Aston Villa finished the 2009-10 Premier League season with 64 points — one better than Liverpool’s 63. In fact, this time last year, Villa was veritably in the title hunt, having 10 wins, five draws and three losses in mid-December.
Their young core headlined by James Milner led a team typified by width and defense gave the league’s elite fits — defeating both Chelsea and Manchester United.
Things are a little different this year for Villa. They’ve started relatively slowly under the leadership of former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, but much of that can be attributed to injury — not Milner’s exit. Actually, Milner’s transfer has simply led the rise of a new crop of Villa kids featuring the likes of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannon and Ciaran Clark — just as always seems to be the case for the club.
NESN.com caught up with Damian Dugdale of TheVillaBlog to ask a few questions about the club — and how they’ll match up with Liverpool on Monday.
In what way has Gerard Houlier’s management differed from Martin O’Neil’s?
We’ve only had 13 games with Gerard Houllier, so it’s a little early to say with any certainty, but there does seem to be a little more emphasis on keeping the ball and passing short rather than long and as soon as you get it.
Villa have been decimated by injuries thus far this season. Which has been the most significant?
Hard to say, as the players that have come in have done a very good job and because the new manager is trying to change how the football is played, the chances are results were going to be all over the place, regardless of who was playing. But, if I had to name one, I’d say Marc Albrighton, because since he has been out, we have lost a naturally talented right sided attacking player. We lost balance.
Marc Albrighton is given much of the attention, but which other young Villa players have been the most impressive?
The stand out player is Barry Bannan – he has slotted into the middle of the park and played like he has played there at this level for years, but the others also deserve a mention. Ciaran Clark, a central defender, has played in the middle alongside Bannan, as has Jonathan Hogg, but I’m also a big fan of Eric Lichaj and we also have to mention Chris Herd – both of them have made appearances this season.
Villa’s width and pace seem likely to be a difficult matchup for a slower, more central Liverpool. How do you think Villa will approach the match tactically? What about Liverpool will be most difficult for Villa to cope with?
Marc Albrighton will be back soon but not soon enough for tomorrow and Ashley Young is suspended for this game so our options down the right are extremely limited, so you can pretty much write off our ability to use the width of the pitch, but some will go down the left to Stewart Downing. However, tactically, there are two things that can happen tomorrow; if we play 442 there will be a focus on attacking, however, if we play 451, it will be more about closing down space and counter attacking.
As for Liverpool – the most difficult thing to cope with at Liverpool, if on his game and if he gets the ball with a little space, is Fernando Torres.
Are Villa apt to be buyers or sellers – or both – come January?
The manager has said he wants to bring in a couple of players, but I’d put money on us having no more, in terms of number of players, than we have right now and maybe even less. I don’t think it will be because funds are not available, I think it is more a case of the manager getting rid of some dead wood and reducing the wage bill. I just hope it isn’t more dead wood he is bringing in.
Special thanks to Damian Dugdale of TheVillaBlog.co.uk