I have too often read that our current full-backs aren’t up to the standard we as a club should be aiming for and that they will be the reason we could be fighting for survival once again the upcoming season.
I want to paint the players in this department in a better light. However, the left-back position has just been strengthened with a new player, Kieran Richardson, who is yet to make his Villa debut. With uncertainty surrounding the future of the other three left-sided defenders, I want to focus on the right side of our back-line and see if the players in question have what it takes to offer us solidity on that part of the pitch.
Let’s start the search for the right full-back not in Premier League, the lower leagues or abroad but in our very own squad.
When looking at our first team, there are currently four players who could fill in at right-back: Matthew Lowton, Leandro Bacuna, Chris Herd, who is back from his little first team football break, and – freshly recruited from the dismantled ‘Bomb Squad’ – Alan Hutton. We have established that quantity will not be a problem, especially with the talented U21 players Janoi Donacien and Josh Webb, who can both fill in at right-back, also waiting for their chance. So what about the quality then? To find out, one needs to have a closer look at the four players under consideration.
The first one up is Matthew Lowton. After joining Aston Villa in 2012, it didn’t take him long to nail down a place at the right-back position and while his performances weren’t the best right from the start, he improved as the season went on and, considering his role as a defender, his attacking play soon became outstanding. Before long, he was mentioned in the same breath as the English national team. However, this talk disappeared when his second season for Villa was unlike the first and he was an on-and-off player over the whole season. While his defending was never exceptional, the quality of his forward play suddenly dropped, giving Paul Lambert reasons to provide him with some competition, which saw Lowton left out of the first XI far too often for his liking. Nevertheless, I think Lowton’s time at Villa is far from over and if he rediscovers his attacking abilities he can become a real threat once again.
It was Leandro Bacuna who provided competition for Lowton at the right-back-position. While he managed to keep up the forward play of his English team-mate, the Dutchman’s defending was questionable and, because it did not significantly improve, Lowton managed to win back “his” spot towards the end of the season. With Bacuna being a very versatile player, this clearly indicates that Bacuna’s future at Villa lies further up the pitch as an attacking midfielder or, more likely, as a winger. This is where he can make most use of his attacking qualities while leaving most of the defensive work to others.
One who could be responsible for this defensive work is Chris Herd, who has left injuries and other issues behind and is looking forward to a new start at Villa Park. Herd, too, is very versatile and while I think he is more than capable of filling in as a (right-sided) defender, I would suggest that he is given a run in midfield, something Paul Lambert has not done too often but that could be worth a try.
Would that leave us without a defensive-minded option at right-back? No – because our squad has seen an addition in this position that not many expected: Alan Hutton. The player we tried to move on for two season has now been given another chance. Many are critical and his wages may be a good reason for fans to complain but whenever he played during the last two years, on loan or in the national team, his defending and overall input were praised. Combined with his experience, what more could we possibly ask for at the moment? The staff will have all of pre-season to evaluate his role in the team and he might be exactly the player we were looking for in that position.
Having had a look at all four of our options, it is very interesting to see that all four players are quite different from one another and everyone has something unique to offer the team as a whole. They might not be absolute world-beaters but if given the chance to play the way it suits them best the outcome should be quite satisfying. As we have the opportunity to do so, everyone should be played in “their” positions, meaning Lowton would be the attacking wing-back when playing with a three- or five-man-back-line, covered by the additional centre-back. If fielding a conventional four-man-defence when a more defensive right-back is needed, Alan Hutton could be called upon. In both cases this would free up Herd and Bacuna, who would then be available for selection in their natural positions of holding midfielder and winger. Weren’t we looking for new players in these departments? Well, here are two “new”, very well-known options with their best probably yet to come!
I know it is always easy to call for new players once the ones at hand don’t seem to show consistently what is expected from them but with a budget as limited as ours we have to be very careful how we spend our money and I don’t think the right-back position is in need of any outside improvements. The player do need to up their performances, at least to the above-average levels they showed themselves capable of playing at not too long ago. If that is the case then we don’t have to worry about the position that in recent times asked more questions than it answered and it will be the job of our newly-formed managerial duo to ensure that the players give their all when wearing a Villa shirt. If they do, there is no reason not to be optimistic about the challenges ahead.