Gerard Houllier’s return to England’s top flight after a six-year absence represents a bold move by Aston Villa chairman Randy Lerner. After holding interviews with several candidates, including Sven-Goran Eriksson and Alan Curbishley, Houllier’s experience and wealth of knowledge proved to be the main attraction for Lerner as the Birmingham outfit seek to continue the progress made under previous manager Martin O’Neill.

Followers of the Premier League will know the Gallic tactician from his time at Liverpool. Houllier adopted a functional, counter-attacking style of play and he guided the Reds through a period of relative success, with the highlight a cup treble in 2001. Since he left Merseyside, Houllier has won league titles back in his homeland with Lyon and was most recently technical director at the French Football Federation, a role he negotiated his release from in order to take up his duties at Villa Park.

Paul Faulkner, Randy Lerner’s right hand man at Aston Villa, indicated that Houllier’s willingness to work with the existing playing staff was a key factor in the appointment. During his tenure Martin O’Neill spent considerable sums in trying to improve the squad and his purchases established the Claret and Blues as not just a top six side, but also one able to compete at the business end in cup competitions. It is now up to Houllier to make the changes which will enable Villa to progress and challenge for an elusive Premier League top four finish. However, before the Frenchman has the opportunity to sign any new players, it will be interesting to see how a primarily British squad will adapt to Houllier’s continental approach.

Where Houllier should certainly take Villa forward is in player recruitment. O’Neill was famously a late mover in the transfer window, and he also operated solely in the British market where transfer fees are artificially high. The Frenchman will be under instructions to set up a worldwide scouting network with the aim of uncovering hidden gems before they are discovered by Europe’s elite.

There has been criticism of the appointment and the major concern regarding Houllier is his health. He spent a significant period out of the game during his Liverpool tenure, when in 2001 he fell ill during the half time break against Leeds United; a dissected aorta was the problem and Houllier underwent surgery almost immediately. The former Lyon manager insists that he is in good health, but now at the age of 63 there are understandable question marks as he attempts to get to grips with the pressurised world of the Premier League all over again. Only time will determine whether he is able to cope or not.

Lerner’s decision to appoint Houllier is understandable. He has years of experience at the top of the game and has proved to be a successful coach in the past. The former Liverpool manager also appears to feel he has unfinished business in the English game as his spell at Anfield was cut short in 2004 and the jury remains out on his Merseyside reign.

Critics will have reservations over his age and health, yet for Villa there is the option to try and move Houllier upstairs to a director of football role where he will be instructed to oversee player recruitment if the stresses and strains of the Premier League become too much; but judging by his hunger to get back into day-to-day club management this might be easier said than done.

On the pitch it will be interesting to see how Villa evolve under the Frenchman. In recent seasons, observers of the Premier League have become accustomed to watching the Villains play high tempo, counter-attacking football which has proved to be a success away from home. Houllier should bring more tactical discipline to the side as he is arguably more astute in this area than O’Neill; he is also likely to introduce a more controlled style of play.

Houllier’s appointment is likely to be the defining moment in Randy Lerner’s Villa Park reign. If he has made the right choice then the progress made under O’Neill can be built upon and Villa can become realistic challengers for a top four spot over the next few seasons. If the American has made the wrong call however, Villa could be competing with up and coming sides such as Sunderland and Birmingham in order to retain their place in the top eight.