Remi Garde with few options as Aston Villa edge closer to relegation
Wanted: Ateam of footballers prepared to run around a lot, break sweat and give everything for 90 minutes over the remaining 12 matches of the Premier League season. It doesn't sound a lot to ask. It isn't a lot to ask of professional athletes paid small fortunes every week. It's exactly what Villa manager Remi Garde is demanding from his squad over the coming weeks -- starting with Saturday's trip to Stoke.
Garde is entitled to expect his players to put in maximum effort in each and every fixture. It's clear that's not happening, and the fall-out from the appalling 6-0 home defeat to Liverpool on Feb. 14 is ongoing. That humiliation was nearly two weeks ago and since then the Frenchman has not exactly been impressed with what he's seen in training.
"I don't see the commitment from all the players every day in training sessions," he said at his pre-match press conference. "If I had the choice of other players I would like to select, I would like to -- but I don't have the possibility. Sometimes it's about fighting and commitment. It's the first thing professional players should have on the pitch."
No argument with those sentiments here. The reason Villa are at the bottom of the league, the reason the club will be relegated weeks before the end of the season, is because players have consistently performed poorly. Yes; the seeds of the club's demise first began five or six years ago and there has been a multitude of flawed decisions from the boardroom all the way down to the technical area in that time. But that the 2015-16 campaign is the one of relegation is because, frankly, this Villa squad has been an embarrassment.
By and large, the players have escaped the bulk of the criticism flying around as focus has settled on owner, CEO, scouting and recruitment. Yet this Villa squad should have been capable of staying out of the bottom six; should have been competitive, over the course of the season, with the likes of Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth, Newcastle, Swansea and West Brom. Not adrift by seven points. Not in a league of their own, for all the wrong reasons.
If Garde had his way, he'd probably change the whole side from the one that capitulated against Liverpool and face Stoke with 11 new faces. That's not possible. His options are limited, and not particularly appealing. Players who would have been pushing for starts are still not fit; Jack Grealish, Carlos Sanchez and Adama Traore are getting closer but won't be available for Saturday. Rudy Gestede might make the bench. One obvious potential change is the return of Ciaran Clark to the centre of the defence, and it will be interesting to see if Garde continues with Joleon Lescott, given his recent controversies.
Others with slight first team experience -- Joe Bennett, Gary Gardner, Callum Robinson and goalkeeper Jed Steer -- have all been loaned out to a selection of Championship clubs in the transfer window. Were they available, they might all be playing against Stoke.
That leaves the Villa coach with the prospect of really making a statement and calling in a handful of youngsters. Jordan Lyden could and should start, probably in place of Leandro Bacuna, who was awful against Liverpool. Defender Niall Mason, who has been included in the senior squad this season, could again be involved, as could striking pair Jerell Sellars and Keinan Davis, and left-sided midfielder Riccardo Calder. Davis and Calder both scored in the U21s' victory over Swansea on Monday.
Throwing in the "kids" would, of course, be a last-ditch gamble. But Garde seems to have reached the point where he might ask himself, "can they do any worse?" The answer must surely be no.
Kevin Hughes covered Premier League football at Match magazine and was later deputy editor of Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @KevHughesie.