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How not to park the bus: The Aston Villa defence in 2013-14

Laurence Griffiths

2013-14 has not been a season many of the Villa defence can look back on with pride. The only teams to concede more goals were relegated. We watched them lump the ball over the top of the midfield on a regular basis, whilst individual errors and general naivety were a constant issue. This is really an assessment to sort out who was bad, who was really bad, and who was desperately trying to hold it all together.

Brad Guzan: B+

As our player of the season in 2012-13, Brad could genuinely be compared with the best in Europe thanks to regular heroic performances, outstanding reliability and brilliant command of the box. It’s fair to say he had a lot to live up to. There have certainly been occasions this season when Brad has been at his unbelievable best. His man of the match performance against Norwich, saving a penalty and keeping a clean sheet, amusingly and satisfyingly voided the pre-match analysis of BT pundit David James, who had suggested that Brad’s clean sheet record meant that he wasn’t a top keeper. However, there were numerous games where Brad didn’t looked quite so assured. He certainly wasn’t making major errors, but his overall very high standards slipped a little. He is still a major asset to Villa and we would be in huge trouble without him. Frankly if he had maintained that phenomenal level of performance this season I would have expected the top clubs to show serious interest this summer. As it stands we should hold on to him.

Leandro Bacuna: B

It would have been unfair to expect much from Bacuna. Signed for around £850k without every really standing out in Holland and without a clearly defined best position. In terms of value for money, Bacuna has to be one of the signings of the season. He contributed 5 goals, some spectacular, which made him our 3rd top scorer behind Benteke and Weimann. Bacuna appeared in 38 games in all competitions, playing in both full back positions and all across midfield. He is far from the most solid full back, but his rampaging runs forward have made up for that. As it stands his passing isn’t good enough for midfield, his vision not good enough for the wing and his positioning not good enough for full back. He is certainly an asset as a utility player, but to really nail down a position he will have to focus in training. Deservedly won the Villa young player of the season award.

Matthew Lowton: D

Lowton had a brilliant end to the 2012-13 season and was touted for a potential England call up. It never came and due to his performances in 2013-14, doesn’t look like it will come in the foreseeable future. Lowton started the season in very poor form and was dropped from the squad after arriving late to training. He was in and out for the rest of the season, as Bacuna became the preferred choice at right back. Lowton spoke publicly of his determination to reclaim his position and did feature more towards the end, but not at the same level as before. He always looks a threat when crossing the ball and his link-up play is strong, but defensively he has been very unreliable. This campaign has been very disappointing for Lowton, but if he can really work on his game then he still has the potential to become a key player for us.

Antonio Luna: E

Many fans were optimistic about Luna. He looked pretty decent and confident in pre-season. The idea of a bit of Spanish flair, a bloke called "Tony Moon" and a magnificent beard meant that he started the season with plenty cheering him on. Though some defensive frailties were exposed against Arsenal, a top finish to seal the win gave people high hopes (I still can’t figure out how on earth he got into that position). However, it soon became pretty clear that we hadn’t signed the player we all hoped he would be. An own goal against Chelsea was the first of many errors. Positionally, he was horrifying. Too weak in the tackle, not quick enough, not fit enough, not great in the air. This wouldn’t have been such a big issue if he was any good going forward, but he offered very little there either. It came to a point where every single team in the league were targeting him with endless joy. Luna played 18 games before Bertrand came to the rescue, with Bennett pushing him down to 3rd choice. It’s fair to say he has an enormous amount to do to prove he is worthy of a Villa shirt and pretty unlikely he will get another chance.

Ryan Bertrand: C

With a glaring weakness at left back, the loan signing of Bertrand provided a certain relief for the fans (and presumably the manager). He signed amidst interest from Liverpool and regular references were made to his role in the Chelsea side that won the Champions League. In his first game against Liverpool it was immediately apparent that he was a step up in quality from Luna or Bennett, mainly due to the lack of errors and no noticeable opposition dominance down that side. By all accounts it was a decent start. Bertrand did show further moments of quality, particularly against Norwich and Hull, but didn’t quite match the early expectations for most of his spell. We will never know whether he was heavily influenced by poor quality players around him or poor coaching, but it became clear after a while that he was another young defender prone to errors and lacking confidence. We should be thankful that Bertrand provided a half-competent plug to the hole at left back. However, with a rumoured market price of over £5 million, we should also be very wary about jumping into a permanent deal.

