One of the consistent themes of the season has been the rather baffling decline of Aston Villa's defense. This is a club that allowed the fourth fewest goals in the Premier League last season with 39, a total that has already been surpassed by this season's 46. The inability of Villa to score goals this year has been a major talking point as well, and it's true that this is not a prolifically scoring team, but they weren't much of an offensive juggernaut last year either. This was a team that was built to keep opponents out and nick just enough on the counter to be highly competitive. It's an approach that worked fairly well for a few years, but there's a pretty serious flaw; just a bit of a slip and a good team becomes mediocre. A big slip and a good team can end up uncomfortably close to the relegation zone.
So what happened? The key personnel all returned, with promising youngster Ciaran Clark given an opportunity to join the rotation. Early season injuries were an obvious issue, but Richard Dunne and James Collins have been fit for months now, or at least fit enough to play. The problem is, they haven't been very good at all, or at least not consistently. Luke Young has been injured as of late, but he'd lost his place in the lineup well before he got hurt. Eric Lichaj showed promise, but he also showed that he's just not ready to play at this level regularly. Kyle Walker is farther along in his development, but he still has some major work to do in terms of playing defense and though he's thrilling to watch going forward (assuming he's not going to be crossing the ball) his first responsibility is to prevent the other team from doing so, and he's not been the best in that regard. Stephen Warnock came into the year as one of the better left back (defensively, at least) in the Premier League, but he was so poor in the early going that he found himself very quickly dropped from the regular rotation. This summer he was wearing a Three Lions shirt in South Africa; today he's training with the reserves.
Ciaran Clark has very clearly been a bright spot, showing a great deal of versatility having played at center back, left back and in the defensive midfield. Out of necessity Clark has spent most of his time in recent days at left back, and the results have been mostly positive. Clark doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of the attack on the flank, but as we've talked about before attacking width isn't much of a concern for Villa. He's been very solid defensively (as you'd expect from a converted center back) and though he's certainly not as quick as a lot of wide attacking players he makes up for a lot of that through good positioning and technique. Clark as a fixture along the back line next season is almost a given at this point; it's tough to say where, but if Ciaran Clark is not a core member of Villa's defense come next season it will be a shock to say the least. The same is true of James Collins; he's been Villa's best defender this season by far and at 27 (he'll turn 28 early into next season) he's still fairly young for a center back.
As for the rest of the defense, it's a bit of a mystery. Kyle Walker will almost certainly not be around, and the same is likely true of Luke Young and Stephen Warnock (though finding teams willing to pay them what they are making at Villa could be a chore.) Carlos Cuellar is a valuable player, a solid center back and a strong defensive presence at right back. Given my choice of who we currently have in house my preference would be for a rotation involving Collins and Clark at CB and LB respectively with Dunne and Cuellar rotating at the other CB slot with Walker and Cueller rotating at RB, depending on the competition. This team just looks far less vulnerable against quality attacking opponents with four central defenders playing across the back, and because of their struggles to score lessening vulnerability across the back line is of paramount importance.
Doing the best with what we have isn't really the spirit of this post, however. And while I'm not a huge fan of rabid speculation and rumor mongering, I think we can all agree that there are some very glaring weaknesses on this team's defense that are going to need to be addressed. Let's have a look.
Between Collins, Dunne, Clark and Cuellar Villa have some fairly serviceable options. It would be a huge surprise to see Nathan Baker enter into the equation as well. There's room for improvement there (especially if Dunne is unable to put together a string of solid performances this season) but the problem isn't really in the center. Yes, Dunne and Collins have had some poor games, but they've looked far more solid when not burdened with covering for Luke Young and Stephen Warnock. It's probably not a coincidence that their performances improved once those players were dropped from the rotation.
Unless the right deal is available, this is a situation where I'd like to see Villa do one of two things; make a huge, near-Darren-Bent-level splash for a star player just entering his prime or make a small upgrade or two to depth at the position and ship one of Dunne or Cuellar out. I love King Carlos, but he can't be happy not playing and he still has a fair amount of value. I like Richard Dunne as well but it's looking more and more like he's begun to decline. He's not a great fit for Houllier's system which emphasizes a bit more skill from the defenders while Dunne is a prototypical English (in terms of the league, of course) center back. I still think Dunne is a decent player and if he stays it's not anywhere close to being the end of the world, but I think the odds of his being a Villa player next season are slim and that's probably the best outcome for all parties involved.
