To say Aston Villa’s defence simply improved during the 2016/17 season might be one of the biggest understatements in a while.
Under a collection of managers in their final Premier League season, Villa conceded 76 goals in 38 games — exactly a pair per, on average — an accomplishment that followed up efforts of 57 the previous year, 61 the year before that, and 69 in Paul Lambert’s first season, 2012/13.
And thus, when the Claret and Blues conceded just 48 times in their 46-match Championship debut last season, it made the Villa back line probably look better than it was. There’s no doubt that Villa had one of the more composed back fours for most of the year, and even less doubt the boost the addition of James Chester brought to the squad. Nathan Baker was solid in central defence, too, so it seems natural to think Villa don’t really need to shake up the centre backs much, at least from a starting lineup standpoint, heading into the 2017/18 campaign.
Yet here we are, linked with John Terry, available on a free contract. On one hand, the prospective addition of Terry could simply be viewed as a way to improve the squad in two ways: veteran leadership in the dressing room, and pure talent in the squad. If a player like Terry is available (ignoring the fact he’s a massive tool), you go get him, no matter the position, and no matter how good you look at that position today. If Gareth Barry was interested in a move to Villa, I don’t think many supporters would be interested in turning him down simply because the club already have Mile Jedinak. You make top-flight talent work in this division, wherever on the pitch it is.
But at the end of the day, if Villa want to win automatic promotion next term, their defence will need to improve. Yes, improve from that 48-goal campaign this season.
Let’s face the fact: Under Steve Bruce, Aston Villa played some really, really boring football at times this season — the average Villa match featured just 24 combined shots; only Ipswich (23.9), Wolves (23.7) and Huddersfield (23.1) supporters saw fewer shots over the course of the season. And those three teams reflect two different groups; Ipswich and Wolves, like Villa, were simply teams that played boring football, shot the ball roughly as many times as their opponent over the course of the season, and tried to grind out results. Huddersfield’s number is low, not because the football they played was inherently boring, but because Terriers opponents averaged fewer than 10 shots per game.
If there’s one thread that solidly links each of the three sides that went up, it’s that they significantly outshot their opponents over the course of the season. Newcastle United attempted 5.6 more shots per game than their opponents, Brighton 2.0, and the aforementioned Huddersfield 4.1.
And if Villa are to do better than they did in 2016/17 — where they conceded as many shots per game as they attempted — the attack is going to need to be better, absolutely. A more steadfast back four, though, will also be necessary; it’s no surprise that the five teams that conceded the fewest shots this year all found themselves in the top six.
With a couple tweaks here and there, no reason exists why Aston Villa can’t be that team that dominates play every weekend next season. And that’s why the club’s reported pursuit of Terry makes all the sense in the world — because he’s the type of player that can take a good defence and make it the division’s best.