So after a somewhat belated start to his managerial career at Villa Park, Gerard Houllier will need little time to assimilate himself back in to the rigours of English football. His six year stint at Liverpool is still fresh in the memory for many, especially for landing us with El Hadj Diouf for the last six years. Despite that, Houllier has managed to keep himself involved in football in France but it was still something of a left field appointment for Villa to turn to the Frenchman.
His time at Anfield was something of a continual failure to turn potential in to real league success, culminating in his final season, 2003-2004, seeing them finish in 4th but 30 points behind Premiership winners Arsenal. 6 trophies in his time there perhaps gave something of rose tinted view to his tenure at the helm, but trophies are trophies. Similarly to Benitez, Houllier managed to get Liverpool to finish as runners up but failed to build on that good work with some unusual and ultimately unsuccessful transfers.
He inherits a side that have continually challenged for European places over the last 3 seasons but a fractious relationship between the previous manager and owner has left a side in a state of limbo. Aston Villa have so far been a Jekyll and Hyde side in this campaign, the 6-0 hammering at Newcastle clearly a low point in the clubs start to the season. Yet the transfer kitty was boosted by the sale of James Milner, so at least there is the option of strengthening in January but the loss of European revenue is a bitter pill to swallow for the Villa faithful.
It’s the lack of options up front for me that holds Villa back from pushing on from where O’Neill kept them. With 3 main strikers, the lack of a 4th option of proven quality has been there undoing in the last couple of seasons. Heskey’s work rate is unquestionable, but his dreadful goal return well documented. Carew is still so widely inconsistent, a trait he has never been able to shift from bursting on to the scene with Rosenburg and then Valencia 10 years ago. Of course, Houllier signed and then sold the striker during his spell at Lyon. How that relationship starts could be crucial for both sides.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is another one who’s potential has yet to be completely tapped into and Houllier often likes to build his sides around pacey strikers. The striker certainly falls in to that category but seems to still snatch at chances when it seems easier to score. Villa also have the option of using Ashley Young in a striking role, but he often drifts out of games, a frustrating side of his game with his quality of passing and blistering pace.
Villa have not had the worst start to the season, the hammering at Newcastle aside and against Stoke City were the better side for almost an hour but still contrived to lose the game to an injury time Robert Huth winner. What is crucial that Houllier can try and move on from the defensive counter attacking tactics that began to unravel his relationship with the Liverpool faithful. Perhaps somewhat, his spell at Lyon is sometimes overlooked, due to the squad he inherited and the financial strength the club had when he joined them.
As is often the case with these things, Houllier may be viewing the fixture list through gritted teeth, with derbies against Birmingham City and Wolves, trips to Tottenham and Sunderland and the chance to try and stifle free scoring Chelsea in October too making up his first 5 league fixtures. A tough Carling Cup tie at home to Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday is not the easiest game to make your managerial bow at your new club either. At least he’s been through it all before and forewarned is forearmed.