I’m going to start this off by admitting one thing:
I have absolutely no clue how to rate Aston Villa’s defenders this season.
On one hand, the Claret and Blues had their best defensive record in three seasons, conceding just 58 goals over the course of the Premier League campaign.
On the other one, they conceded three or more goals on nine separate occasions, including an embarrassing 12-0 scoreline in three games against Arsenal and the 6-1 shellacking at Southampton on the penultimate day of the campaign.
At times, they were very, very good. Philippe Senderos and Ron Vlaar started the year as the first-choice defensive pairing, and along with Alan Hutton and Aly Cissokho, kept three clean sheets in four games to get Villa 10 early points on the board. If that stretch doesn’t happen, a lot changes over the course of the season — Paul Lambert probably gets sacked a lot earlier as Villa would’ve likely been bottom at Christmas — but it’s hard to argue that without the strong defensive performances to start the year that Villa wouldn’t have been down.
Which is what makes it even more curious that it’s looking increasingly likely that none of those guys will be in Tim Sherwood’s opening-day XI to start next season. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)
But from there, it all went spiraling downhill. Villa’s defence imploded, conceding thrice in four minutes against Arsenal, and the squad never recovered. That Arsenal game was the first of a six-match losing streak, and it would take until the 10th attempt to finally see out another Villa victory.
As Paul Lambert’s tenure carried on, though, Villa’s defence started seeing better and better numbers, undoubtedly down to the slow, possession-based style of play the side had adopted as the year went along; the Claret and Blues conceded just four times over a month-long stretch in December and January, yet failed to win, accruing just two points in scoreless draws.
The rude awakenings returned from there, though, and four straight poor defensive (and offensive) performances saw Lambert sacked after a 2-0 loss to Hull.
Tim Sherwood‘s tenure really didn’t see much in terms of improved defending — Villa shipped three or more goals five times in the Englishman’s half of the season — but it did see improved attacking play, which allowed the defence a little more breathing room.
Across the entirety of the season, though, it was late defensive lapses that really hurt Villa.
In early October, Lambert’s men were holding out well against Manchester City, only to concede twice in the final 10 minutes to lose 2-0.
Then let’s go to November, when Villa’s late-game troubles were at their highest. Lambert’s side started the month 1-0 up against Spurs at Villa Park with 10 minutes to play. But Christian Benteke had been sent off, and two late Tottenham goals saw Villa drop all three points.
Two games later, Lambert’s men were 1-0 up on Southampton, only to concede to an 81st-minute Nathaniel Clyne goal, forcing a draw for Southampton.
Next time out? A similar story, when Jores Okore clumsily surrendered a late penalty to cost Villa two points at Turf Moor.
In a four-match stretch, Villa dropped seven points in the final 10 minutes of games.
The trend reared its ugly head once more in Sherwood’s first game in charge, when a Ron Vlaar error gave Stoke City a 93rd-minute winner from the penalty spot.
They reemerged against Swansea City, when Bafétimbi Gomis scored three minutes from time to give his side all three points, while points were dropped once more against Manchester City, this time at the Etihad when Fernandinho scored in the 89th.
That’s 11 points dropped in the final 10 minutes of games. Which is entirely unacceptable, and ultimately, forces me to look at the defence in a negative light this season.
Even if they drop just seven points late, rather than 11, Villa would’ve finished 14th, while only five dropped would’ve put the Villans level with West Bromwich Albion on 44 points.
On their way out?
Earlier I mentioned how Villa’s opening-day back four might all be on their way out.
I’ve already harped about how Ron Vlaar leaving would be bad for Aston Villa, no matter how poor his end-of-season performances were. I don’t need to do it again.
Let’s move to his partner that day, Philippe Senderos, who has mysteriously disappeared. He did a solid job, and I’ll thank him for that. But he’s likely on his way out the door. It’s a whatever move.
Aly Cissokho started at left back that day at the Britannia, and his reported exit is the one which’ll have Villa fans scratching their heads more than any other — Carles Gil’s aside. Cissokho put in some solid defensive shifts for the club, sure, but his fate was sealed as soon as Sherwood took the reigns in B6; the Frenchman can’t cross a ball to save his life. A fullback who can’t put in a cross might as well not exist to Sherwood. Oh well.
Alan Hutton is the last of the four that day, and he had a generally great resurgence this year after spending a couple years on the famed "Bomb Squad," frozen out at Villa. I like Alan Hutton, and while he’s better going forward than Cissokho, his dodgy crosses leave him vulnerable to being frozen out once again from the Claret and Blue setup — Leandro Bacuna had more appearances under Sherwood, despite the manager not seeing the Dutchman as a defender.
Emergence of the future?
We’ll get to more of Bacuna in a second, but what a breakout season Ciaran Clark had for the club. In so many ways, he’s my player of the year. Alongside Jores Okore, he could be part of a centre-back pairing that’ll anchor Villa’s squad for years to come.
Granted, it wasn’t perfect from the pair this year, but that’s to be expected with a young pairing. If they get an extended run in the squad to start next season, I’ll be really happy; they have the potential to be one of the league’s best duos, and I hope they see that opportunity.
For Bacuna, it’s all what you’d expect out of him. Once he got on the pitch, he was productive again this year in attack — six assists across all competitions gets that around — but he also wasn’t great in defence. You can’t ask for more out of a natural midfielder, though, and it’ll be interesting to see what his future holds at the club. I’m very optimistic on him, both as a potential defender and a midfielder going forward. Let’s see what Timmy does with him.
Nathan Baker also played a part this year, and I can’t really complain about his performances. He’s emerged into a solid second-choice centre half, which is important for the club.
He doesn’t really fit anywhere, so I’ll say a word about Kieran Richardson here: Thank you for heading Steven Gerrard’s shot off the line at Wembley. You’re a hero in my book. The rest of your play this year was terrible though.
Matthew Lowton is most likely on the door out, which is a shame. Paul Lambert did a terrible job developing him into a player. Remember when he was on the verge of an England call-up? Good times, y’all. Good times.
The goalkeepers existed, I guess
I’m also supposed to talk about the goalies here, and I don’t know what the hell to do with this.
Brad Guzan was less good this year, but I think I still want him to be my first-choice goalkeeper come August. He did some dumb things at times, and his distribution is still terrible (which will surely hurt him in Sherwood’s eyes), but he’s also still really good with dealing with balls in his box.
Shay Given is old. I don’t want to see him any more in a Villa shirt. Thanks for getting us to Wembley, but will someone pay the dude to play one year for them? Please?
Jed Steer is maybe a thing that can happen moving forward? I don’t know. I didn‘t watch the Burnley game. I was at the 500.
Overall rating: Satisfactory. (begrudgingly)
The defense showed improvement, which was nice this year. At times, they looked really good.
But those late-game struggles keep their grade from being any higher than a nice "S," like I probably got in art classes in elementary school because I don’t know how to draw or make things.
It’s like… Villa’s defence was that kid who got a D in Algebra I as a freshman, and then rallied to do better in Algebra II. He showed promise, understood more concepts, and put a little more effort in.
But he left three questions on every test blank, only managing to get a C.
It’s so Villa.
What grade would you give Villa’s defence from last year? Something better than what I did? Or would you slate them more? Let me know in the comments!