Can Tim Sherwood Restore Aston Villa To Glory?
At the start of 2015, there were serious doubts held by fans and pundits over the potential of Aston Villa to stay in the Premier League.
Their young squad under Paul Lambert were certainly nothing like the team that was pushing for Champions League football less than a decade ago, and many believed they were slipping through the trap door. By the time the Scotsman was relieved of his managerial duties, the club was sitting in the relegation zone having only scored a dozen goals in 25 matches. Many Villains fans feared the worst when they could not guess where their next goal was coming from, let alone a victory.
But, a significant positive upturn has taken place in the past couple of months with the appointment of Tim Sherwood as manager. The former Tottenham Hotspur boss and player for Spurs, Blackburn and Portsmouth, Sherwood has always been very assured of his abilities to coach at the highest level. He left his former employers last year due to their decision to go with a more experienced name in charge, in spite of a decent winning record in his 28 games in charge. However, he rubbed a number of people the wrong way with his matter-of-fact attitude and open criticism of his players for poor performances. Sherwood was extremely confident, almost to the point of bullish, regarding his capabilities, and was clearly not going to settle for a number two spot after tasting life as the head coach.
This confidence has rubbed off on his players, as their form has significantly improved since Sherwood joined the club. They have picked up ten points to push them further from immediate relegation danger, and scored the same number of goals that they had in the entirety of the season up until that point. The new manager has seem to have brought some exceptional performances from Tom Cleverley, Fabian Delph, and most notably Christian Benteke, who has scored nine goals in his last seven appearances in all competitions.
Outside of their gradual rise up the Premier League table, the truest indication of Aston Villa's new found confidence is in the FA Cup. Having not made a noticeable impression in the competition since reaching the final in 2000, the Villains are returning to Wembley to battle for the esteemed trophy. After pushing past West Brom and Liverpool, only Arsenal stand in their way of a first major trophy since winning the Football League Cup Final in 1996. No matter the outcome of that occasion, many Aston Villa fans have gained greater belief that they can push on from the disappointment of this campaign in its first five months and develop under their new manager's vision.
But, are they right to be so optimistic. One of the most hindering aspects of Lambert's troubled regime was a lack of funding for new players. Most of their signings have been cheap in today's market, and although a number of them have become fixtures in the first-team squad (Ron Vlaar, Brad Guzan, Ashley Westwood) it is not likely to be competing with the huge money that the big teams in the division provide. They spent less than £10 million on signings this campaign, a feat that was only matched by Burnley and Stoke, whilst Benteke is the only signing in the past three years costing double figures.
With that lack of investment, the club has relied a great deal on their longest serving players and players developed in the youth system. It has proven reasonably successful, and on their day their squad can prove a match for anybody. But whether it is due to a lack of motivation, consistency or the ability to pull off something special at crucial moments, they haven't been able to achieve any higher than a safe place in the lower half of the table. The previous seasons under Lambert saw them accrue 41 points followed by 38 points, totals that led them to the disappointing placement of 15th in the table. Thus, there will always be an element of doubt as to whether that is the peak of their squad's potential.
Then there is Sherwood himself. Currently he has been greeted with support and adulation from Aston Villa fans and clearly has invoked a reaction from his players. But, there has to be a lingering question as to whether that can be sustained. Sherwood has not even managed fifty games yet in these formative years of his managerial career. Most managers experience a honeymoon period where their arrival and change of tactics can lift the players to find top form. It's not as though Lambert could have in the dying embers of his role at Villa ripped up everything and start from scratch.
Just look at names like Gus Poyet, Owen Coyle and Alain Perrin that joined clubs towards the end of the season, only to see them experience a massive downturn following the boost of their initial months in charge. Sherwood doesn't have any evidence to suggest any different, and although he has all the boisterous confidence a successful manager needs to make it in the Premier League, that is not an assured outcome. His tactics are often quite gung-ho, leading to attractive wins or crushing losses - a record of 5 draws in his 38 matches as a manager is testament to that fact.
I'm not saying Sherwood can't build upon his fine start and demonstrate that he is one of the most exciting managerial prospects England has bore witness to in a number of years. But, it will still take some convincing that he can change his style to grind out results when the going gets physical. One thing for certain is that he is both an optimist and a natural motivator, whilst Lambert was more pragmatic. This could be the tonic his squad needs to kick on and return to the mid-table security instead of their recent battles against relegation. Yet, I'll wait until he completes a full season in charge before I can definitively determine whether Sherwood is the real deal or not.
Nevertheless, it might just take him another six weeks to etch his name into Aston Villa folklore with their first FA Cup for over half a century, and that would give Sherwood a leg up on most of the club's other managers since the new millennium. If he gets them playing like they did against Liverpool, there is no reason why they can't stun Arsenal in the final, and use that momentum to boost their Premier League form next season.
I'm cautiously optimistic that Sherwood will bring some added fire to the Villains in the coming years.