Joe Bennett: C-

Bennett endured a torrid 2012-13 season with Villa. Maligned by fans, hampered by niggling injuries and generally a scapegoat for Villa’s problems, he can’t have enjoyed it much. He was replaced by Luna as the starting left back and didn’t make a single league appearance until February, thanks in part to a back injury. It should be noted that none of Bennett’s performances this season were as bad as many thought they would be. Bennett was a key part of our excellent team performance against Chelsea in the absence of Ryan Bertrand. However, he has not improved enough to warrant a starting role. If Villa had the budget to replace him I’m sure they would, but with Bertrand returning to Chelsea and Luna performing even worse, Villa have something of a left back curse that would leave Bennett starting should we fail to make the right signing. For that reason, he will probably still be here next season.

Ron Vlaar: A

The reason Ron Vlaar was only just beaten by Fabian Delph to the Villa player of the season award was not particularly for regular displays of brilliance, but because we absolutely fall to pieces without him. His importance to this team cannot be stressed enough. Vlaar missed 6 league games, from which we only took 1 point and no clean sheets. In his absence, there are nosenior defenders to look to. None. He is also the only real leader in the entire squad. So often in this campaign it looked like he was just about managing to hold the team together and prevent a major disaster. As a Dutch international that should start at the World Cup, he is clearly capable of more than just a relegation battle. Vlaar recently gave a very honest interview and stressed the need to be better. If we can tie him down to a new contract and find a decent central defensive partner, we will be on the right track.

Nathan Baker: D

In a forgettable season for Villa’s defence, Baker was the most regular weak link after Luna was dropped from the team. As the season grew older the Villa fans had hoped Baker would grow wiser. After all, Baker is dominant in the air, strong in the tackle and has grown a pretty impressive beard, usually the hallmarks of a great centre back. Sadly the errors only got more frequent. Baker’s lack of pace and inability to deal with the ball over the top was a regular feature in games. His marking left a lot to be desired, but mostly it was the regular unforced errors that made him such a liability. While Baker is young for a centre back and far from a lost cause, he has an awful lot to do to show that he is worthy of wearing the Villa colours. Okore will likely take his place next season and if any further centre back signing is made, that could spell the end of Baker’s Villa career.

Ciaran Clark: C-

Villa picked up more yellow cards than any other team in the league and Clark is a classic example, our most booked player with 8. It’s fair to say that Clark is now Villa’s 4th choice centre back when all are fit. When you are behind a horribly out of sorts Nathan Baker in the pecking order, you know you’ve got problems. Clark may not have made as many costly errors as Baker this season, but he was far from inspiring when he did play. His marking, positioning and concentration were just not good enough. It’s disappointing to see another season go by in which Clark has not improved. He was a big prospect at the age of 20, but it’s starting to look like he might not make it at Villa. His main redeeming factor is his versatility, certainly a better left back than Baker and emergency cover if required in defensive midfield. 2014-15 has to be a big season for Clark or his Premier League future will look very bleak.

Chris Herd: F

I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen the last of Chris Herd in a Villa shirt. At best this season he was 5th choice centre back. He made just 2 appearances (we lost both) when injury forced Lambert to reshuffle. Herd has always showed desire and versatility, but never the raw ability to be a Premier League player. Now 25 he can hardly be called a youngster. In early March after months without an appearance in the squad, the club announced that Herd would miss the rest of the season with personal issues. There has been much speculation about what this might entail, but the bottom line is that even if he can overcome them he would be a bit part player.

Jores Okore: N/A

The Okore situation was just so Villa. A great prospect courted by the likes of Chelsea and Dortmund, he seemed a real coup. The 4 appearances that Okore did make were impressive, he was very calm, extremely quick and his passing accuracy of 88% was the best in the Villa squad this season. Then disaster struck with a cruciate ligament injury against Newcastle in September and we haven’t seen him on the pitch since. It was a massive blow as he was supposed to be the key improvement to the shaky defence from the previous season. Hopefully Okore will make a strong recovery and partner with Vlaar for the start of next season. Still only 21, he has a lot of potential and could become a huge player for us.

An overarching view of the Villa season

Overall: C-

Statistics would suggest that the Villa defence did improve from the previous season. Villa conceded 8 league goals less than last season. In 2012-13, Villa conceded 3 goals on 10 separate occasions across all competitions. In 2013-14, that was cut to 8. There were also 10 clean sheets, 4 more than the 6 Villa managed in 2012-13.

Unfortunately the Villa defence were so incredibly poor in 2012-13, that only a slight improvement in 2013-14 means they are still very poor. At the start of the season it looked as though they had become a more cohesive unit, but that rapidly deteriorated as the season progressed with regular thrashings. 5 of the last 9 games ended with a Villa loss by at least 3 goals...and that was playing a pretty defensive strategy.

There simply has to be a more substantial improvement next season. Quality and experience are lacking across the whole squad, but there is a strong case to be made that defence is where we need it the most.