As we approach the January transfer window, it is usually a logical moment to start to identify areas of weakness in the squad, in readiness for the post Christmas silly season.
For Aston Villa, it was always the case that there may be several issues, given how the squad was rushed together, albeit diligently, during the summer. There has been a mixed bag in truth, as new young players settle into their new environment and existing players (still relatively young) try to take up the mantle at a level they are largely unaccustomed to.
Amongst the fan base, there has undoubtedly been a great deal of patience and understanding towards the heroes, including head coach Dean Smith, who have got us into this position far earlier than we expected. There has been an awful lot to be hopeful for, in terms of how we have approached games, aiming to keep the ball, high up the pitch and attack the opposition. However the theme running through the season has been a sense of a soft underbelly, where teams with a modicum of professional intuition can out think us and make all the huff-and-puff seem worthless.
My fear going into the season was that we had stripped all the experience out of the squad, by letting Glenn Whelan, Tommy Elphick and Alan Hutton leave and, barring Tom Heaton we had replaced those characters with players two-or-three seasons away from becoming similar influences. Of course the excitement of being back in the Premier League and hopefully watching a young, dynamic side, with new stars, somewhat overtook that fear, however it seems clear that we lack some experience and leadership, to get good performances over the line, or to encourage players to dig in when things aren’t going well in games.
The players I mentioned may not have been the answer and I am not saying we should have kept them, although Whelan was a no brainer in my humble opinion. However, every team needs those definite six-or-seven out of 10 performers, where the manager knows what they’re getting when the odds are against the team. Match of the Day pundit, the great Alan Hansen used to use the phrase “play the percentages” and that applied today, just as much as when he was playing for Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s.
Of course, Villa do have experience that is being added to with every game. It is that reliability and dependency that we seem to lack. Even Tyrone Mings and John McGinn have been criticised recently for below par performances and captain Jack Grealish missed a potentially vital spot kick in the 2-0 reverse at Sheffield United this weekend.
Whatever happens in January, there is now a strong case for the return of club captain James Chester. He has not played a meaningful game for just under a year, however the leadership and gravitas which he carries within the dressing room, not to mention is no nonsense approach to defending, would surely help the struggling backline. Had Mings not been experiencing a rough spell of form and subsequently sustained a hamstring injury, this may not have been a consideration. However, relying on the relative inexperience of Engels, Hause and Konsa to organise and hold a defence under seemingly relentless pressure, as good as they are individually, would seem naïve.
Whilst Chester’s match fitness is a counter point to this, he will not get any sharper sitting in the stands and even his presence in the match day squad would be of comfort to the dressing room. Those leadership influencers are well evidenced in football, even as recently as Vincent Kompany at Manchester City in latter seasons. Whilst his body could not handle the rigours of a relentless Premier League campaign, his big game experience and the respect he had within the club was invaluable to Guardiola and is now being sorely missed.
Indeed, Smith himself has said that Chester remains club captain and will retain the armband on his return to the side. As excellent as Jack Grealish has been in that role and will continue to be so, maybe sharing that burden would be beneficial at times also.
I imagine that people reading this may be thinking, it’s not the defence that is the problem, we need more firepower. Whilst I agree with that, recent performances also suggest the defence is lacking some focus and solidity, to offset a misfiring strike force. I don’t believe that Chester would make things any worse and the advantages that he would bring, even if he played every other game, could be make or break for us.
Whilst many may believe that Chester’s last impact for Villa was playing through serious injury to tide the defence over until last January’s window, if he was to return to the side to help halt a poor run of results, their could be yet another chapter in his Aston Villa story.