In MOMS’ book there were three players that were on the fringes of Villa first team, that would attract interest from other clubs during the January transfer window. The question was, if they went, would Villa have a weaker squad?
Ritchie de Laet went moving to Belgian club Royal Antwerp on a season-long loan, but Villa were already well stocked in the right-back department.
Another possibility was Birkir Bjarnason, but his recent rise in the first team changed his initial thoughts of moving on during the window. Also, he’s given Bruce a positive selection headache now at the defensive midfield (DM) position.
Three players bought in very much to play that role, Mile Jedinak, Glenn Whelan and new boy Axel Tuanzebe are currently sitting on the bench, and none of them are likely to offer what the Icelandic international demonstrated against Sheffield United.
Which brings us to Tommy Elphick.
Elphick was always a player, that if he went, would split opinion the most. Following his improved form covering for John Terry, he reset what a lot of Villa supporters thought about him based on his performances last season.
When John Terry got injured at the end of last year, Steve Bruce tried every permutation to replace the captain rather than go with what seemed the obvious option, at least to MOMS, of playing Elphick.
Elphick, who had previously captained the unlikely lads of Bournemouth to a Premier League promotion, surely hadn’t turned into a naff player overnight?
First Chris Samba got the nod, but after being caught out at Sheffield Wednesday, question marks over his sharpness and mobility were raised.
Then Bruce went for Mile Jedinak, hoping the defensive midfielder would transition into a cultured centre-back option. The Australian, who had previously played DM, as a kind of advanced casual sweeper, found himself flustered when he had to be the last line of defence.
Jedinak was dubious against Derby and then directly cost Villa two points at home to Sheffield United, after Villa looked like they were going to race away with the game.
Step forward Tommy Elphick.
Elphick’s performances helped turn Villa around from their December slump and in MOMS opinion, he was even the man of the match against Middlesborough , as Villa’s form flipped back to the positive.
So the question has to be asked, if John Terry or James Chester picked up a long-term injury in this season’s run-in, who’s going to replace them?
Elphick and Chester was a perfectly good enough partnership to get the promotion job done, in MOMS opinion, but what are the alternatives now?
Mile Jedinak? A risk based on the evidence we’ve seen.
Chris Samba? He’s ok to fill in for the odd game, but teams can plan to exploit his lack of mobility, if they know he’s a regular fixture.
Axel Tuanzebe? While from all reports, the 20-year-old is a decent prospect and versatile (playing RB, CB and DM), he’s inexperienced and comes with no guarantees. Obviously the United youngster coming in on-loan signalled that Elphick would be heading out.
Look at how many of Villa’s recent acquisitions have taken time to adjust to playing for Villa. Elphick was blooded in this campaign and obviously has plenty of experience at this level, while Tuanzebe has none.
While this train of thought isn’t knocking Tuanzebe, who does provide extra competition and depth, he obviously came to play, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear indication of where.
While Bruce proved in last summer’s transfer window that he didn’t have much faith in Elphick, the player’s performances over the winter period seemed to have changed the Villa manager’s thinking.
“Tommy has put himself right back in the equation,” said Bruce.
“You can never say never but I’m not going to sell regulars, put it that way. I have not thought about it. I’m mindful of the fact a good pro like Tommy wants to play. We’ll see. I have no problems with not letting anyone out.”
It’s the last sentence that may sum up what actually happened.
There had been reported interest in Elphick from both Millwall and Leeds, so of course, if Elphick wanted regular first-team football and insisted on a move (maybe this is why he was benched in the FA Cup, when he really should have been playing alongside Terry), then Bruce was good to his word and Tuanzebe was the insurance policy.
While we haven’t seen Tuanzebe in action yet, if you were hedging your bets, you would say, that the Villa squad is weaker now from a defensive point of view.
Hopefully, it won’t be an issue, but there’s currently no solution to replacing either Chester or Terry long-term that Villa could feel totally comfortable with.