Steve Agnew joined the Aston Villa towards the end of December with very little fanfare, yet appears to have possibly had an almighty effect in his short time with us. Of course, this could be a coincidence, but the noises coming out of Villa Park indicate that he has had a direct impact.
Our rampant form continued with a storming 3-1 victory over strugglers Barnsley at the weekend. The result made it four league wins on the spin which has catapulted the Villans to within three points of second-placed Derby County.
After the underwhelming December we endured, the upturn in form was perhaps difficult to foresee. However, there may be a standout reason for our latest run of good results.
Agnew had previously worked with Steve Bruce at Hull City during their successful promotion campaign in the 2012-13 season. Having worked most recently at Middlesbrough, a series of events revolving around managerial changes left Agnew somewhat in the wilderness and placed on gardening leave and unable to work. Bruce saw the opportunity and began to make inroads into bringing the experienced coach to Villa.
Employed in a prominent ‘Head of Coaching’ role, Agnew has seemingly eclipsed all existing members of the current coaching set-up, such as Stephen Clemence and gone straight to the top of the tree. So far, that decision seems to be vindicated.
However, perhaps the first thing to note is that apart from Clemence, there isn’t really anyone else Agnew has actually had to leapfrog. With the exception of other specialised coaches, such as goalkeeping and fitness, Clemence was the sole dedicated first-team coach.
Obviously part of assistant manager Colin Calderwood’s remit will be to take coaching sessions along with Clemence. However, it does rather seem that we have been perhaps slightly over-burdened in this department for a while.
Agnew’s arrival may simply have injected a fresh impetus into a training schedule that was possibly slightly neglected and threadbare in some respects. Upon announcing his new addition, Bruce himself noted that he ‘has always worked with three coaches’. This means the club has gone well over a year being understaffed in the coaching department.
Looking at a range of other clubs, three coaches seems to be the norm, especially amongst the bigger teams in the division. A non-exhaustive list including Derby County, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham all have three first-team coaches. I genuinely believe that even just the presence of another body in the mix has probably led to more structured and focused training sessions. Especially as our squad is one of the most numerous in the division and would certainly benefit from having a third coach.
Of course, it is too simplistic to say that having three coaches instead of two will be enough to raise levels to the extent that have been in the last few weeks. So, just what exactly is Agnew doing that we’ve been missing?
Perhaps the most noticeable difference during this prolific period has been the form of Scott Hogan. The £12 million signing from Brentford has looked devoid of any sort of confidence since his move to Villa Park. Yet suddenly he is scoring goals and looking like the player that we knew was in there somewhere. Can we put this all down to our new coach?
Well, according to Hogan himself, Agnew’s influence seems to have been the main factor. And the solution has been so blindingly simple that it is actually a worry and a concern that existing coaches weren’t able to sort it out sooner. Hogan himself has noted that ‘the main thing is he’s tried to instil confidence in me and bigs me up. That gets my confidence up.’
For me, this is staggering. It seems such an obvious way to get the player firing again and begs the question what has everyone else around Hogan been doing for the last year?
Hogan has been injured on and off for the majority of his time at Villa so far, so fitness and getting a run of games together will also have played a part. But it just seems incredible that a £12 million investment hasn’t had the nurturing or required time spent with him to guide him through a tough year.
Agnew hasn’t done anything revolutionary here. Hogan notes that they have spent time going through clips of other strikers to study them, and a few times a week they’ll sit down and have a chat about things.
Many supporters, myself included, felt that Hogan would come good if he had the ball played through to him on the deck on a more regular basis as that would suit his game more and he could run onto through balls. He was making intelligent runs and always worked hard. However, if we quickly analyse Hogan’s recent goals, we can see that the player himself is making a mockery of that notion.
Hogan has scored four goals in the last three league games. All of those goals came from wide crosses, including one corner. Most surprising of all, three of those goals scored were headed. Interestingly, his only other league goal which came last season in a 2-0 win at Wigan Athletic was also headed.
For a player we were all seemingly convinced could only score from passes he could run onto, he’s suddenly turned into a bigger threat in the air than Christian Benteke! Joking aside, it all points to confidence. Yes, service into him is still vital. But himself having the belief to get himself into better positions and having the conviction to bury the ball in the back of the net is what is most important. And Agnew is clearly giving him that.
There are a few other factors that have also helped Villa’s recent revival. The return of John Terry will have been huge. Jack Grealish‘s flair along with a seemingly added maturity. Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane also deserve honourable mentions for their recent form. And who knows whether it’s Agnew who has been putting an arm around them in the last few weeks also and seeking out those performances.
As Bruce notes, ‘It’s a different voice, different ideas, a different way forward’. But I’m not quite sure that the former Middlesbrough coach is doing much that should’ve been beyond the capabilities of the existing coaches, or Bruce himself.
That’s not to say that his input should be disregarded. It’s clear that we were missing something and Agnew’s arrival has contributed, at least in part, to discovering a real cutting edge. It may just be that his signing is the most important one that we make this winter.