Club football makes a welcome return this weekend after the inconvenient international break and Aston Villa will make the short trip to Molineux to take on promotion rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and one question on everyone’s lips will be who should play at left back.
Villa will enter the game in great form. Four straight victories heading into the break really catapulted us up the table. An unbeaten league run of eight games has also forged a resilience and we’ve looked pretty impenetrable in defence.
Manager Steve Bruce may have spent several games chopping and changing things in midfield and up front at the beginning of the season. However, settled personnel selection at the back has been a key feature in our miserly defence being so consistent.
Apart from the right-back slot, which had seen a little bit of experimentation, the rest of the back four and the goalkeeper have been untouched all season. Sam Johnstone, John Terry, James Chester and Neil Taylor have all played every single minute so far.
Well, almost every single minute. Of course, Taylor is short of a couple due to his sending off at the last knockings during the last outing against Bolton Wanderers. An appeal to overturn the obligatory three-game ban was rejected by the Football League, which presents quite a dilemma and not one that should be taken lightly.
The disruption to a settled back line is one thing. However, the fact that Taylor is the only specialist left back at the club right now is a major cause for concern.
WHO ARE THE REALISTIC OPTIONS?
Birkir Bjarnason is perhaps the only natural left-sided player who could step in. Of course, the major stumbling block is that he is by no means a left back. He has looked uncomfortable in the role when being used there before, noticeably last season in the 2-1 defeat at the City Ground against Nottingham Forest and that was as a wingback which should’ve suited him more than in the flat back four that Bruce will hopefully stick with.
Almost laughably, our hand seems forced to look at which of our right backs are able to switch over and best do the job.
Ritchie De Laet seems best qualified, having played left back during various points in his career. However, there are huge question marks over the Belgian right now.
Having sustained a serious knee injury in just his third appearance in a Villa shirt, De Laet has found himself way down the pecking order for even a chance in his favoured right back position. A sole league outing this season saw him complete just over an hour in the 2-1 loss to Reading at the Madjeski back in August, although he did complete ninety minutes in the Carabao Cup loss to Middlesbrough.
I wouldn’t be overjoyed to see a far from match fit De Laet line up against a pacy Wolves side. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of being able to ease him back into things.
Incredibly the path may turn towards Alan Hutton. Despite his spirited performances over the last couple of seasons which earned him unlikely cult status among the fans, the Scot has since been eased out of the side and rightfully so.
It is no coincidence that the defence has looked much tighter in his absence. A return to the side, at left back no less, would surely be asking for trouble. Being caught out of position became an almost weekly occurrence and that was in his own right back slot. Frighteningly, however, Bruce has used the ex-Spurs man at left back, most recently during that Carabao Cup match with Boro, hinting that he may be a serious contender.
James Bree may be the best option of the bunch to deputise for Taylor though. Despite lacking the experience in the position, for me, the nineteen-year-old is by far the most comfortable on the ball and could make a smooth transition over to the left for a short time.
The extra positive in this choice is that Bree is in desperate need of minutes. Although it wouldn’t be in his preferred position, any game time would be welcome at the moment and it is important that the January purchase from Barnsley isn’t left to stagnate.
With age on his side to learn, a short spell on the left could also possibly have long-term benefits for the club. With the right-back berth now occupied by the impressive Ahmed Elomhamady, a stint at left back could be the beginning of Bree learning the role and becoming an option to use in both full-back positions if needed. An injury, or another suspension, further down the line for Taylor would see us in the same boat. Getting Bree used the position now could be invaluable.
Mitch Clark must also be given a mention in all of this. Although another right back by trade, the youngster has played at left back previously also. However, it is extremely unlikely that Bruce will throw a kid who has yet to make his league debut into an unfamiliar position and in such an important run of games.
It’s a tough decision and there is no stand out option as to who to should fill in. But for me, James Bree should get the nod. Hutton shouldn’t be considered and Bjarnason has struggled badly there previously. De Laet is the next best call, but I think the possible long-term benefits of Bree starting at left back gives him the edge.
I do think that it is extremely important for Bruce to make the right call on this one though and stick with it for the next few games until Taylor returns. Chopping and changing again will only have a negative impact on a defence that relies on consistency to be effective.
It’s a tough run of games and I do think that Taylor’s absence will have an effect on our watertight defence. Minimising the damage in the next few games will be crucial.