I began writing with the intention of telling you that Aston Villa's defense isn't as bad as so many people are claiming it is. My curiosity was piqued by this Metro article that I came across this morning. "Yes, they haven't kept a clean sheet in 8 months, but they've certainly gotten better, right?" That's what my gut told me. Watching Aston Villa during the latter half of the 2012-13 campaign had me more confident about the prospects of keeping the ball in front of Brad Guzan rather than behind him.
I don't like to make that kind of broad statement without a little bit of statistical support however. In the past I've accused others for being lazy for doing the same thing, and I don't want to be a hypocrite. Unfortunately for me, the numbers don't bear out my gut feelings. Let's take a look.
I decided that I would slice the season in two with the goalless draw against Stoke on December 8 being the dividing point. That was the last time - in any competition - that Aston Villa managed to keep a clean sheet. In the 19 matches up to and including that one, Aston Villa allowed 27 goals, or 1.4 per match. In the 27 matches that followed, the defense did far worse, allowing 54 goals, or 2 per match.
To be fair, that second split included the Chelsea and Tottenham Christmas week disasters. In my mind, the turning point happened after those were out of the way. So what happens if we just split the season by calendar year? The results are a bit better, but hardly satisfying. In the 24 matches played in the 2012 half of the 2012-13 season, Villa allowed 44 goals. In the 2013 part of that stretch, they let 37 into the net. That's an improvement in rate from 1.83 per match to 1.68. It doesn't seem like much, but when you extrapolate that over the course of an entire Premiership season you get... 5.7 goals difference. Shoot. That's barely noticeable, especially when it would only improve your goals allowed total from an astonishingly bad 69 to a merely atrocious 63.
And then you've got the preseason woes. Granted, Villa have had their best defense on the pitch for fewer than 90 minutes (thanks to the Jores Okore injury), but we'd expect even a mostly-subs Villa team to be able to keep a clean sheet against a 5th-tier German side. And they haven't. You could call the Villa defense porous, but that hardly seems fair to the pores of the world, who do a much better job of filtering than Aston Villa.
I've still got that gut feeling that the Villa defense is better than what we've seen. Unfortunately, I've got absolutely nothing to back that up. Certainly the addition of Okore and Antonio Luna (Tony Moon!) will help, but the foursome of Matthew Lowton, Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, and Joe Bennett will have to continue the incremental improvements we've seen in 2013 to make a noticeable difference.
None of this is to say that Villa are going to be relegated and that the world is about to end. The offense has been bolstered considerably from an already strong level in the 2012-13 season, and even incremental improvements in the defense would combine with that to help the goal differential significantly. And remember, a clean sheet by itself means almost nothing. If Villa could average 2 goals per match, no one would care if we allowed 1 in every single appearance.
But as the Metro article linked above mentions, the problems in the defense mean that Aston Villa are effectively playing with a 1-0 deficit when they run out of the tunnel. That was the sentence that upset me enough to do a bit of digging. I'm even more upset now that I realize it's true. If you're looking for this club's weak spot, it's the back four. The one hope that we can have is that the defense Paul Lambert has put together seems to be primarily built on young players who can improve, rather than old players with nowhere to go but down.
Let's hope that improvement starts quickly.