Any time a team allows more goals than all but two teams in the league--both of which will be playing in the Championship next season--it's a decent bet that the defense is going to come under some scrutiny. That's completely understandable, because at time this season Villa's defense was a disorganized mess; falling apart under late pressure, often hopeless on set pieces. prone to the occasional shocking error that left everyone watching--even fans of the opposing team--shaking their heads in amazement.
But to say that Villa's horrendous goals against record should be pinned solely on the defense would be a pretty major oversimplification. For one, 15 of Villa's goals against came in the nightmarish two-week period that contained an 8-0 loss to Chelsea, a 4-0 loss to Spurs, and a 3-0 loss to Wigan. Those games happened and they can't be dismissed out of hand, but that period was a very clear outlier during a season where Villa's defense was largely poor-to-mediocre rather than out-rightly catastrophic.
Additionally, preventing goals doesn't begin and end with the defense. This Villa back line had some shocking moments, but they were also hung out to dry on numerous occasions by what was a often porous midfield. And while the attack certainly had plenty of memorable moments over the course of the season, they often struggled mightily to assert their dominance in possession and gave the opposition plenty of opportunities to put Villa's back line under pressure. Still, this isn't a unit that performed well over the course of the entire season to say the least. But it's important to keep in mind that past performance is not the same thing as expected performance.
The Best: Matthew Lowton
Paul Lambert's second signing of the summer transfer window gave Villa fans a look at what would be to come from the new manager's transfer strategy; Lowton was far from being one of the jewels in England's crown when joining Villa from youth club Sheffield United for approximately £3m, but he showed a great deal of potential from the start and has developed into a player that's right on the edges of the England team in very short order.
Lowton's ability in the attack was apparent from the beginning, but as the season wore on he's become an increasingly crucial asset to the back line. Lowton's got a wicked cross and highlight-reel goal stashed safely in his back pocket, but what's put him in a different class among Villa's defense has been his ability to shut down the left wing on multiple occasions this season. He's far from an elite defender at this point, but he's getting better by the day and his evolution from liability to asset in the defensive phase of the game was wonderful to watch. If not for Christian Benteke's rise to prominence, the story of the season would doubtlessly be the emergence of Lowton as a player to watch.
The Worst: Ciaran Clark
This wasn't an easy decision, because Villa's defense as a unit has had so many stunningly bad moments this season. At least two other players could have fit this bill, and by no stretch should this declaration be seen as a call to give up any hopes for the still very young defender.
But if we're speaking of performance relative to expectation, no player has had a more difficult season than Clark. After beginning the year as a de facto inclusion in Paul Lambert's starting XI, the 23-year-old struggled to put in consistently strong performances between injury and lapses in form. He was responsible for some of Villa's most memorable gaffes on the season, and despite being looked to as a rock at the back when Ron Vlaar was absent, some of his worst performances were turned in while Villa's skipper was out injured.
There's still plenty of reason to be bullish about Ciaran Clark's future, and to give up on a player with as so much promise in his first full season playing in his position of choice would be quite silly. But there's no getting around the fact that Ciaran Clark was not an especially good player this season, and if he's going to capitalize on his immense promise he'd do well to up his game significantly next season.
The Rest: Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, Joe Bennett, Eric Lichaj, Enda Stevens
Ron Vlaar wasn't quite as good as anyone hoped when he made the move from Feyenoord to Villa, but his detractors have made something of a habit of getting carried away in terms of his lack of quality. Vlaar was a (somewhat one-dimensional) rock for Villa this season, and though he's never going to be the keystone of Top Four defense in the Premier League, he's a more than solid defender with the added benefit of providing some much-needed leadership to Villa's young core.
Nathan Baker has had some stunningly bad moments this season,, but he's also shown a great deal of improvement and put in some impeccable shifts. Baker has yet to convincingly show that he's a long-term Premier League defender, but it's difficult to ignore his late-season showings and the improvement in his awareness and positioning as the year wound down. Baker is a prototypical English center half and that might not be the best pairing for Vlaar long-term, but talent is talent and young, cheap talent is particularly nice to have. Baker's ability to fill in at left back when Villa take a defensive posture is especially nice, and he's clearly one of the club's more intriguing players heading into next season.
Joe Bennett will likely be the choice of many for the ignominious title held by Ciaran Clark, but aside from a few pretty shocking performances early in his Villa career he's been a passable left back with a great deal of potential. If Villa were to make an upgrade at the position over the summer it would be a welcome development, but Bennett has been the target of unreasonably hash criticism for much of the year. His best role at present is likely as a utility player capable of adding a bit of bite to Villa's midfield as they look to close things out, but if he's the club's starting left back come opening day it will be fa from the disaster forecasted by many.
Eric Lichaj and Enda Stevens round out the defensive corps on somewhat different terms; after working his way through Villa's youth system Lichaj seems to have hit the wall in terms of his development this year and will likely spring up next season in the Championship. Lichaj's ability to cover either side in wide defense and potential as a deputy center back will likely lead more than a few Villa fans to wonder why he was cut loose, but as a still young player in search first team football the cutting of ties makes a fair bit of sense. Enda Stevens is still something of an unknown quantity, but he put in a few decent shifts and remains at least something of an interesting player.
Summary and Outlook
Villa's defense was poor this season, and it could clearly do with an upgrade or two. But the full picture of the season is somewhat distorted by a few horrendous performances, and down the stretch this backline looked at the very least passable. As the youngsters continue to grow it's going to be less of a concern going forward, but there's still a lack of quality at the back. Villa's solid in two of four spots, but that's not nearly good enough; it's difficult to see entering the 2013-14 season with this current group.