Looking Back: Martin O'Neill's First Year In The Midlands

Matthew Lewis

With Martin O'Neill nearing the end of his first full season in charge on Wearside - and doubts surrounding his premiership of Sunderland - we decided to take a glance back at his opening year of managing Aston Villa, back in 2006/07.

A misfiring forward line. A side with an emphasis primarily on defending. A hefty outlay on a wide player. A season of inconsistency.

No, not Sunderland, 2012/13. Rather, the above descriptions could easily outline the fortunes of Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa side six years ago, in a season where he led the Midlands outfit to an eleventh place finish in the Premier League.

Before comparing the two seasons, I must first mention a caveat. While this term has been O'Neill's first full one in charge on Wearside, he had previously been the Black Cats manager for some six months already. His job then, of course, was one tailored toward avoiding relegation first and foremost as opposed to building anything for the future - hence his lack of outlay in last season's January transfer window.

By contrast, O'Neill had been in charge of Villa for a little over two weeks before the 2006/07 season began. This hampered his ability to utilise the summer transfer window as he may have liked, but there are still enough similarities between the two clubs' situations to merit a comparison here. For example, both sides had recently dispensed of managers whom it had become accepted were underachieving (David O'Leary and Steve Bruce), and in each instance O'Neill inherited what could be described as a poor overall squad.

The Numbers

Football is, above all, a results business. Upon his arrival at Sunderland, O'Neill embarked on a run of form that had many declaring him the saviour of the club, propelling his side from the relegation zone into the top half of the table. That good form petered out, but the signs remained positive. Indeed, this season began with a six game unbeaten run.

In a similar vein, his first weeks in the Midlands went by without a defeat. In the 2006/07 season, Villa went the first nine games of their campaign without a defeat - longer than any other side in the league that year - picking up 15 of a possible 27 points.

A 3-1 defeat to Liverpool rocked the boat somewhat, but by mid-November the Villains were still in a healthy league position, leading many to question whether they were in fact overachieving following the 16th-place finish of the previous season.

What followed was a winless run that eclipsed any of O'Neill's poor patches at Sunderland thus far. Two months and twelve games went by without a victory; seven defeats (one in the FA Cup third round) and five draws seeing the side slip down the table, with only a 2-0 home victory against a soon to be relegated Watford side stopping the rot.

The problem was not that Villa suddenly stopped scoring goals. Just like has been the case for Sunderland this season, they had struggled for goals during their good run of form. Eleven goals were scored in that opening nine-game sequence, while ten were notched during the twelve matches without a win.

Instead, the side's previously watertight defence became porous. In three games in a relatively short period of time against the Manchester sides (two against United, one against City), three goals were shipped each time, despite City being the league's second lowest scorers that season. Sheffield United, third lowest scorers, knocked two past O'Neill's men in a 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane.

In a similar way to how Manchester City's 3-0 victory over Sunderland this season knocked the stuffing out of a defensively positive start to the season, it seems that the 1-3 Liverpool defeat, and a 0-4 loss to Chelsea in the League Cup soon after, laid bare Villa's shortcomings. O'Neill had managed to imbue his flailing side with confidence - they had, after all, conceded a lofty 55 goals the previous year - but their old failings returned when that initial boost had worn off.

O'Neill oversaw a run of just two victories in twenty games - not too dissimilar from the run of poor form that Sunderland endured across the end of last season and the beginning of this one. To his credit, Villa ended the season strongly, again managing a nine game unbeaten streak, incorporating four victories.

It all added up to a fairly average first season. Villa were the league's draw specialists, tieing a hefty seventeen games, winning eleven and losing ten. Having struggled for goals all season, late-season wins against Middlesbrough and Sheffield United (3-1 and 3-0) lifted their tally to 43 for the season, while the stoicism O'Neill had embedded in his defence was mirrored in them conceding just 41 goals - the sixth best record in the league. Above all, it seems that year one at Villa was one where defence was prioritised, and O'Neill made his side difficult to beat, even if there was a great deal of inconsistency about their form across the season overall.

The Style

Given just a number of days to make his mark before the start of the new season, O'Neill was hamstrung, unable to make any sweeping changes in the summer of 2006. Yet, just as he has done so on Wearside, the Irishman undoubtedly gave his new side an undoubted style of play almost from the moment he stepped through the door.

By and large, the styles of O'Neill in 2006/07 and 2012/13 are the same. At Villa, the new manager's primary focus was on patching up a leaky defence. His first game of the season, just as it was this term, came at the Emirates, and yielded a point away to Arsenal.

A look at Villa's defence draws further similarities to the current Sunderland side: O'Neill found himself with a good goalkeeper (Thomas Sorensen; Simon Mignolet) and a solid centre-back (Olof Mellberg; John O'Shea), while the rest of the defence consisted of distinctly average players or youngsters (Aaron Hughes, Jlloyd Samuel, Liam Ridgewell; Phil Bardsley, Jack Colback, Titus Bramble).

