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What happens next at full-back for Aston Villa?

With Àlex Moreno returning to fitness, should Unai Emery stick or twist?

Aston Villa v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

On May 28, Ashley Young walked around Villa Park in the Birmingham sunshine with his children in tow while the Holte End boozily serenaded him and his teammates at the conclusion of an incredible run that returned Villa to Europe. Most thought he’d be there to enjoy the fruits of his labour in the fall.

Alas, it was not to be. After 23 starts and over 2,000 minutes in the 2022/23 season, the club let the soon-to-be 38-year-old go into free agency to the befuddlement of many supporters. Once that happened, it seemed only right to assume that Villa would be shopping for fullbacks in the summer window with Cash as the only right-sided option and Lucas Digne the only healthy left-sided option with Àlex Moreno set to be out until nearly Christmas with a hamstring injury sustained in the heroic 1-1 draw at Anfield in the penultimate game of last season.

Again, Villa’s front office seemed to zig when people thought they should have zagged. They bolstered areas of the squad, particularly in the attacking midfield and backline, which conventional wisdom would have suggested were not areas of need, and ultimately elected not to sign any fullbacks.

It doesn’t matter. As with nearly everything to this point in the 2023/24 season, Villa have come up aces. Not only have Cash and Digne, who were both injured for long periods in the previous campaign, managed to stay on the field but they have drastically improved their games.

Let’s first look at Digne.

Some areas of his game have remained completely the same. His defensive numbers have barely budged and his passing accuracy this season, 75.1%, is identical to his accuracy to last year. The two most noticeable changes to his game are his darts forward into space where he receives through balls, and his willingness to whip in crosses. His progressive passes-received-per-90-minutes figure has jumped from 5.3 to 10.7 (thank you, Pau Torres) and his crosses per 90 have gone from 4.6 to 7.1 per 90.

All that work has resulted in 44 shot-creating actions. That’s more than Ollie Watkins, Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, and Moussa Diaby. *rubs glasses* Oh wait…Digne leads the entire team. It’s 15 more than his total last season in 500 fewer minutes.

Aston Villa v West Ham United - Premier League
Lucas Digne has more shot-creating actions this season than any other Villa player.
Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Then, there’s Cash. The complete opposite type of fullback to Digne. He’s crossing the ball less than ever – averaging just under one per 90. He’s got the lowest progressive passing distance of any Villa backline player at only 170 yards per 90 – down from 227 last season. His defense has been middling. He’s only winning 46% of his challenges and his interceptions and tackles are down.

Who cares? He’s tied for second on the team in xG (3.2) with Douglas Luiz (behind Watkins). He’s also tied with Luiz for second on the team in progressive carries with 27 (behind Diaby). He’s third in shots on target (behind Watkins and Diaby). In fact, his 19 shots this season are nearly triple what they were last season in 800 fewer minutes.

The ways these two have played as foils to one another has given Villa some versatility in attack. The direct running of Cash from the right puts pressure on opposing left-backs to challenge him and track his off-the-ball sprints into the box. The use of space by Digne on the left draws defenders out of central areas and creates opportunities for Watkins & Co. to latch on to Digne’s inviting crosses. It’s these types of options that have Villa sitting second in the Premier League in goals scored.

AZ Alkmaar v Aston Villa FC: Group E - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
Matty Cash’s attacking stats are much better than his defensive stats.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Enter Moreno.

Digne’s play had made us forget about Moreno until he returned to squad training in the last few weeks. Moreno’s instant impact after the January transfer window last season was one of the catalysts that began this current Villa renaissance. Ironically, it was his play at the end of last season that had us forgetting about Digne. Time is a flat circle.

He profiles much more similarly to Cash with the ball, driving at defenders to get to the byline, but then he becomes more Digne-esque trying to pick out runners and find cutbacks for the attackers rather than look to score.

He is also a bit more elusive than his fullback counterparts. He won nearly 40% of his take-ons last season while both Digne (21.4%) and Cash (23.9%) haven’t been quite as able to bypass defenders so far this campaign. His progressive carry distance is also the best among the three at nearly 200 yards per 90 in 2022/23. That’s almost 40 yards more than Digne’s per-90 average this season.

Defensively, there is room for improvement, though. He only won 43% of his challenges last season (Digne currently 61%) and he’s even worse in the air, having only won 37% of his aerial duels last season compared to Digne’s 65% clip so far. Neither of them is imposing; Moreno and Digne are the same height, but Digne is 10-15 pounds heavier and that extra strength gives him an edge from a physicality standpoint.

Aston Villa v Fulham FC - Premier League
Àlex Moreno has impressed Villa fans, but should he walk back into the starting XI?
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

As much as I think Moreno is an outstanding player who can contribute this season, I don’t see how he can unseat Digne. Unai Emery simply cannot bench a player creating four shots per game for this Villa side. The Frenchman has earned his right to be a fixture in the starting XI.

Like Leon Bailey, I see Moreno having huge value as an impact sub when the opponent has tired legs and Villa are looking to put an opponent away or chase a goal at the end of the game. We’ve seen Moreno’s ability to put defenders on skates and if it’s him and Cash both crashing into the box, it could cause some havoc for opposing backlines. As a bonus, it’s convenient that his left-side defensive partner is also a fellow Spaniard and they should be able to gel quickly.

On the right, there’s really nothing doing. It’s the Matty Cash show and will continue to be until Villa find some competition for him at that position. Emery has sometimes pulled Cash to switch to a back three with Konsa sliding over to the right, but if Cash were to go down, there’d be some serious questions about what formation to use. We’ve already seen Callum Chambers take a whack at it against Legia Warsaw and I think we can all agree that was 67 minutes we don’t need to re-live again.

The fullback situation is walking a fine line and the run of fixtures in December will prove as much a test of football as it will a test of fitness and depth. Let’s hope our two stalwarts this season can maintain the standards they’ve set. If not, maybe we can work a transfer to get Young back. He’s already got one assist for Villa this season, after all.