Jeffrey Gamby Boulger explains why Frenchman Remi Garde was doomed to fail at Aston Villa.
This weekend, relegation threatened Aston Villa take on Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur in a match-up that is unfortunately more significant for what it represents off the field, not on it.
Pochettino’s Tottenham are flying high, fast establishing themselves as the unlikely front runners to challenge for the Premier League title alongside this season’s other surprise package, Leicester City.
Aston Villa meanwhile have suffered mismanagement of the highest calibre at every turn, are devoid of confidence or any winning momentum and are suffering a dire run of results that sees them rooted to the foot of the table with little hope of recovery.
With just 16 points from 29 games this season, one win in their last five against fellow relegation candidates Norwich City, and a scandalous goal difference of -33, few could legitimately make a case for the team in claret and blue picking up points against any opponent at present.
Playing this season’s second most in form team only makes Villa’s final 10 game run-in the more difficult. So while the contest on the pitch already seems a forgone conclusion, three points could still have huge consequences at both ends of the table.
A win would keep any remaining slither of hope alive for Aston Villa, with sleeping giants Newcastle suffering their own private catastrophe yet again this season, and Norwich City seemingly unable to pick up any points above them at the foot of the table. But victory for Spurs, as many would predict, would boost their own title credentials as they battle with Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.
So how has a club with the stature, pedigree and fan base of Aston Villa managed just three league wins all season, and are on course for their first ever relegation from the Premier League? With 16 points, they are already guaranteed to fare better than the Derby County team of 2007/2008, who quite incredibly finished with a total of just 11 points and were duly relegated as the worst ever performing team in Premier League history.
But if Villa cannot arrest their current slump in form, then realistically only Sunderland in the 2005/2006 season (15 points) have recorded a lower points tally. And based on recent performances, it looks increasingly unlikely that Villa will manage to reverse this.
Things didn’t always look this bleak however. This season actually started quite brightly, with a 1-0 victory over newly promoted Bournemouth suggesting then manager Tim Sherwood and his team had begun the recovery process after years of gradual stagnation.
Indeed, in the close season Villa were one of the most active teams in England, with a major squad overhaul aiming to inject some much needed guile and quality into Tim Sherwood’s squad in preparation for the upcoming campaign. And with a transfer outlay of a staggering £52,000,000, many thought this season would finally see Villa avoid another relegation battle under promising English manager Tim Sherwood, who had already lead his team to an F.A Cup final just a few short months before.
Unfortunately, defeat last May at the hands of Arsenal in the F.A Cup final is ironically where this season’s turbulent and disappointing campaign truly began. Although such eye-watering summer spending spree hints at real investment into a severely underachieving squad that badly needed it, the reality however is that the majority of this fantastic outlay was recuperated by player sales to the tune of over £44,000,000, actually leaving the club with a net expenditure of just under £8,000,000.
Such a lack of ambition to seriously invest in a team that sorely needed it, coupled with poor business acumen to correct the situation, has hardly given the impression of a club seriously attempting to reverse years’ worth of stagnation and poor results.
In particular, the departures of talisman Christian Benteke to Liverpool and club captain Fabian Delph to Manchester City respectively have been key to the team’s disastrous league campaign so far. Add that to a poor recruitment drive, and an insufficient effort to replace such important members of a struggling team, and the close season was met with widespread discontent for Villa.
Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that the departures of such high profile players would inversely affect a squad lacking so much quality, and in their place a raft of cheaper foreign imports have simply failed to move the club forward or replicate the talent that was lost.
Such an extensive squad overhaul was always going to be a risk, but the situation caused undue friction when it emerged that then manager Tim Sherwood actually had little contribution to the summer acquisitions. Instead, a more European styled transfer committee did the business at boardroom level.
But with such intensive transfer activity needing to make much more of an impact on a squad that sorely needed reinvigorating, their business needed to be concise, transparent and above all with the needs of the squad in mind, not just the finances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to have happened.
Villa needed to address existing weaknesses in the side and provide Tim Sherwood with the necessary quality and squad depth to survive this season, and at the very least adequately replace the level of talent they lost in the summer before building on that with further signings.
Sadly however, this has not been the case for a club that not so long ago was challenging for Europe in 6th position under former boss Martin O’Neill. An excess of young blood and Ligue 1 players were brought in, and unsurprisingly they have performed inconsistently and poorly.
While it is arguably harsh to expect so many new players to perform immediately and consistently to their full potential, and criticise them when they do not, the cold truth is they arrived at a team that has struggled consistently with relegation in recent years and is completely geared for another relegation battle. The harsh reality is that at all levels this season, the club has not performed well enough.
So after a promising start to the season, results and momentum quickly waned, optimism turned to frustration, and hope for a fresh start soon became outright disappointment, as it became clear this would not be a campaign of transition to better things as hoped, but another tedious crawl towards England’s second tier.
Sherwood left, unwilling to work under the constraints of a board who had let him down so badly in the summer, and unable to fashion any momentum with a squad looking increasingly unfit for their purpose, despite the season still being in its infancy. What remained was a team abundant in mediocre players, scattered with talent, and propped up with a few overpaid Englishman past their prime.
But while their close season was poor, not every player should be written off this season and the club did manage to make some notable acquisitions. Among them include Senegalese defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye from Lille for a fee believed to be £9 million, French left-back Jordan Amavi from Nice for an undisclosed fee also believed to be £9 million, as well as Ghanaian striker Jordan Ayew, brother of Swansea’s summer signing Andre, on a five-year deal from Lorient for a similar fee.
