Football: Little sees big picture

Aston Villa's manager concentrates on a sense of proportion as football develops an obsession with the name game; Ian Ridley talks to the man plotting the downfall of Chelsea today
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The Independent Online
When, a letter in the local newspaper wondered recently, are Aston Villa going to get a big-name manager? It seems that for some - and there are always some - the present one quite literally has too small a surname. "It was hard to take," says Brian Little. "Last week we were 30 seconds away from being top of the Premiership."

It appears that hysteria and the knee-jerk reaction have become the staple diet of the inflated English game. Managers are sacked ridiculously early, some replaced with distasteful haste. European hopes are too swiftly written off after a mere 90 minutes, partly as backlash to expectations that were unrealistically high.

Villa are in the eye of it. Locally, the odd questioner flies in the face of the evidence that a Little is going a long way. Nationally, they were part of the problem as they could only draw 1-1 at home with Helsingborgs in the Uefa Cup.

After vibrantly winning the Coca-Cola Cup last season in Little's first full season in charge, Villa have begun this season impressively. But for a late goal by Arsenal, they would have overtaken Sheffield Wednesday at the top of the Premiership eight days ago and they have the opportunity to do so again today, when they play Chelsea in a potentially fascinating encounter at Stamford Bridge.

And take Helsingborgs. Please take Helsingborgs. The Swedes were functional, well-organised and extremely dull. Not one of their robotic players lifted the spirits. Villa's naivety was neither tactical nor technical but came in their puppyish desire to please, to seek a second goal when the one would have been adequate.

As Little says: "If there was a lesson, it was not to get embarrassed by winning 1-0. At times in the second half, the players were thinking: 'I've got to try something here, because the crowd want me to'." You sense that Villa will not make the same mistake again, though.

It can be hard trying to keep your head when all about are losing theirs, but Little is seeking to maintain perspective in what is already a critical phase of the season for his team, one that could shape its course. After Chelsea, comes Manchester United at home next Saturday, Newcastle away nine days later, with the return leg against Helsingborgs sandwiched between.

"People talk about Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool and we are one of those clubs about whom they say 'and maybe'," says Little. "It is our next target to be mentioned in there without the 'and maybe'. We still have to win those people over. Perhaps they are right, but I think we are close.

"I have told the players that only they can do it. I have done as much work as I can for a little while. I don't really need to go out and buy, I'm happy with my group. I am not saying there isn't a list in my drawer of players I would like if they became available, because that is management, but I want to give these players the opportunity of convincing themselves, the fans and the media that they are potential winners of something."

Little signed Sasa Curcic from Bolton for pounds 4m, even though Villa were seemingly stacked with individuals of flair in Dwight Yorke, Savo Milosevic, Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson. Curcic was much missed in midweek when his pace, dribbling and ingenuity might have made a difference, but he is available today.

"You know one has got to be left out but as a manager you can't worry about that," says Little. "I am building up a group with talent. Curcic was the right age and the right type of talented player who could play in the sort of system we are developing.

"It is a pet subject of mine. The English player has to develop the mentality of a squad system. The days of 11 playing, one sub and three or four who think 'I might as well be playing somewhere else now' are gone. There are 16 individuals now involved on match day and every one of them picks up the bonus. Sure they want to play, but they have got to understand, and they are beginning to, that I am going to pick the best team for the job on a match-to-match basis. They seem to accept it at Milan."

One of the bit players so far has been Paul McGrath - "a legend around here", Little acknowledges - to the point where a move to Coventry is being mooted. Now Gareth Southgate is in the spare man's role alongside two markers. "I can't think, 'Oh, it's Paul, I've got to put him in'," Little says. "Sometimes you balance your team up, and I could have had Gareth doing something else. But he is the man for the job now. He is so good. He's not just good, he's getting better."

With Chelsea also employing three at the back and wing-backs, the vanguard of the English game could be seen today. "It could be a classic or a game where people cancel each other out," Little says. "But both teams have individuals who are capable of the little bright things around the penalty box that can decide a game."

Villa differ from the London side in one way; they have no midfield holder like Roberto Di Matteo. "Curcic and Draper can get beyond other midfield players in the blink of an eye to create openings," says Little. "People have questioned whether they can play together but I think it works. We don't give them the licence to be free if the other team has the ball. We place demands on them."

It will, Little admits, be a relief to play Chelsea after the midweek frustrations. "Whatever the result, you know you are going to see individuals trying to win the game and a game where you can get excited on the sideline," he says. "We are an action team. We don't like to play at a slow tempo. In fact, sometimes we don't mind giving the ball away."

But is this not the problem; carelessness and lack of patience among the reasons for English teams' travails in midweek? By giving the ball away, Little means only around the opposition penalty area, it transpires. "It means then that we are trying our little one-twos." In addition, a team coming forward can be robbed and then counter-attacked.

There are clearly still flaws to this Villa team. Fernando Nelson's positioning was questionable against Helsingborgs; several, Ugo Ehiogu and Tommy Johnson among them, could not alter approach, slow down and think their way through the game. Milosevic and Yorke seemed to lose heart in adversity. But they will learn.

Little believes that too much modern-day criticism is personal rather than professional, with more and more media platforms provided for the ill-informed to sound off, such is the explosion around "this passionate business". His badly handled departure from Leicester City, almost two years ago, clearly still hurts: "The mockery and sarcasm is embarrassing and horrible."

One hopes that his open and bright personality, which his team reflects, is not altered by recent sackings, European results and correspondence - for the first time in his life his mail is now screened for the abusive. The best medicine would be a second-leg victory for form over function in Helsingborg.

One hopes, too, that he and his developing team are not soured by the present climate in football of demand for instant gratification, in which worked-for progress and earned achievement are seen as outmoded virtues that can take too long. Big names also don't always mean the right, and proper, names.