The anticipation for the new season is beginning to intensify and the excitement is now building by the day amongst supporters. Buoyed by the arrival of marquee signing John Terry, there is a real optimism that promotion will be achieved. With several weeks still to go, the squad will undoubtedly take further shape with a few more incomings, but also several outgoings. One area that needs clearing out, in particular, is at right back.
Villa is currently overloaded with options in the right-back position. Alan Hutton somehow still manages to keep his head above water despite several managers bringing in replacements for the Scot. The unfortunate Ritchie De Laet is back in full training after the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament injury struck just three games into his Villa career, whilst the promising James Bree will look to make inroads after his move from Barnsley back in January. Forgotten man Micah Richards is also still at the club and enjoying the benefits of his lucrative contract.
Of those four options, for me, it is easy to strike one of them out of the equation immediately. Richards’ spell at Villa has been little short of a disaster. Regarded as somewhat of a coup when brought in by Tim Sherwood on a free, the former Manchester City man has suffered from a lack of fitness and form. His conduct off the pitch has been far from exemplary also. An infamous incident after a lacklustre 1-1 draw in an F.A Cup tie against Wycombe Wanderers saw Richards’ gain some credit for at least fronting up by speaking to supporters in the crowd.
In truth, there was a complete lack of understanding of what supporters were going through. Several disputes with fans on social media along the way showed just how far removed he was. Most noticeably, being pictured having a great time in Dubai along with Gabby Agbonlahor just as the club was being relegated. The accompanying message from Richards took the biscuit; in response to one particular supporters criticism, Richards’ retort of ‘Excuse us for having a few days away after a long hard season’ was insensitive beyond belief. This was at a time when the season hadn’t even ended. If it was tough for him, then there was no thought for the fans. I’m not saying he shouldn’t take a trip away but at least think about how things are going to look in the circumstances. He completely epitomised everything that was wrong with the players during that season. And he was supposed to be our captain! The right back completely failed in that role. Another spat, this time with Ian Wright, occurred after the pundit dared to, correctly, criticise Richards’ for leaving huge gaps in the defence after an appalling 2-0 loss to fellow strugglers Norwich City. It was embarrassing that Richards’ even tried to defend his particularly shocking performance, showing a complete ignorance to the problem.
Another spat, this time with Ian Wright, occurred after the pundit dared to, correctly, criticise Richards’ for leaving huge gaps in the defence after an appalling 2-0 loss to fellow strugglers Norwich City. It was embarrassing that Richards’ even tried to defend his particularly shocking performance, showing a complete ignorance to the problem.
It must be noted that Richards’ shocking performances came whilst playing as a centre-back rather than a right back. However, even when played in his more familiar position, he failed to excel and looked a far cry from the rampaging youngster that broke through at City. On top of all this, a substantial saving on wages could be made by giving Richards a free transfer and cutting our losses. To be blunt, there is no future for him at Aston Villa.
Perhaps the most controversial of our right back options is the bulletproof Alan Hutton. Firmly cemented now as a cult hero, Hutton has fought his way back from complete obscurity and, to be honest, was treated appallingly by the club as part of the notorious ‘bomb squad’ under Paul Lambert. As mentioned, he has seen off all comers through a combination of luck through injuries to others and determination to take his chances and prove his worth. His effort and commitment have been exceptionally consistent during a period where most others around him have hidden away.
If we are looking to build a team going forwards then we really should be looking to move Hutton out of the picture. It’s been great to see him finally have his day and rightly earning praise but it can’t be denied that there are huge flaws in his game. The effort to get up the pitch to support the attack is in no doubt, however, the quality of the crossing once up there is poor. It may seem harsh to pick on a defender’s attacking qualities but the truth is that Hutton often leaves us exposed by not being able to get back into position too often. For every crunching tackle that is well timed and gets the crowd going, there are several clumsy attempts which put us under pressure.
I do think that Hutton can do a job at Championship level, and Sheffield Wednesday is reported to be interested. He’s not a bad option to have but at the age of thirty-two, I believe playing Hutton would now be to the detriment of our other options that we have in the squad.
Richie De Laet and James Bree
That leaves me with De Laet and Bree. Both were bought with the intention of replacing Hutton and I believe they should be competing with each other for the right-back position. It is difficult to say who should be starting though; we have barely seen either of them play in a Villa shirt so far.
It is a huge pre-season for De Laet and he’ll be keen to make up for lost time. As we have seen on many occasions, it is almost impossible for players to come back and hit the ground running after such a bad injury. This gives Bree an advantage and could see him start the season as the first choice.
On merit, however, perhaps the Belgian edges ahead. De Laet is, after all, a Premier League and Championship winner with Leicester, as well as gaining a secondary promotion whilst on loan at Middlesbrough. He is certainly capable at this level and has that experience of winning which could be crucial.
Yet Bree, who at nineteen years old, would perhaps benefit the most by playing games now. He impressed hugely at Barnsley, and glimpses of quality were seen in a Villa shirt, but injury prevented any real chance of settling into the side properly. Surely sitting on the bench would only see his progress halt completely? Perhaps the fact that he is a Steve Bruce signing as opposed to De Laet being a Roberto Di Matteo purchase could also be a decisive factor as to who gets the nod.
The formation that Bruce chooses to play could also have a bearing on things. A three at the back system is being touted with Terry’s arrival which would see the use of wingbacks. This would seem to suit Bree better as a more attacking option. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks in pre-season friendlies how this particular headache unfolds.
We really shouldn’t be surprised if Bruce sticks with Hutton. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the Scottish Cafu has upset the odds to see off his competition.