The club also signed Jordan Veretout and Rudy Gestede, both on five-year deals from Nantes and Blackburn Rovers respectively.
These are players who have potential, but with forwards Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede contributing just 9 league goals between them as one example of this season’s struggles, the fact is they have all underperformed for large spells in a team devoid of confidence.
And while it must be noted that arguably the best performing of all the summer signings, Jordan Amavi, was cruelly ruled out for the season early on with a knee ligament injury, had he been fit it is hard to see their current standing being much different.
These signings were never likely to perform in a team so used to losing, and were never suited to salvage a young team underperforming and heading for the Championship.
So, where does Remi Garde fit in? With Tim Sherwood’s brief tenure in the Midlands over, Villa were left with a choice: hire a manager with the sole purpose of staying in the division with a short term objective, or opt for someone who could effectively ease their fall from grace into the second tier and plan for life next season.
Unfortunately for Garde and Villa, and perhaps reflective of their entire season to date, it appears they decided on both something and nothing at the same time, and opted for a manager who could do both and neither.
After his excellent work at Lyon, his renowned track record of promoting and coaching youngsters and his well respected standing in the game, the club turned to Frenchman Remi Garde, the widely publicised disciple of Arsene Wenger.
But why would a club seemingly destined for relegation turn to a foreigner with no experience of coaching in the English top flight, and only one meaningful job so far in his managerial career?
Unfortunately, the answer simply has as much to do with Garde’s nationality as his coaching ability. With the club’s scouting infrastructure targeting younger Ligue 1 imports this season, it was logical that with Garde available they would opt for a manager ideally suited to extract the maximum quality from their new signings.
In this respect, Frenchman Garde seemed an ideal choice from his work at Lyon as both manager and at the academy, while he could also promote from within instead of insisting on any new, expensive recruits come the winter transfer window should the club be in a position to need it.
However, with 9 games to go, Garde’s tenure at Aston Villa has quite simply failed to ignite, with the players at his disposal sleep walking into the second division and showing no signs of motivation or confidence in themselves or their manager.
It is clear this appointment, at least in the short term, has not succeeded and once again the club has made a poor decision.
But what isn’t clear though, is just how much of the club’s current plight can be blamed on Garde since his arrival. With an influx of summer signings he had no part in bringing in, no new arrivals in January to inject any momentum, an increasingly malcontent fan base, an owner in Randy Lerner who is openly trying to sell the club, and a scouting infrastructure consistently identifying mediocre players, it is hard on this standing to attach any blame, at least initially, on Garde.
He arrived with a good track record of coaching youngsters, and it was hoped he could better manage the team’s increasing foreign make-up to a better playing standard. But unfortunately, with the club now fostering a losing culture, this hasn’t transpired and the Frenchman has been left criticising the quality of the squad he inherited.
After losing four in a row and conceding a massive 15 goals, Garde said:
“We can only get results if every player performs better than expected. We know that as a team we don’t have much room for manoeuvre. Every one of us needs to be more than 100 per cent to win a game. And that needs to be for 90 minutes.”
“As soon as one or two are a little bit down, all of a sudden the team is not well.”
While Garde can rightfully point to decisions made above his head and before his time for the team’s poor standing, what cannot be argued is that despite this he has been unable to arrest that slide. Indeed, their most recent run of poor form started with a 6-0 defeat to Liverpool, and loses to Stoke, Everton and Manchester City have all followed since.
The Frenchman has not been left wanting for a lack of effort however. In his brief tenure so far, Garde has dropped or rested almost every first team player since taking over in an effort to improve his team’s awful league form.
He has also set up with various different formations as well as different personnel, but for all his tactical changes this Villa team just do not have the quality or confidence to survive this season it seems.
Indeed, recently Garde even started with three centre-halves in an attempt to stabilize a team almost accustomed to conceding goals, but even with the extra defensive midfield position afforded to them in this new look formation, the team was no more stable and results have not improved.
And with just nine games left in what has been an exceedingly frustrating and disappointing season for one of England’s ever-present teams, including fixtures against three of the top six still to come, it would seem that time is running out for Garde to engineer any sort of miraculous escape.
And with a return to France mooted for the increasingly frustrated manager, the club may find themselves needing to make another important decision come the summer. Fans will hope they choose more carefully this time.
But despite Garde’s dwindling popularity at Villa Park, few within the game would have seriously expected any other outcome sadly, given Villa’s problems and the scale of the task he inherited.
Certainly, while the man himself can be commended for his bravery to commit to such a job in the first place, it was always going to take something special to rescue a team so deep in crisis. And for Garde, still in his managerial infancy, it will serve as a steep learning curve.
It is the decisions this season made outside of Garde’s control, before his arrival, that have ultimately been responsible for the clubs almost inevitable demise, and while in theory it seemed a perfect partnership, the reality is that Garde’s appointment, however unfortunate, has not been successful.
If indeed he is to leave with Villa’s relegation at the end of the season, the Frenchman can however at least hold his head high knowing he tried to engineer something positive in his brief tenure.
But Villa’s problems run much deeper than an inexperienced manager unable to convince players past or before their prime to perform. An inadequate scouting structure, an owner stripping the club’s assets and a board, you imagine, with one eye on the second tier already, all contrived to set off this season’s chain of events long before Garde arrived.
He will no doubt go on to enjoy better times with a career still waiting for him, but Villa fans will be hoping they can still say the same for their beloved club in these uncertain times.