The Aston Villa Defence – the Key to Villa Success Next Season?


The Aston Villa Defence – it’s potential for growth and improvement


Looking at Aston Villa on the field with trends in the world game in mind, Shelley turns her attention to the Achilles heel of the young Aston Villa team, its defence. While Villa’s attacking play essentially kept the club up last season, if the team is to progress next season, all must be right at the back.


By Shelley Osbourne


Paul Lambert would have allowed himself a pained, if rueful, smile of appreciation as he watched an organised and ruthless Bayern Munich overpower underdogs Borussia Dortmund in the recent Champions League final at Wembley.

Bundesliga watchers will know that Bayern have conceded a measly 18 goals in 34 league games this season, and three of these goals were conceded in a dead-rubber match against Mönchengladbach in the final game of the season.  Incredible.

Paul Lambert’s young Villa side in comparison have conceded, somewhat shockingly,  69 goals in the 2012 / 2013 season with only Wigan and Reading conceding more with 73.  The most humiliating display was of course, the 8-0 away defeat to Chelsea on Boxing Day, where Lambert’s young lions left the field dejected and helpless.


The Villa defence react to yet another own goal


Interestingly, Bayern’s incredible defensive record this season was not achieved through Catenaccio, the defensive system referred to in Italy as ‘the door bolt‘, or as Jose Mourinho more recently coined in the Premier League, ‘parking the bus‘.  Bayern alternatively employed a tactical system which Pep Guardiola successfully implemented in his first season as Barca first team coach; the attacking / high pressing 4-3-3 system with pace in wide areas and a dominant defensive midfielder.  The high pressing 4-3-3 system aims to attack an opponent whilst maintaining control of the midfield.  Paul Lambert has recently played the 4-3-3 system with three orthodox midfielders, Sylla, Westwood and Delph.

Catenaccio, in comparison, is a familiar concept to Villa fans.  Alex McLeish’s 2011 / 2012 team embodied the true meaning of the word.  The primary objective of Catenaccio is to nullify the opponents attacking potential and mitigate against the risk of goal scoring opportunities.  Catenaccio teams look to capitalise in ‘transition’ i.e. when the opponent concedes possession of the ball and an opportunity to counter attack, or gain territorial advantage for a set piece presents itself.  McLeish’s Villa side accumulated a record 17 draws during the 2011 / 2012 season, sufficiently supporting the view that his idea was to set his team up not to lose, rather than taking risks to win.  As a result, McLeish also managed the fewest wins of any Premier League manager in the 2011 / 2012 season – 7.  McLeish’s ‘defensive’ team still managed to concede 53 goals, which was 16 less goals than Lambert’s side this season, but still worryingly open for a team which once fielded eight defenders in a single team sheet.

Lambert’s defence during the 2012 / 2013 season has included much younger and more attack minded defenders.  Three of the back four were new signings who hadn’t played in the Premier League before, with one academy player making up the four (either Clark or Baker).

This has been Ciaran Clark’s first season playing regularly as centre back.  Clark has been labelled as a ball-playing centre half from a young age and his development has seen him play in defensive midfield, where other great ball-playing centre backs have developed.  The young Irish defender has had technical issues to overcome this season.  Chiefly, his habit of grappling with opposition strikers and holding onto their shirt.  Clark has also struggled at times with high quality movement, such as Javier Hernandez at Villa Park.  This criticism, however, can also be leveled at his other defensive colleagues.

In England, there are not many ‘in between the lines‘ players, and academy players can be forgiven for having to learn from their mistakes against magicians such as Mata, Silva, Cazorla and Hazard in the Premier League.   In Clark’s defence, he has stopped holding onto players shirts and he played a really good (hands free) match before he was recently injured.  I hope next season that Lambert continues to play with a defensive midfielder which would allow Clark to step into midfield, commit an opposition midfielder, and start an attack.  This is Clark’s best attribute and in all I think he has had a good season where he has learnt some important lessons.

Another academy boy, Nathan Baker, has played a very important role for the club this season.  Baker started the season as Aston Villa’s fourth choice centre back behind Vlaar, Dunne and Clark . The Worcester-born defender watched most of the first half of the season from the bench, or occasionally replaced Joe Bennett with impressive games in the left back position.  In the second half of the season, with Dunne’s injury, Baker replaced Clark following a dip in Clark’s form, after initially filling in for Vlaar or Clark when they were injured.  This has also been Baker’s breakthrough season which will, like Clark, provide him with valuable experiences ahead of the 2013 / 2014 season.

Baker is more a penalty box defender than Clark and he was labelled as a ‘future John Terry’ when he played for the England under 21 team.  Baker has certainly shown JT’s courage in throwing his head where many wouldn’t in defence of the Villa goal.  He has suffered a few injuries as a result of his bravery, but the fearlessness of the youngster is something you simply cannot coach.  In criticism, Baker sometimes lacks positional awareness and he needs to be more confident and less hurried in possession.  Furthermore, Baker has dived in and conceded a penalty (not surprising for a 21 year old), conceded some bizarre own goals and needs to keep his arms by his sides….. but in all, this was a very impressive season from the academy player.

