Aston Villa: The Defense is a House of Cards

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: James Collins (R) of Aston Villa reacts as he is treated by medical staff during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa at Loftus Road on September 25, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Aston Villa is by no means a perfectly constructed squad and of the issues that fans should be and generally are concerned about (Alan Hutton, service to Darren Bent, the assassination of Marc Albrighton by the coward Barry Bannan, where the hell is Charles N'Zogbia) there are some other issues that might fall into the 'long term issue' category that have been irking me. Before I get into that, something that we've heard about a bit this season is the reintroduction of general player harmony at Bodymoor Heath thanks to the arrival of Alex McLeish. That mean old, weak-hearted Frenchman Gerard Houllier just didn't make for a happy dressing room last year and managed to freeze out a few of the more veteran squad members. Richard Dunne went on record with the very unsurprising revelation that he would have left Villa had Houllier returned to manage. We can assume the careers of James Collins and Stephen Warnock would have taken the same turn.

How bad of a thing would that really have been? Since 2009, Collins and Dunne have been mainstays in the defense playing in 67 and 74 games respectively. Richard Dunne is 32 and while James Collins looks to be at least 43 years old it turns out he's still relatively young at 28. I don't think anyone would argue that these two have their best footballing ahead of them. Can they be serviceable for the near future? Hopefully. Does that mean it's not an area of concern for Aston Villa? Let us put on our robe and wizard hat and discuss.

I've gone on record on the podcast, Twitter and in the comments on this site that I am less than enamored with the fullback situation. If you're happy with them you're either Alex McLeish or you love failure. We've all had our say on Alan Hutton's presence in the starting XI - . While Kyle Walker certainly had his shortcomings and he never really was available to be purchased I would have certainly preferred a younger player of his model over the bag of dirty syringes and bone fragments that is Alan Hutton. Is he an extra from Trainspotting? A horrible Simpsons character come to life? HIs physical appearance aside, he's been nothing above the very low expectations that Villa fans were told to expect upon his arrival. 

Meanwhile, Stephen Warnock has had his share of moments both bad and really bad. I will say that he was the unlikeliest person to score at the Etihad so kudos there. Other than that, my instant recall is of him getting steamrolled by probable space alien Gabriel Obertan in the Newcastle match. He has shown a willingness to work on the pitch but he's been average against some of the lesser clubs in the league. I genuinely fear for my sanity when he is deployed against the gauntlet of European contenders in Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool that Villa has to face over the next five weeks or so. 

It's fair to say that based on Alex McLeish's tactics against Spurs and his wont to blame the players for not defending well enough, the future Aston Villa player is going to have to be defensively sound above all else. All joking about Bannan-related murder plots aside, the most plausible reason we haven't seen much of Marc Albrighton this year is that he's not very responsible when the opponent has the ball. There's also the McLeish fetish of using forwards as outside midfielders instead of, you know, actual trained wingers. Unless Albrighton is able to improve the defensive aspect of his game or suddenly grows to the size of Emile Heskey I'm worried we may never see him in claret and blue again. 

The one positive that I can take from the Spurs match is that James Collins looked so bad that perhaps there will be more of an urgency to replace him - but with whom? There must be a reason that Ciaran Clark has barely played. Carlos Cuellar is beloved by the fans but I'm afraid it's more because he interacts with the fans via Twitter, not necessarily because he's a long term solution. Maybe Nathan Baker can develop into someone that we can rely on but he's off to Millwall, who nobody cares that everybody hates, on loan. Enda Stevens will be joining the club at the opening of the January window. We know he's one of the best players in the Irish Premier League and that he helped Shamrock Rovers make an unlikely run in the Europa League. We also know that he's only 21 and it will be a while before he can be counted on to line up at left back on a weekly basis.

The club can't continue to think that this back line is going to take them where they want to go. Aston Villa is stuck in between a period where they've got a mix of veterans, youth and a smattering of players that are still in their prime and can be part of a side that could qualify for Europe. Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia, Barry Bannan and Gabby Agbonlahor immediately come to mind as players that can be useful for a while to come. However, at the back the players are either getting old or are just plain bad.

It's a large concern that McLeish's first foray into the transfer market for defensive help was to pay actual money for Alan Hutton. It wasn't that long ago that Aston Villa and Spurs were treading similar ground in the Premier League - now, the gulf in talent couldn't be much larger. One great way to ensure that gulf widens is to buy their shittiest players and hand them a starting role. A sure fire way to kill my optimism that we are close to seeing some change in defense is knowing that while we may be seeing the final season or so of Dunne, Collins and Warnock - Alan Hutton was a recent, Alex McLeish-inspired purchase. He's a McLeish Guy. Is this what we're going to be seeing from here? Is Alan Hutton a prototypical McLeish Guy? It'll be interesting to see if McLeish is willing to own up to transfer mistakes and bring in someone to either displace Hutton or at least challenge him. 

Meanwhile, the center backs continue on their merry way being average-to-bad and never having to really answer for their issues. It feels like Collins and Dunne have been here forever and even worse it feels like they're never going anywhere. Maybe the reason they're so happy this season is because they know that no matter how inept they are, how old-timey or one-dimensional, how arrogant and stubborn, that they're not going to have to be held accountable. Alex McLeish, right or wrong, has complained after almost each of the last few losses that the defending was a shit show. Yet I haven't seen much evidence that he's willing to sit Collins or Dunne down for week or two to give them something to think about. It was said that McLeish gave the team a tongue lashing at halftime at White Hart Lane. I think we all noticed that at the kickoff of the second half there were exactly zero changes made. 

At some point, someone needs to hold these defenders accountable for their play. Whether it's time for some wheeling and dealing come January or just time to start Cuellar and Clark until things improve, I don't know. The future is murky at best and I can't say I'm excited to find out which direction it goes. Considering what we've seen so far - I'm not so sure we're going to like it. 

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