After only three wins in his 12 Premier League matches, and rumblings of dressing-room disquiet, Gérard Houllier's modus operandi is finally getting through to the Aston Villa squad. That is the view of the defender he likens to Jamie Carragher, Carlos Cuellar, who looks likely to be one of the beneficiaries of the former Liverpool manager's resolve to put his stamp on the club.
Cuellar was selected ahead of Richard Dunne at centre-back in Villa's last game, the defeat of West Bromwich Albion, after being deployed largely as back-up in that position or at right-back since Martin O'Neill paid Rangers £7.8m for him in 2008. A commanding display looks set to earn another start at home to Tottenham today, when he hopes to see further evidence that Houllier's changes are having the desired effect.
Asked whether the players were beginning to understand what the new manager expected of them, the Spaniard known to the Holte End as "King Carlos" replied: "Yes. You need to know what he wants and he needs to know what his side is. It is new for everybody: the style of football, the training. Everything has changed, but now, after three and a half months, we know him, he knows us and the team is coming up. I went through two or three managerial changes in Spain. It's always good because it gives an opportunity to people who weren't playing before, and they get more confidence and focus in their job."
Cuellar, 29, has established himself as something of a talisman for Houllier as the Frenchman struggles with mediocre results and the fall-out from Dunne's alleged bust-up with assistant manager Gary McAllister. He started in four of the five League and cup victories of the new era. Strong in the air and in the tackle, he is intelligent enough to realise his limitations, with a resilience borne of having worked his way up from semi-professional football in Spain.
It is to this combination of qualities – often overlooked as O'Neill favoured the partnerships of Curtis Davies and Martin Laursen in Cuellar's first year and Dunne and James Collins in his second – that Villa have turned in the quest for defensive cohesion. Last season they conceded just 39 goals in 38 fixtures. This time, unsettled by O'Neill's resignation five days before the big kick-off and by initial resistance to Houllier's approach, they have already leaked 28 in 17 games.
Acknowledging the need to kick-start Villa – after three successive sixth-place finishes they lie sixth from bottom – Cuellar described the holiday fixtures as "a big moment". With trips to Manchester City and Chelsea after Spurs' visit, it could scarcely be bigger. "We're looking forward to pushing up again and to trying to get into the top six."
Such a position, which is the territory occupied by Harry Redknapp's Champions' League challengers, looks fanciful for Villa, but Cuellar added: "It's tight. If you win three in a row you can get in the top four. Apart from one player [James Milner] we've got the same team that came sixth last season, and we've got two or three really good young players who have come in. They've helped us a lot."
Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Eric Lichaj and Jonathan Hogg have broken into a team many fans felt was set in stone under O'Neill. Cuellar has the same priority as these fresh faces. "If I have the opportunity to play more, my performance and my level will come up."
Today should afford another chance as a first-choice centre-back alongside Collins. "It'll be a hard game because Spurs are playing so well," he said. "But we're at home, we're confident and can beat them."