Arsenal scored three goals in a matter of minutes, and everything seemed to unravel. In their first four Premier League matches, the club had only allowed one goal and looked poised to become one of the defensive rocks in the League this season. What was perhaps most shocking was that it never seems like luck that had Villa in the position in which they found themselves. There was a fortitude to the back line that we hadn't seen in past seasons.
But then that Arsenal match. Özil in the 32nd, Welbeck in the 34th, and an Aly Cissokho own goal in the 36th. After only allowing one goal in four matches to start the season, Villa let in fifteen in the next six. The fact that it coincided with a continued lack of production from the offense meant that Villa would go on a winless streak the likes of which most of us could only imagine in our nightmares.
Since losing 1-2 against Tottenham, however, Villa have reverted to their beginning-of-the-season form. Two goals in the last four matches mean that the club have been able to grab six points and go undefeated in that span. With this in mind, and a few mitigating factors at play, it's becoming readily apparent that, as things stand, Aston Villa are a club who will thrive or die on the strength of their defense. We talked about this on the podcast with Sam Tighe yesterday, but I thought I'd dive in just a little bit more.
Here's a look at Villa's goals allowed throughout the season. You've got the per match numbers as well as a rolling total:
You can clearly see that the six-match stretch starting with Arsenal and ending with Tottenham torpedoed the club. But even within there, things aren't too bad. Yes, three-goal matches (Arsenal, at Chelsea, at Everton) are pretty inexcusable. But when you consider that the six-match span saw Villa use their first-choice back line exactly zero times things look a bit better.
In fact, if you consider the first choice back four to be Alan Hutton, Ron Vlaar, Philippe Senderos, and Aly Cissokho, two of those matches had only half of those players on the pitch. It's become pretty obvious that Villa could do well by using Jores Okore (and that he should perhaps be first choice ahead of Senderos), but it's equally obvious that there was no stability in the run of poor defensive form.
There's also the issue of the bookends of that run having severe mitigating factors. In the Arsenal match, a huge portion of the team had been lain low by some sort of a stomach bug that saw players dealing with vomiting and issues I'd rather not write about. If they broke down for a few minutes when many of them on the pitch were barely standing up, I think we can forgive it. And against Tottenham, the two opposing goals came after an absolutely wretched decision by the referee to dismiss Christian Benteke. Certainly, Benteke isn't a defender, but his presence on the pitch changes the tenor of the entire match. Tottenham were given a massive boost and Villa were left frustrated. You'd like to think that they could buckle down and defend, but it's hardly damning that they didn't.
But what about the eight matches outside of the run from hell? Three goals. Five clean sheets. Consider that last year in total, Villa had only nine clean sheets and things become a bit more clear. When they aren't facing some of the best teams in the league and when they're able to put out solid pairings in the center (as Okore and Ciaran Clark have [surprisingly] turned out to be) Villa are a team who can avoid defeat despite their anemic offense. Take out the three-goal matches and this is nine goals in eleven matches. Simply remove the Arsenal match, which I am okay with writing off entirely, and it's fifteen in thirteen.
Things looked dire for a while, but this is a very good defense that Aston Villa have right now. They've got five centre backs who could all make claims to be first choices, and they've got right and left backs who can (gasp!) defend. Add to all of this the fact that Brad Guzan is a few distribution issues away from being one of the best keepers in the world and you've got the formula for a team that can remain competitive despite not being able to figure out what in the heck scoring is.