Aston Villa’s win against Norwich City on Saturday has once again given us a glimmer of hope that we may actually be able to save ourselves. It was a rare win yet, in truth, performances and results have generally being picking up for the last six weeks or so. Whilst we haven’t capitalised completely on a decent run of winnable fixtures, we are no longer losing five or six games on the spin and are largely being competitive.
It is no coincidence that a change in personnel on the field has contributed to this. Brad Guzan – dropped. Alan Hutton – injured. Kieran Richardson – dropped (but still sadly at the club and making the odd appearance from the bench). Add to this the overdue realisation that Micah Richards should not be playing at centre-back plus the fact we have much more cohesion in attacking areas without the statuesque Rudy Gestede starting games and we are looking much better, albeit without too much to show for it, still eight points adrift currently.
In the form table, which takes into account the last six league games, we have reached the giddy heights of eleventh place. I think a much safer pair of hands in Mark Bunn has been absolutely crucial in this upturn in form: in my mind, Guzan has cost us around ten points this season through one inept blunder after the other (games against Crystal Palace away, Sunderland away and at Villa Park, Leicester City, Norwich City away and Newcastle United spring to mind instantly), as well as creating mistrust and uncertainty in an already fragile defence.
However, for me, Jores Okore has been the most important factor in all of this. Furthermore, he is potentially our most important player over the coming years.
At the beginning of November, after our poor start to the season, I decided to have a close look at our players and offered my opinion of each member of the Aston Villa squad. My entry for Okore read:
I think this kid could be the real deal. Hopefully now injury free, I would love to see him get a run of games and impose himself. So unfortunate to get such a bad injury so soon after joining which has set him back and he was playing with an injury still towards the back end of last season. That sort of dedication cannot be underestimated and plenty of others in a similar situation would not play. Strong and quick, I think he has the potential to lead us from the back and underpin some stability in our defence.
I am even more resolute in my assessment of him now after several impressive performances.
Okore’s presence has settled the whole defence, in my opinion. Joleon Lescott looked completely out of his depth upon his arrival and, combined with Richards, was so shaky and error prone. Partnered with Okore, however, Lescott has been able to play a more natural game and has become an important and dependable player for us. It’s incredible to think that a seasoned pro like Lescott has needed a twenty-three-year-old alongside him to flourish rather than being the steady hand himself, but the responsibility of trying to cover Richards was obviously a large part of the problem for him.
Okore also formed a decent partnership with Ciaran Clark at the back end of Paul Lambert’s tenure as manager and subsequently with Ron Vlaar. It is an impressive and crucial trait to be able to have that compatibility with several different partners and it’s testament to Okore’s talent to be able to look comfortbale with whoever he is paired with.
Some simple statistics back up Okore’s importance. We have played twenty-five league games and conceded forty goals in total so far. With Okore out of the side, we have played sixteen games and conceded thirty-two goals – two goals per game. In the nine league games he’s been in the side, we’ve conceded just eight goals. Maths bods don’t need telling this is less than a goal a game. Breaking it down even further, two of those goals were against West Ham last week when conceding was always likely, having to play with ten men for seventy-five minutes.
Perhaps most noticeably and telling of all is the fact that Okore was absent from the squad for the abject Christmas fixture at Carrow Road, where we lost 2-0 against Norwich City, and then was an unused substitute in the gutless 3-1 defeat at Sunderland a few days later.
Furthermore, we have kept clean sheets in three of the last five games, having previously kept just two in the last twenty. Of course, Okore was playing in these recent shutouts and whilst they occurred against Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, not exactly the most free-scoring of sides, each of them scored against us (and beat us) in the reverse fixtures earlier in the season when Okore was still out injured.
It’s not just the statistics that are impressive (fourteen interceptions against Norwich City last weekend by the way…). I absolutely believe that Okore is the iconic, solid and dependable centre back we’ve been missing so desperately, probably since Olof Mellberg departed. We have a rich history of these immense centre back leaders, certainly in my own time watching Aston Villa. The aforementioned Mellberg, Martin Laursen, Ugo Ehiogu, Gareth Southgate, Shaun Teale and, of course, Paul McGrath were great players for Aston Villa. Whilst the likes of Ron Vlaar, Richard Dunne, James Collins and even Alpay Ozalan (before he became public enemy number one) were solid and dependable without becoming legends, we have been also making do and getting by with the likes of Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark more recently in our history, which isn’t sufficient for my liking (both full of endeavour but not quite good enough). If there is one thing Villa fans love as much as a big man up top banging in the goals in a number 9 shirt, it’s a towering centre back who puts everything on the line for the club in his performances and really makes a difference to the whole team.
Physically, Okore has all the attributes needed – strength, pace and power – to be playing at the highest level. He reads the game quite well already and, at just twenty-three, this skill will only improve. Mentally, I believe he ticks all the boxes also. He is brave and fearless. He doesn’t duck out of challenges. It is imperative to note an important difference in a player’s bravery, however. Micah Richards is a great example of this – he isn’t worried about being hurt and he plays with passion yet he is clumsy and overexciteable and becomes rash at times. Frankly, he reminds me of Scrappy Doo. Take a more cultured defender such as Martin Laursen who won everything in the air and defended with everything he had but with so much more assurance and exeuded confidence; think Spike from Tom & Jerry. The difference in this comparison, I hope, is obvious. I believe Okore possesses the calmness whilst losing none of the urgency and awareness which mark him out as an extremely gifted defender.
The obvious sticking point with Okore is his injury record. Just three games into his Villa career he suffered the dreaded ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury. Returning more than a year later, he became a regular in the side towards the end of Lambert’s reign and Sherwood kept him in the side. It was revealed he had been playing towards the end of last season with a knee injury that required surgery this summer and a further six months went by with Okore out of action. Several other niggling knee complaints have surfaced since, noticeably the ones which forced him to sit out those dreadful Norwich and Sunderland games over the festive period, but the general consensus is that Okore should be clear of his injury nightmares after successful and sufficient rehabilitation. Of course, this remains to be seen.
The other worry, and much more pressing for me, is that there are now fewer than eighteen months left on Okore’s contract. While a less than perfect injury record could see this drag on while fitness is proved to the Villa hierarchy, the smart idea would be to offer an extension to the contract as soon as possible. Despite appearing in just thirty-five league games for Villa in three years, the guy’s potential is absolutely clear to see and he is our most consistent centre back by a huge distance.
I would say he is vital to any chance we have of survival. If we do end up going down, one of my biggest concerns would be Okore feeling the need to move on. I also consider him to be just as fundamental to any chance we have of coming straight back up. I firmly believe he is one of our most important players right now, if not the most important, and he is also one for the future.
I get the impression that Okore actually loves the Villa and wouldn’t be averse to staying with us. Sitting with the fans in the pre-season fixture at Walsall highlights what sort of a guy he is and shows a connection to us and the club. This in itself is an extremely welcome characteristic.
Oh, and how could I forget… that grin.
Extend his contract and make him captain! Dodgy knees never harmed McGrath or Laursen!