we have the players in our squad to play possession football and build pressure on the opposition through ball retention. Nobody is going to tell me that with the right coaching and the right game-plan Stewart Downing, James Milner and Ashley Young can't play Arsenal-style possession football.

They can. And they probably want to.

But O'Neill wants to play direct - and that means Carew and Heskey are always in the bloody channels picking up long balls from Dunne and Collins instead of being in the box waiting for crosses or through-balls from midfield.

I reckon O'Neill will want to keep playing that way, too.

At least he set up today with two holding midfielders in Petrov and Sidwell, which was the right move before he decided to play the entire second half with no cover on Villa's right. It's a tough call, but I don't believe Carew should have started today. If fit, I would have played Gabby up front on his own, with Downing and Young wide, Petrov and Sidwell holding the midfield and Delph given a free role in between. Milner should have been rested.

But MON has forgotten more than I know.

These just my thoughts, and I hope the debate continues intelligently.