A first home defeat of the season last Saturday at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday has created somewhat of an anti-climax around Villa Park heading into the international break. The 2-1 reversal could perhaps have been stomached on its own. However, coupled with the news that influential captain John Terry (who has been a defensive mainstay so far this season) will also be out for the next few months thanks to a broken metatarsal bone in his foot, a familiar wave of despair has swept across supporters.
Terry’s departure on twenty-one minutes on Saturday seemed to have an immediate impact. Whilst Adam Reach’s seventeen-second worldly opener cannot be legislated for, Wednesday’s second goal came just a couple of minutes after Terry was withdrawn. Our normally rock-solid defence suddenly looked much more vulnerable.
This one result shouldn’t cause a meltdown. Although, as a side point, I do think it highlights that we are not consistent enough to grab one of the automatic promotion spots as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The real question is to what extent, if any, could Terry’s absence derail us? And were we ever really prepared for it in the defensive area?
The initial reaction is that he will rightly be a huge loss. After a less than convincing start to life in the Championship, the ex-Chelsea man has looked completely at home at this level in the last couple of months. His reading of the game has been exemplary and his leadership and organisation of the defensive line are key factors in us having one of the league’s meanest defensive records.
As well as his own game, you get the impression that he has helped improve James Chester as well and that particular partnership has been immense. Throw into the mix that both centrebacks had played every minute of every game so far and there is real concern that the breaking up of that continuity will also be keenly felt.
Some sections of support have been vocal in lambasting Bruce for using a thirty-six-year-old so heavily, so first of all, we must debunk the myth that Terry’s injury is due to having played so much football. This isn’t a hamstring strain or a ‘wear and tear’ injury. In fact, Terry seemed to be growing into playing regularly and showed no obvious signs of fatigue.
However, we all knew that at some point Terry would likely either be injured or in need of being rested. Playing forty-six games seemed an unrealistic expectation given his age and the quickfire turnaround of games that this league demands.
That for me is perhaps the real issue; have we ever really been prepared to go without Terry? or Chester for that matter?
I think it is fair to say that no one is particularly enamoured with our reserve defensive options which are why there is somewhat of a panic brewing. Each option has obvious weaknesses and flaws.
Chris Samba looks to be first in line to deputise for Terry and was brought on to replace the injured talisman against Wednesday. It would perhaps be unfair to highlight his part in Jordan Rhodes’ goal having just entered the pitch and for the most part, he seemed fairly at ease for the remainder of the game. And yet, despite showing some promise during pre-season friendlies, serious question marks have been raised in the competitive League Cup matches that he featured in this season.
The Congo international, for me, is a player who really gets shown up if he isn’t match-fit. There is a clumsiness in the tackle and to use the old adage, I’ve seen milk turn quicker than Samba. However, he is powerful and his dominance in the air is certainly a plus point. Whilst maybe slow on the turn, once he does get moving, he is surprisingly quick. Most importantly, he has shown a desire to play for the club in the way that he won his contract with us.
Similarly, the commitment of Tommy Elphick can’t be questioned either. This is a man who cut short his honeymoon in order to sign for Villa. We can’t ignore that fact that the former Bournemouth captain has struggled in claret and blue though. A lack of pace undermines his defensive qualities and that often causes rash tackles in an attempt to make up for mistakes. In many ways, it is a toss-up between him and Samba as to who would be the better option; both are full bloodied and committed but both have similar weaknesses which could ultimately cost the team goals.
I’m reluctant to even list Micah Richards as an option, but just for completeness, I will. He has proven time and time again that he is not and will never be, a centre back. As well as a questionable attitude, he clearly does not possess the composure or the footballing brain to play that position. There should be no further discussion on Richards and as far as I’m concerned the sooner he exits the club the better.
Likewise, Alan Hutton should not be considered for the position also. Although having deputised surprisingly well for Neil Taylor at left back, we have seen first-hand evidence that Hutton does not fare well at centre back. For me, this option is also a non-starter.
With the youth team currently flourishing, Bruce could also take a look integrating prospects such as Easah Suliman and Jacob Bedeau. However, with little first team experience and with such crucial games coming up, it would take an almighty leap of faith from Bruce to throw them straight into the first team. Suliman in particular though has looked promising at youth level and perhaps would benefit from some minutes towards the end of games if we’re in a comfortable position. However, using youth as a solution in Terry’s absence seems too cavalier.
Perhaps the best option of all isn’t even a defender by trade. Mile Jedinak has just returned from a lengthy groin injury and his comeback could be extremely timely. Last season, Bruce elected to use Jedinak as a centreback solution during a game, ironically the same fixture at Villa Park against Sheffield Wednesday, and the ‘beard to be feared’ didn’t put a foot wrong. While the issue of pace is again a factor, you get the feeling that similar to Terry, Jedinak’s reading of the game is superior to Elphick’s and Samba’s and reduces that feeling of an inevitable penalty being given or a red card being shown for a last-ditch despairing lunge.
Whilst Jedinak may represent the best option, one thing is clear; there is no obvious answer and that is an issue. With Elphick seemingly surplus to requirements and Bruce clearly not keen on him, that leaves the acquisition of Samba as Bruce’s solution for cover for either Terry or Chester. Is that a good enough? Not for me.
We all knew that we were extremely unlikely to get forty-six games out of Terry. Whilst an injury of this magnitude couldn’t necessarily be foreseen, we were always running the risk of being derailed in this manner. This doesn’t just apply to Terry. We’d be in a similar position if Chester had picked up an injury. The defensive cover just isn’t good enough or reliable enough, standard for a team looking to gain promotion.
In some ways, the injury to Terry is actually preferable to that had Chester been sidelined as we could’ve been stuck with a pairing with a combined age of almost seventy years old.
People will point to the sale of Nathan Baker as being a mistake and whilst he would clearly be the obvious solution if he were he still at the club, the lure of first-team football was understandably too much for him. I don’t necessarily blame Bruce or the club for sanctioning the sale. However, the failure to source a more ‘for-like’ replacement to Baker, certainly in terms of age, seems incredibly shortsighted.
In fairness to Bruce, it is a difficult situation to convince a player of a decent calibre to stick around and play second fiddle on the off chance they would be needed and certainly, you won’t get players of the standard of Terry or Chester to just come and slot in, but, it does feel that we’ve neglected the options at the back somewhat.
Terry’s injury brings to light how we’ve tried to do things on the cheap, in terms of securing defensive cover. Of course, due to Financial Fair Play regulations, that’s what we’ve had to do, which goes back to how the club has frittered away so much money over the last couple of years. There literally was no other choice, except to maybe fast track one or two of the youngsters.
Bruce may well have earmarked Jedinak as an option for defensive cover as well as bringing in Samba and felt he had addressed the issue. However, the crucial flaw, if that is the case, is that both Samba and Jedinak are also hugely injury prone themselves. I can’t see either of them going through the next few months without being sidelined at some point.
Jedinak’s groin seems to hang by a thread and has been a persistent problem since he came to us from Crystal Palace and Samba’s later career has been littered with various injuries. There is a reason he was struggling to find a club.
It does seem that we will be rolling the dice somewhat and crossing our fingers game to game that whoever Bruce selects to come in for Terry makes it through unscathed. God help us if Chester picks up an injury also.
But now, all we can do is wait to see how the remainder of the year pans out. I get the horrible feeling that we won’t be keeping quite as many clean sheets over the next few months though. That could have huge consequences on our chances of promotion.