Rumours that both Baker and Clark will be offered contract extensions is good news for the club.  If they can add to their game by scoring goals and ironing out some of their weaknesses, they have the potential to be top players like their predecessor, Gary Cahill.

Ron Vlaar is the ‘old head’ in the Aston Villa defence at 28 years old.  The Dutch international defender has played his first season in the Premier League and he will be forgiven for also needing time to adapt to a stronger league.  Vlaar started the year impressively in preseason and many will remember his confident early runs into midfield which made a welcome change from McLeish’s rigid defensive block.  Such runs from defence dried up as the season progressed, either through a lack of confidence in his defensive colleagues covering his position, or through Lambert’s tactical instructions.  However, Vlaar has shown glimpses of more attacking intent in the close of the season.  Most notably with his powerful run and strike at home against Sunderland, quickly followed by a second goal of the season against Wigan.

Defensively, however, the team need more from ‘Concrete’ Ron next season.  It is perhaps revealing to observe that Vlaar has only picked up one yellow card this season, compared to Matt Lowton who has seen 10 yellow cards flashed in his direction.  As an experienced older head, the Dutch international needs to commit himself more defensively and also needs to be more switched on regarding what is happening around him.  Villa have conceded a frustrating 21% of their goals through set pieces, and Ron needs to help organise the defence more vocally as the experienced player.  The first two goals conceded against Manchester United at Old Trafford perhaps best demonstrate the weaknesses of a defence lacking a natural leader.

Vlaar is an improvement on Richard Dunne however.  Dunne was signed in the autumn of his career by Martin O’Neill and rapidly lost his pace and mobility under Alex McLeish.  Dunne had come to resemble a pensioner slowly pulling across a motorway lane in a Volvo and getting in the way of faster cars towards the end of his Villa career.  It has been a so-so season for Vlaar, but as he admits, the young Lions need to cut out the defensive mistakes next season – Vlaar included.

Joe Bennett was brought to the club from Middlesbrough last summer as rumours circulated that Lambert was interested in both Cresswell and Bennett.  It was an indication, perhaps, that Joe was home sick when he joined Villa, as his Twitter bio simply stated, “Ex Middlesbrough player.  Recently signed for Aston Villa“.  The bio remained unchanged throughout the season.

Bennett has played some bright games for the club and I remember him having a very strong game at White Hart Lane against Aaron Lennon.  However, the left-back has also made frequent errors and lost concentration too.  In Bennett’s favour, he looks exciting when his confidence is up.  He is nippy, attacking, likes to dart inside and link up and is a big improvement offensively from the turgid and dour Stephen Warnock.

Bennett’s biggest problem is his tendency to drop his head when things don’t go his way.  Something he was prone to at Boro under Gordon Strachan, and the boy does seem to suffer when he has a bad game.  Nothing a good sports psychologist couldn’t sort out, after all, even Cristiano Ronaldo has a sports psychologist on call 24 hours a day.

Bennett can also look to build up his upper body strength during the summer to avoid being muscled off the ball.  A lack of upper body strength resulted in Joe conceding a penalty against Norwich is the 1-2 away win.  Bennett is a talented full back though as Villa fans saw in his game against Sunderland and if he can add physical and mental strength to his game, he can progress to the next level.

The defensive star player of the season has undoubtedly been Matt Lowton.  When Matt signed for the club, he was the first lower league played Lambert brought to Aston Villa, and I remember the reception was a little bewildered and muted amongst Villa fans.  Among the few people in the media who endorsed Lowton’s signing was Sky Sports Jeff Stealing who enthusiastically said, “Matt Lowton, goal scoring full back!” to the grumbles and indifference of Paul Merson.  In reflection however, the former Sheffield United defender is more than just a goal scoring full back, he is a playmaker.

Lowton’s performance against Sunderland had the stats men frothing, as his defensive and attacking qualities shone through. While he is not as pacey as his fellow Sheffield United graduate Kyle Walker, Lowton has a much better football brain.  He anticipates the game very well, is comfortable on the ball, he knows how to pick a pass and is already thinking about where he should run to before the pass is made.

Lowton can still develop however.  Gary Neville pointed out one of the mistakes the Villa defender made against Arsenal, where he was out thought by a clever dummy run on the wing instigated by Podolski.  Neville commented that he had made similar mistakes when he was a young full back, but knowing the tough character and competitiveness of Lowton, you know he will learn from this experience and work on his game to make himself an even better player.

All members of the Aston Villa defence have things they can work on for next season, and there should be reinforcements brought in, as Paul Lambert looks to strengthen for next season. It’s certainly the part of the team that improvement will reap the biggest increase of league points. Last season, if it wasn’t for silly defensive mistakes and inexperience, Lambert would have had a top-half team on his hands already. UTV


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