With all the buzz about Aston Villa's youth, it's hard to write about anything else. With the team now sitting in 13th, behind such clubs as Blackpool, Sunderland, and Stoke, talking about the kids is a way to stay positive. They're bright, they're young, and they're going to be the future of this club. But what of the now? It's not enough to say that the kids will guide Villa at some point. The senior players on the club should be stepping up to lead-and, unfortunately, whether they're doing so or not is questionable.
Last season's defense was one of the best in the league. Warnock, Collins, Dunne and Cuellar may have tired at the end-understandable, with two late cup runs and a manager that refused to rotate the squad-but up until the end of the season, goals rarely found their way to the back of the Villa net. Part of the problem this season is the fact that Aston Villa lack quality defensive midfielders. Ciaran Clark is young and being moved out from the backline to cover central midfield. Jonathan Hogg, while decent, is also young, and has had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look about him during his starts. Barry Bannan has the potential to be better than James Milner. His defense is rapidly improving, but at the same time, the wee Scot wasn't going to be winning much from the flying balls at Blackburn. Without the protection of at least one quality defensive midfielder, Villa's defense has been exposed much more this season. Yet that exposure does not excuse the fact that we've seen the back four positively fall apart at times.
Stephen Warnock (age 28, signed last season from Blackburn): Warnock has enough quality as a defender to be capped for England, taken to the World Cup even if he didn't manage to get off the bench. Perhaps he should look more at the way England's first-choice left back plays. Ashley Cole manages to both find his way up the pitch to be in a goal scoring position-something Warnock's been doing a lot more of recently-and get back in time to cover his defensive duties. Warnock, on the other hand, sometimes forgets that he is meant to defend, leaving one of the center backs to cover for him. He's also been quite stupid this season, sitting out one match for yellow card accumulation but failing to learn from that punishment. It was his foul that led to Morten Gamst Pedersen's free kick and Blackburn's first goal. The foul may have been excused had Rovers had a goal scoring opportunity, but in this case there was no need to concede a foul. El-Hadji Diouf had nowhere to go, trapped on the edge of the pitch with his back to the field. Perhaps Warnock's had one too many knocks to the back of the head?
James Collins (age 27, signed last season from West Ham United): The game against Blackpool perfectly sums up the Welshman's season thus far: The Seasiders' equalizing goal comes due to a massive deflection off Collins. Minutes later, the center half heads in the winner from a corner. While his steady presence at the back was much admired last season, Collins has had his ups and downs during this one. At times it almost seems as though his mind has drifted off, returning just in time for him to remember that he's meant to be protecting the net. For the most part, however, Collins has been holding down the Villa back line, often covering for absent full backs or even for his center half pairing. He's probably not the Villa's greatest concern at the moment.
Richard Dunne (age 31, signed last season from Manchester City): Most people know that I'm a massive Dunney fan. When Manchester City went on their spending spree last season, they put their captain on the transfer market, letting the world know his name wasn't sexy enough for such a club. Aston Villa grabbed him and laughed as City's weak defense kept them out of a Champions League spot. But now it's City laughing, as they stole James Milner and left us with a hobbling shell of a man. Many Villa fans are ready to give up on Dunne, writing him off as old and decrepit. They demand he be replaced by Carlos Cuellar, but this argument has its flaws. For one thing, if Cuellar were showing signs of brilliance in training, I have no doubt that Houllier would have replaced the injured Dunne with the Spaniard. For another, I don't think we should write off Dunne just yet. It may be my fan prejudice showing through, but I refuse to believe Dunne should be put out to pasture. In the Blackburn match, he reminded the Villa why he'd been signed in the first place, looking sharp as he pressed forward, getting back with flawless tackles to prevent yet more goals. I'm more than willing to admit that Dunne was looking listless and out of sorts for the first third of the season, but it's time to give the man another chance. It seems he's finally recovered from his knee injury and is ready to command the defense once again.
Luke Young (age 31, brought in from last season's bench-warming role): I hate to say this, but maybe Martin O'Neill was right about one thing-Luke Young just isn't good enough to be a starting right back on a team pressing for a Champions League place. Shifting Cuellar out right rather than keeping him in the center was probably not the best way to remedy the situation, however. L Young is a bit of a one-trick pony. He looks right, flicks left, or vice versa. He's got nothing else except a last-ditch tackle and an unnerving ability to be pulled out of position. He can attack fine, he can defend fine, but putting them together seems beyond him at times. L Young is a perfectly average defender, but one that should be upgraded as soon as possible. We've got a kid waiting in the wings and if we're using all of our youth anyway, why not throw on Eric Lichaj?