A new year is viewed as the opportunity for a fresh start; get rid of older bad habits, and even try something new. For Alex McLeish, nothing is different. Since Christmas, we have seen a new, rejuvenated Villa side, playing with a hunger that we had not previously witnessed under the Scotsman.
An attacking mindset has been injected into the side in recent weeks, and although it has not yet had a major impact on results thus far, it is leaving the fans far happier with the team and Alex McLeish. This was exemplified in the trip to The Emirates two weeks ago. It was clear from the Villans that they were not there to defend, or to try sneak a draw to bring the Gunners back to Villa Park for a replay; they were there to win. And that mindset payed off, as Villa hit Arsenal with two quick-fire goals to ensure that the home-side were booed off at the break, through no major fault of their own. Alas they could not sustain the challenge, and crumbled as Arsenal turned up the heat in the second half, at a level they could not live with. However, for the long term, Aston Villa must not dwell on their second-half collapse, and must admit that it was an improvement.
This was not a once off however. This turnaround has been apparent since the shock win at Stamford Bridge on New Year's Eve. The manner in which they killed Chelsea off at the end of the game clinically signaled the end of the lackluster pre-Christmas performances. But it is commonly accepted that the catalyst that day and since was the return to form of Stephen Ireland.
Forced out of Manchester City by Mancini's conveyer belt of international talent, the Corkman has finally found a new lease of life at Villa. Having initially enjoyed a successful spell at City under Mark Hughes, he was forced to play in roles that he was uncomfortable with, and soon became surplus to requirements. He was bartered to the Birmingham club in an exchange for James Milner, and a rocky start to his Villa career, making his debut in a 6-1 loss at the hands of Newcastle. Things went downhill for him from there, falling out of favour with manager Gerard Houllier. But recently, Alex McLeish appears to have examined the blueprint of Hughes; that Ireland is at his most effective when given freedom to roam and to push forward at will; in essence, to build the team around him. The benefit of Ireland, paired with the goal-scoring ability of Bent and his countryman Keane, has proven a positive move for Villa, but results have not quite picked up.
There is no shame in losing to high-flying Newcastle this year, as many teams have found out. Including this, Villa have had a tricky fixture list for the start of the year, and things are not going to get any easier against Manchester City this weekend. Villa are going to have to start getting results to ensure that they will be playing Premier League football next season, but with the gap that they have opened over the drop zone, paired with their attack-minded approach, should ensure that they will have enough to secure another mid-table finish this season.