I think that the big-splash idea has some merit, but it's impossible to know how much Villa are going to spend in the summer. If there's enough money for one big move and a series of smaller, complimentary moves, this might be the place to spend the money. The Villa team of the past couple of seasons is proof that you don't have to employ a true star player in the middle of the back line to have an elite defense, but it most certainly doesn't hurt. Center back is also a position that gives you some back for your buck, at least when compared to other outfield positions. At the same time, Villa have quality central defenders and they've shown they can feature a fearsome defensive unit with the players they have in house. A new addition to the squad at the position wouldn't hurt, but there's not a lot of sense spending any significant money on incremental upgrades.
This is where it begins to get interesting. Luke Young has done little to inspire confidence. While it's possible that Young's struggle are related to injury, the more likely explanation might be that he's just not very good. A great deal of what Villa does next season will depend on two things; one, the success of Chris Herd's transition to the position and two, the performance of Eric Lichaj for the remainder of his loan stint at Leeds United. Lichaj has looked equal parts ready to shine and completely out of his depth in Villa colors this season, but the talent is quite clearly there. If he can take a step forward with Leeds, he's got a very good chance to become a regular next season. If he struggles, he probably won't get that same chance. It's simple, but it's also a pretty huge deal. Lichaj being ready to step in and take over would be a pretty huge benefit to Villa. It's always nice to be able to count on young players (they're cheap, for one, and tend to be less susceptible to nagging injury for another) and it's equally nice not to have to spend a whole lot of money.
Barring a setback for Lichaj, I'm more than comfortable with going Villa has right now. If Herd takes to the position, a rotation involving the aforementioned youngsters and Carlos Cuellar is perfectly acceptable at worst and at best could be quite good. Right back isn't exactly a position overflowing with impact players and those that are available cost a whole lot of money, money that could really be put to better use elsewhere. As you probably could have guessed by now, I'm less concerned with full backs that can function as a part of the attack than full backs that can shut down the opposition's wide attacking players, given (and this is an important point) the current makeup of this team. If Villa switch to a tactical approach that emphasizes pushing the attack through the middle, that could very well change. That's just not something I see happening any time soon.
If right back was where it got interesting, this is where it gets depressing. It's hard to believe that, coming into the season, left back was one of the few positions that almost everyone felt totally comfortable with. Stephen Warnock was a tremendous player for Villa last season, and all of a sudden, he wasn't. I have no idea what happened to Warnock, but I think it's clear that his time as an Aston Villa player is coming to a close. With no other (non-terrible) natural left back on the squad, Gerard Houllier has been forced to get creative at the position, seemingly settling on Ciaran Clark as his solution for the rest of the year. And for now, that's fine, but I don't think Clark is anyone's idea of a permanent solution at the position, especially with Gabriel Agbonlahor spending so much time one the wing.
That might seem to run counter to much of what I said earlier, but Agbonlahor is most dangerous cutting in from the wing and in that scenario Villa's attack loses some width. I'm not particularly enthralled with the idea of bringing in a true attacking full back (unless Fábio Coentrão decides he'd like to come play for Villa, which seems unlikely) but it would be nice to have someone at the position providing at least the illusion of an attacking presence. Someone like, say, the 2009 version of Stephen Warnock.
Those players aren't easy to find, though. Left backs cost a lot of money in general, and good left backs cost a fortune. I wish I had an easy answer here, but I don't. Without Villa going absolutely nuts on the transfer market, the odds are we're going to have to settle for a solution that's far from perfect. The fact that so many of us were excited about the prospect of Maynor Figueroa being brought in this January should serve to illustrate how bad things are at the position. And while it's tempting to accept Ciaran Clark hanging on to the role, I think Ciaran Clark could one day soon be a very, very good center back and I'd hate to see his development suffer from playing out of position. This is, in my estimation, the single biggest problem facing Aston Villa going into next year. There's not much I can do other than hope that Randy Lerner decides to channel his inner Abramovich.
Fortunately, most of the problems facing the defense can be solved rather easily. I have a very difficult time believing that one of the best defenses in the league became one of the worst over the course of one summer, at least in terms of talent. Left back is a huge concern to be sure, but that's true for a lot of teams all around the world. With some minimal investment and some progression from youngsters, Aston Villa could once again ride a dominant back line to European play.
Unless of course it was last year that was the outlier. Then we could have some problems.