Lee Dixon: Houllier has twice the work to do now that spectre of relegation has appeared at Villa

The Weekend Dossier
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Alan Pardew is going into an unusual situation at Newcastle because the team are doing well and the previous manager was popular.

Normally a new manager inherits a club in disarray, which is pleased to see the back of his predecessor. While it is obviously better to have a decent squad with confidence, rather than one lacking belief, the situation does bring challenges.

The main one is winning over the fans. I don't think the players will be a problem. Players are pretty resilient, as soon as a manager goes out one door they assume survival tactics. Whatever their relationship was with the previous manager he is now gone and they will want to impress the new one to keep, or win, a place.

The fans are a different matter, and Pardew needs a good start. That can be seen by events this season at Aston Villa. I know Martin O'Neill left of his own accord but Gérard Houllier inherited a similar position in that the squad was good and the previous manager had been popular with supporters.

Houllier arrived with a decent reputation and there was quite bit of expectation. I think fans expected a better response from the team, and there are already rumblings of discontent. Fans can be very impatient. They want to see early signs of something different happening on the pitch. Every club, wherever it is in the leagues, is looking to go to the next level. In Villa's case that means the Champions League but they are now a long way off that.

The mood at Villa Park now seems to be flat, the impetus of a new manager arriving has gone. Houllier now has double the work to do. The comment he made after losing at Anfield this week, that if he had to lose 3-0 he would rather it was to Liverpool, was bizarre. That sounded like a man under pressure.

Houllier did look like a good choice. Villa have a lot of youngsters coming through, players that need shepherding and he has a good record with young players. Houllier also tends to play counter-attacking football, which should suit the pace Villa have. But since conceding those two late gals at home to Manchester United, which cost them what would have been an excellent, confidence-boosting win, they have been on a poor run of form. They are now 16th and the spectre of relegation has appeared, which adds to the pressure. And once fans turn against you it can be hard to win them back.

Villa are conceding a lot of goals. I was educated to keep the ball out of the net first. Some of our performances under George Graham might suggest we took that philosophy to the nth degree but if you keep clean sheets you always have half-a-chance of moving up the table. It is a psychological thing, too. If you're not scoring goals but you know you are tight at the back, the mental process is to think, 'We'll get one soon'; you look at the positive angle. If you can't keep a clean sheet it is the other way round, you think negatively. You think, 'It doesn't matter how many we score if we let two or three in every game'. Then the whole mood drops.

The mental side of the game is so important. It's not just being able to do hundreds of keepie-uppies on the training pitch. Talent is very important but so is mental strength. That is where a team with a lot of young players, such as Villa, can have problems when results are going badly. Some young players have a lot of mental strength – Cesc Fabregas was a great example – but they lack experience. They cannot say to themselves, when in a tight situation, 'We've been here before and we did this, and did that, and got out of it'. That's where players like Richard Dunne and Brad Friedel will be so important to Houllier.

Back at Newcastle, Pardew will find one of the most experienced players in the game in his dressing room, Sol Campbell. Sol can be an asset for Pardew. He is not the most outspoken person but he has a presence, a reputation and a cabinet with trophies in it. He's quiet but when he does speak it is normally something pertinent for a younger player. Pardew will want to look his senior players in the eye and say, 'I need help here', all managers do, and Sol can be invaluable.

Sol needs to play to keep his sharpness. He played a lot for Arsenal at the end of last season and he was arguably their best player at the finish. I was surprised that he did not stay one more year but he said he needed to play week-in and week-out.

Five Asides

1. Evra appears to be learning from his boss

It's not really Patrice Evra's place to talk about other clubs, but until Arsenal win something his comment that they are just "a training centre" carries a sting. Maybe he's picked up the "mind games" thing from Sir Alex.

2. Will City beat Hammers?

It's anyone's guess I cannot work Manchester City out at all. Each week you feel they are not quite there, and there seems to be a lot of training-ground unrest, but they keep churning out results and are three points off the top. It looks promising, but as a lifelong City fan I know they could easily go and lose to the Premier League's bottom club today.

3. Drawing Schalke could get Gunners out of jail

Arsenal could pay a price in the Champions League draw for not topping a group they should have won, but you never know. What price they get Schalke and Tottenham, who did really well to top their group, draw Milan?

4. Sneezing in the sunshine – typical

As I mentioned last week, I've been in the United States playing golf. It was great being away and missing all the snow and most of the freezing weather. The irony is I picked up a cold in Los Angeles, so what with the jet-lag as well, the BBC's make-up girl certainly earned her pay last night buffing me up to work on QPR's match against Watford.

5. Cav should sprint away with the BBC award

Tony McCoy was voted Sportsman of the Year by the Sports Journalists' Association this week and is favourite for the BBC award. Maybe I'm biased, being a keen cyclist, but my vote would go to Mark Cavendish.

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Aston Villa vs West Bromwich Albion

Dixon's verdict: West Brom have had a great season so far, adding pressure to the home team. Things certainly won't be helped if the fans start having a go at Gérard Houllier. Players can sense these things.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Draw

Everton vs Wigan Athletic

Dixon's verdict: Both teams have been hit and miss this season. However, as I keep saying, Everton have got some great players and an excellemt manager, so I expect them to win at home and kick-start their season.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Home win

Fulham vs Sunderland

Dixon's verdict: I've really liked watching Sunderland this season, they're playing with a freedom and confidence which suggests the last thing Steve Bruce will say to them before kick-off is 'go out and enjoy it'.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Away win

Stoke City vs Blackpool

Dixon's verdict: For 30 years this fixture always had Stanley Matthews on one side or the other. Stoke have moved ground since and are always a force to be reckoned with at the Britannia.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Home win

West Ham United vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: West Ham may be bottom but they're unbeaten at home in five and won their last two, including a great win against Man United, so they're capable of taking points from an inconsistent City.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Draw

Newcastle United vs Liverpool

Dixon's verdict: I'm going for an away win, not as a result of what has happened at Newcastle this week, but because Liverpool, now a giddy eighth, appear to have turned a bit of a corner.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC1, 10pm)

Prediction: Away win

Bolton Wanderers vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: Both clubs are in fantastic positions and no doubt they are full of confidence. But I expect this to be more of a stalemate than a Lancashire hot-pot.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1/ HD1; Highlights BBC2, 10.55pm)

Prediction: Draw

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Birmingham City

Dixon's verdict: The logical guess is a draw, but I think Wolves are now at the point where they have got to step up to the mark and get some points on the board. A win here could get their season back on track.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Highlights BBC2, 10.55pm)

Prediction: Home win

Tottenham Hotspur vs Chelsea

Dixon's verdict: One team free-flowing and scoring for fun, the other in the doldrums. It is going to take a while before Chelsea hit top form again, but with senior players coming back they can get a draw.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10.55pm)

Prediction: Draw

Manchester United vs Arsenal

Dixon's verdict: Arsenal's season will be determined against the top teams. They've lost at Chelsea, so this is a test against an in-form United. But Arsenal defend well away from home and have plenty of goals in their side.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Sky Sports 1, 1:30am)

Prediction: Draw