Houllier's goal: to shake Villa from 'comfort zone'

As the manager prepares for his first match in charge, Ian Edwards asks whether reality can live up to the Frenchman's bold ambition
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The Independent Football

If Gerard Houllier wanted to send a message to Aston Villa fans, and his new Premier League rivals, that he is still in touch with the realities of English football after his six-year absence, he did not get off to the most convincing start. Yesterday he suggested that he is anticipating a crowd in the region of 30,000 to witness his transition from technical director with the French Football Federation to the main man in the technical area at Villa Park. For a Carling Cup third-round tie against Blackburn Rovers, about half that number would be a closer estimate.

Houllier may also have misjudged the amount of work he has to do to convince sceptical Villa followers he can succeed where Martin O'Neill gave up so suddenly just five days before the start of the season. And failure tonight would lend itself to some uncomfortably neat comparisons: O'Neill's side defeated Rovers in the semi-finals last season, before stumbling at Wembley against Manchester United.

It is now 14 years without a trophy at Villa Park, and Houllier admitted yesterday he can already feel the "pressure on my shoulders". As he gets older he admits it takes longer to "recover from the disappointment of defeat". So why do it? Why return to management three years after he left Lyons and put himself through it once again? At the age of 63, and with a history of cardiac problems that took their toll during Houllier's time at Liverpool, the Premier League is an unforgiving place. But Houllier was keen to set out his own logic behind his acceptance of the challenge: he cannot "live without the passion of football" on a daily basis, making the offer from Villa owner Randy Lerner difficult to resist, especially when they have finished sixth in the Premier League in the last three seasons and O'Neill has bequeathed such a "good squad".

But despite that inheritance, Houllier knows James Milner's departure to Manchester City in the summer is a major loss, and he has other significant issues to address in a squad that is still recovering from the fall-out of O'Neill's departure on 9 August. He is "happy" to work with a strong British element in his side and has no immediate plans to flood Villa's training ground, Bodymoor Heath, with French acquisitions.

"We have some good young players," he said, adding that several will be given an opportunity this evening. He has little choice: he will be aware that his first-choice match-day XI cannot survive unchanged or without injury all season, and Houllier admits he has "never seen" some players, such as back-up goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who played almost the whole of the Carling Cup campaign last season.

Of course, buying new players will not be an option until January. Finding a method to get more out of those he has will be a challenge. Stephen Ireland is a case in point: the £8m signing from Manchester City has said he expects it will take him until December before he can replicate his best form at Eastlands. December is a long way off. Houllier will also be hoping to revive the flagging career of Emile Heskey, a player he signed while at Liverpool, but even if that is a success, he needs goals, hence the interest in a reunion with Michael Owen, which seems unlikely.

At the back, Houllier does not have too many problems in terms of personnel, but there is a perception that his style is too defensive. He will not be tied to systems, unlike O'Neill who stuck rigidly to 4-4-2 and was accused of lacking flair.

"There are some coaches who stick to a formation and put players into that. Others utilise the players they have and find a system that suits them. That is what I will do," Houllier said. You can almost hear the sighs of relief from Villa supporters, tired of watching four seasons of O'Neill never having any kind of plan B when his forthright approach failed.

Perhaps lack of tangible success for three years under O'Neill was a mental rather than physical issue. The Frenchman will have ruffled the feathers of his predecessor with an assertion that players are in a "comfort zone" at a club that "has a reputation for being nice". Houllier wants to see a change of attitude. He wants more ambition from his playing staff and that is why he has elevated Gordon Cowans, European Cup winner, from the academy into the first-team coaching set-up, alongside new assistant Gary McAllister. "Gary would want to win every five-a-side he plays in. We have to have the biting teeth needed to win things," Houllier said.

It would be churlish to suggest Lerner has not shown ambition. His bill since buying Villa four seasons ago is £200m – and rising. But Houllier spent more than that during his time at Anfield and failed to win the Premier League. There is a sense that in accepting the challenge of realising Lerner's dream of taking Villa to the Champions League, Houllier may have bitten off more than he can chew.

What's on the new manager's to-do list?

1. Consign Martin O'Neill to memory

Most new Villa managers take on a team of underachievers where the only way is up, guaranteeing immediate, if transient, popularity. Gérard Houllier does not have that luxury, taking over from the club's most successful manager in recent times, who reached a cup final and semi-final last season and who qualified for Europe.

2. Take players out of their 'comfort zone' and get the best out the squad

Not everyone – several players and many fans – was unhappy about O'Neill leaving, largely due to his refusal to rotate his squad, inflexible tactics and a first team dead on their feet by March. In theory, the squad should be champing at the bit. However, looking at how badly the chief dissenters and outcasts of the old regime, Curtis Davies, Habib Beye, Nigel Reo-Coker and Emile Heskey performed against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League, Houllier has to effect more than just a mental overhaul. Not that that is unnecessary – Villa have failed to win four games after leading this season.

3. Stop shipping goals

There is little wrong with Villa's defence, but a lot with what's in front of it. One reason Kevin MacDonald was popular with the players was because he gave them their head and played a more attacking game. The result: 13 goals conceded in seven games. Stiliyan Petrov is a tidy holding player but puts fear into no one, while Stephen Ireland, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton are wonderful going forward, lightweight tracking back. If only James Milner was still there.

Matt Fleming

Houllier's trophy haul

Gérard Houllier begins his Aston Villa reign with tonight's visit of Blackburn in the Carling Cup – a competition which, as the Worthington Cup, provided the Frenchman with his first trophy with Liverpool in 2001 when they beat Birmingham on penalties in Cardiff.

Houllier's trophies at Liverpool:

Worthington Cup 2001, 2003

FA Cup 2001

Charity Shield 2001

Uefa Cup 2001

European Super Cup 2001