The wheels may be coming off, but the Doc's back

Well, to tell you the truth I got a bid fed up with Ole Ole or whatever it's called, and I'm glad Damian's back with an independent blog.

But I'm not going to dwell on all that. Instead, I thought I'd break myself back in gently with an angle on Villa's depressing form and the stuttering challenge for a Top 4 finish.


Before I open that can of worms, it's worth re-stating that if anyone had offered me 5th place and a four point lead over Everton at the end of March, I would probably have grabbed their hand off. Progress is what it's all about, and if we can secure fifth place and an automatic UEFA Cup place, then progress will indeed have been made.

But it wouldn't tell the whole story, would it? Half way through the first 45 at Anfield, it looked to me as if Villa were more likely to find an equaliser than Liverpool were to go two up. At home to Stoke, the points were firmly in the bag. But this side has an discovered an unnerving ability to fall apart - unnecessarily.

And I've got to tell you, I don't think its tiredness. And Anfield apart, where O'Neill displayed swaggering tactical naivety, I don't even think it's tactical. Nor do I give much credence to the idea that it's all down to Villa having one of the smaller squads.

I think a lot of it comes down to leadership on the field, and - for all his qualities - Martin O'Neill has done nothing to convince me he's capable of deploying brilliant captaincy.

You don't have to be Einstein to see a correlation between Martin Laursen's absence through injury and Villa's slump in form. But most analysts seem to suggest that this is simply a question of defensive quality...I don't buy that. Laursen is a superb central defender, and sorely missed, but in Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar we've been able to call on able deputies.

What Laursen also has is massive presence. Although his promotion to club captain was as much punishment of Gareth Barry for his flirtations with Merseyside, he made the armband his own and exuded authority when wearing it. I may be wrong, but I simply can't imagine Villa either crumbling at Anfield or throwing two points in the Brabantia at home to Stoke if he had been on the field.

Gareth Barry was re-awarded the armband by divine default when Laursen got himself crocked again, and if any decision has screwed up Villa's form, I think it was that one. Stiliyan Petrov or Brad Friedel would have carried far greater authority with the armband than Barry, who is an intelligent, visionary and cultured midfielder but also a quiet player who is often absorbed in his own game.

Let's get straight to the point: Barry is a brilliant footballer but an awful captain. And giving the armband back to him has cost Villa big time.

There isn't a side in the Premier League with the depth of resource and extravagance of talent as Manchester United. But Chelsea and Liverpool are pushing the Red Devils mighty hard...now John Terry and Steven Gerrard are fabulous footballers, but they are also fabulous captains.

Look at Arsenal, on the other hand, who have not had a captain worth the name since Patrick Vieira, and you start to realise why they've been struggling to keep up.

We can discuss Martin O'Neill's transfer judgement and tactical decision-making until the cows come home. But he needed to make one right decision when Laursen was forced to return to the treatment table.

And I'm afraid he got it wrong. We need leadership on the field as well as off it, and Barry's just not yer man.