Recognising the lack of quality in his side overall, the new manager set his side up somewhat negatively even if, one the face of it, he named an attacking three. That first game saw Gabriel Agbohlahor, Luke Moore and Juan Pablo Ångel all named in the starting lineup yet, just as with the likes of Johnson, Sessegnon and Fletcher this season, the two wide players were held back for fear of the rest of the side being exploited.

In another similarity, O'Neill also immediately identified his captain and leader. Where Lee Cattermole was the recipient of this accolade on Wearside, Gareth Barry took up the mantle at Villa Park. Barry, who looked to have been on his way out prior to O'Neill's arrival, was given added responsibility and respect under the new manager, and flourished as a result.

Perhaps the greatest mirroring of the two seasons lay in how both O'Neill sides misfired in an attacking sense. At the time of writing, Sunderland have scored just over one per game this season (32 goals in 29 games), not dissimilar from Villa then (43 in 38 games). This came despite attacking additions to the squad (Ashley Young, Shaun Maloney, John Carew, Chris Sutton).

Just as with Sunderland, O'Neill's Villa side struggled to retain possession, and let their defensive good work go to waste with hapless individual mistakes all too often. Employing a similar style to the one currently seen on Wearside, O'Neill often found himself labelled negative, as his attempt to negate his side's lack of quality often resulted in dour games where it seemed that he wasn't looking to win games.

The Fans

Just as with Sunderland, Aston Villa fans met O'Neill's initial time at their club with universal happiness. The nine game unbeaten run at the beginning of the season surprised plenty, and had more than a few dreaming of a European berth.

When this petered out, doubts soon rose to the surface - although it seems that such doubts were not as strong as those prevalent on Wearside currently.

Fans struggled to reconcile the side's attacking strategy with the individuals slotted into the system. Ashley Young, bought as a winger, spent time up front; Gabriel Agbonlahor, seen then as a central striker, was deployed out wide often. The common view was that while O'Neill's strategy to counter-attack in a 4-3-3 formation when in possession was distinct and certainly capable of bearing fruit, the individuals in the system were not capable of carrying it out successfully. As a result, poor ball retention led to the side being on the back foot frequently, in turn leading to growing frustrations of the terraces.

His initial signings, too, seemed something of a mixed bag. He moved quickly to bring in Sutton and Stiliyan Petrov in the summer, but Sutton scored just one goal in eight appearances while Petrov struggled to do much when surrounded by inferior midfield teammates (Barry aside). The recruitments of Young and Maloney in the winter, along with Carew, were seen as a clear statement of the style the manager was trying to implement, but by the end of the season fans still felt much needed to be done in the transfer window. Namely, the side needed new full-backs and a more reliable central defender alongside Mellberg.

Overall, despite some doubters, it seems O'Neill's opening season was well received at Aston Villa. Although being just seven points above the relegation zone in mid-March (much as Sunderland are six ahead of it right now), demotion was never more than flirted with. The overwhelming consensus was that O'Neill had re-instilled some grit into the side and was capable of motivating players to a certain extent - but the overall poor quality of the squad made for an inconsistent and largely dull year.

Conclusions

The similarities between Martin O'Neill's first season in charge of Aston Villa and his first full season at Sunderland are striking. From his style of play, the signings he has brought in and the fans' verdict on him, O'Neill has largely mirrored his opening year in the Midlands.

Ultimately, though, it would seem that his first full year on Wearside will be less successful that at Villa. Sunderland have already conceded as many goals as Villa did in 2006/07, and with nine games to go it is almost impossible to think that figure won't go higher. In addition, given the optimism he instilled amongst the fan base after his initial arrival at the Stadium of Light, his first full season at Sunderland looks set to be a disappointing one.

That said, there is cause for optimism. Above all, the comparison between the two seasons suggests that O'Neill remains a pragmatist: knowing full well the lack of quality in his respective squads, he has opted for a 'defence first' strategy, even if it has opened him up to plenty of criticism.

Should Sunderland avoid a catastrophic demotion - which one feels, even given this current poor run of form, they will - then it is this summer that could shape O'Neill's career on Wearside.

In the 2007 summer transfer window, O'Neill spent a large outlay on bringing the likes of Marlon Harewood, Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies, Zat Knight and Scott Carson to Aston Villa. Sunderland fans may baulk at that list, yet O'Neill promptly finished in sixth place the following season (and the two years following that).

The jury is well and truly out on Martin O'Neill's Sunderland tenure, and a look back at his last managerial job certainly provides intrigue. Having shorn his squad down to the bare bones it seems unlikely that he will not be given money to spend this coming summer; certainly, next year will make or break his Wearside career.

Whether or not he can utilise his resources correctly remains to be seen.

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