Watching football fans watching the football
Aston Villa's lacklustre league form was getting ever worse under Alex McLeish. His dismissal was a necessary step if Villa are to avoid relegation next season, says Alex Keble
Alex McLeish's tenure as Aston Villa manager was plagued by fan and media unrest from the outset. Criticism has been hurled in his direction ever since owner Randy Lerner decided to appoint the man who not only managed arch rivals Birmingham City, but relegated them twice in three years.
Unfortunately for McLeish, the cries of dissent only increased as the season progressed. No wonder: Villa slumped to 16th in the table, recording their lowest points tally in more than 20 years and emerging victorious from Villa Park on only four occasions; the lowest in the club's 138-year history. On Monday, Lerner sacked McLeish, less than 12 months after making the controversial appointment.
Villa fans remain adamant that their antipathy towards the manager was not fuelled by his links with the blue half of Birmingham, but by an aversion to the defensive style and desperate lack of quality that characterised both his Villa and his Birmingham sides.
After the lacklustre display in Villa's final match at Norwich, McLeish called for more time; it comes as no surprise that he has not been given it. Stats Zone shows that his Villa side were getting progressively worse, not better. What's more, their mind-numbingly tedious football was beginning to show an alarming resemblance to the drab Birmingham City side that skulked out of the league 12 months ago.
Traditionally, managers are given time to instigate their brand of football in the first year; fans and media alike ignore unspectacular results, recognising that creating a team that blends requires patience and diligence. Witness the first Villa Park seasons of both Martin O'Neill and Gerard Houllier. So why hasn't McLeish been given more leeway?
Well, the 'rebuilding' year does not mean that performances should be ignored. Under the previous two Villa managers there were numerous signs that players were learning, styles were emerging, and the manager was moulding the club to his own unique philosophy. In direct contrast to this, McLeish's reign was directionless and entirely unsuccessful from beginning to end.
Gabby Agbonlahor, who has committed himself for life to his boyhood team, described the 2011/12 campaign as "one of those seasons you want to get out of the way and get through"; Villa's talisman hardly seemed optimistic about a future under McLeish. Who can blame him? The statistics speak for themselves.
The Stats – Villa decliningOnly Stoke City have scored fewer goals this season than Aston Villa. Only Wolves have won fewer matches. No team has drawn more games. It doesn't need a close statistical scrutiny of the evidence is not required to reach the conclusion that Villa are a boring side to watch.
What's more pertinent is the overall decline in form as the season has progressed. There persists a feeling of aimlessness, as low morale (characterised by Agbonlahor's comments) threatened to submerge Villa in another relegation fight next season if McLeish was allowed to continue.
Aston Villa recorded an average of 11 shots per game this season, the 19th worst in the division. This, coupled with averages of 72% pass completion and a measly 43.2% possession, make for difficult reading. These figures are even more compelling when comparing the final 13 games of the season to the first 25.
The statistical evidence strongly suggests that Villa became progressively worse as the season wore on. If we break down Villa's season into three equal parts, this trend becomes even clearer.
What is most interesting about this chart is the increasing rate of deterioration between each third: a small decrease between the first and second sections is followed by a sharp decline for the final segment. As the previous bar charts showed, Villa's form has dropped off significantly towards the back end of the season.
Observers claiming McLeish would have "come good" (as his old manager Sir Alex Ferguson suggested), or that he simply required more time to implement his style upon the squad, should take note of the trend. Improvements were not being made. By the end of the campaign, the club was hurtling towards relegation, producing performances – and results – indicative of a team devoid of confidence and simply unable to perform under the current system.
In a mid-season report addressed to fans, McLeish hit out against accusations that his sides play defensive football, declaring he believes in "attacking, winning football". However, Stats Zone's records of individual performances quite firmly contradict this claim.
A common critique of his tactical approach is that McLeish's emphasis on defensive solidity inhibits his teams from posing a significant attacking threat. The statistics evaluated above add substantial weight to this claim, but further evidence can be found in the attacking regression of two of Villa's key performers from last season: Mark Albrighton and Darren Bent.
Here we can see two key attacking players, both achieving less in the final third than in the 2010/11 season. Defensive football primarily requires maintaining shape and taking few risks; Albrighton's decline in take-ons and chances created strongly suggests an unwillingness to commit to attack or risk losing possession via a dribble or inventive pass. Bent's inferior goalscoring prowess only consolidates this theory.
Indeed, examining the Stats Zone screenshares of Bent's final three games before injury paints a haunting picture of a lonely figure. The striker accumulated just four shots on goal, contributing little else to build-up play.
With these figures in mind, is it not possible that McLeish was simply failing to motivate his team and give them the confidence to score goals, rather than intentionally implementing negative football? Sadly not. Comparisons to Birmingham City last year have been made countless times during the season and, once again, the statistics seem to correlate with the general consensus: it's a style of football that McLeish chooses to instil in his players.
Birmingham's pass completion statistics for the 2010/11 campaign are very similar to Villa's this term (71.6% avg to 72% avg) and their possession stats are actually better than Villa's (47.2% avg to 43.2% avg). If this wasn't alarming enough, the most compelling piece of evidence when comparing the two clubs' fortunes is the number of shots taken per game: Birmingham City, finishing with fewer goals than any other team last season (37), averaged 10.6 goals per game; Villa have averaged 11.0 this term.
Under McLeish, Aston Villa were descending increasingly swiftly with no real sign of their fortunes changing, given their alarming similarity to the Birmingham side McLeish relegated twice. All evidence rejects the worth of the tactics employed over a long and arduous campaign that produced forgettable performances.
The ever-growing voices of dissent were finally answered, and Villa must now begin restoring their pride from square one. McLeish leaves B6 with one of the worst managerial records in the club's history.
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