With the beginning of the new EFL Championship season now just days away, Aston Villa will be glad to see the back of an extremely turbulent summer and must start looking at our problems and one of those is our defensive worries.
Ever since losing the Playoff final to Fulham back at the end of May, every few days seemed to bring news of how Villa was sliding further and further down a path that would’ve resulted in the club being wound up by the courts.
As we now know, that particular threat has been removed and we appear to have landed on our feet by attracting not just one, but two billionaire owners. Yet despite the injection of cash from Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, there are still plenty of concerns for Villa.
Most pressing right now for me just ahead of the new season is the squad. I just don’t think it looks balanced at all. We’re overloaded in some areas and completely lightweight in others. On top of that, right now we also have a bit of an identity crisis. The defence, in particular, is a real issue and I’m not sure that as it stands it is good enough to warrant supporters being confident of mounting a push for the playoffs at least.
For a start, Steve Bruce appears to be ploughing ahead in using a 3-5-2 formation which has seemingly come out of nowhere. More worryingly though is the fact that we look incredibly short of personnel and we are shoehorning people into the system in an attempt to use it. And even more worrying further still is that Bruce seems completely unclear as to who to play there anyway.
James Chester is obviously one of the first names on the teamsheet. However, with interest in the Welsh defender still incredibly high and with Financial Fair Play obligations still to be met, we still cannot be 100% certain that he will be with us come to the end of the transfer window. The club has said he’s not for sale, and there would be an almighty backlash if those words were reneged upon. If he does leave, we are in major trouble, whichever formation we use. However, even if Chester stays, who partners him, especially in three-man defence?
Tommy Elphick is our only other centreback by trade and has operated in the middle of the three on a couple of occasions in pre-season. Personally, I have no problems with having Elphick in the side. He’s had an up and down time of it since joining back in 2016. There have been some less than convincing performances at times but the ex-Bournemouth man has shown he can certainly do a job at this level. His reintroduction into the side in John Terry’s absence during December last year saw Elphick at his best, especially in a crucial 1-0 victory at the Riverside Stadium against Middlesborough where he put in a fantastic defensive display.
During pre-season, we have seen Neil Taylor, Alan Hutton and Mile Jedinak filling in the other slot. For me, Hutton should be nowhere near a back three. There is a lot of love for the Scottish Cafu (and still a lot of hate from some). His endeavour and commitment to the cause cannot be questioned. However, he is, defensively, one of our poorest options. There is a real chance of him becoming isolated in a 3-5-2 system which requires real awareness of his surroundings which is one of his major limitations and I just don’t think he has the discipline to do a good enough job there.
Similarly, Neil Taylor is a fullback and just doesn’t seem a natural fit to play that position. I’m not particularly a fan of the ex-Swansea man at left back as it is and even less enthused should I see him make up the left side of Bruce’s three-man experimental defence. For one thing, he isn’t good enough in the air. If Bruce does go ahead and use this system, I see no role for Taylor at all as he simply does not possess the pace or attacking competence to be effective as a wingback either.
Which really just leaves Jedinak as the alternative option. And we are now talking about a midfielder playing week in week out as a defensive position. And whilst the big Aussie has generally done well when called upon, it seems odd if Bruce is planning on utilising him there consistently. Jedinak is certainly dominating in the air and reads the game well but his lack of pace is worrying as it’s a system which can really fall apart with slower players.
The wingback positions do become a little clearer, however. This could be the season where we finally see what Ritchie De Laet can do for us and he has looked promising during pre-season. He still looked incredibly pacey and after spending time on loan with Royal Antwerp last season has hopefully put his injury nightmare behind him. It would be great to see him get a decent run of games and he has the potential and ability to be an important player for us. He also has the added bonus of being able to operate on both flanks.
Which again brings us to Hutton who has somehow also discovered that he can play on the left as well as the right also. For all defensive faults, a wing-back role perhaps suits him best of all. Despite his advancing years, Hutton is no slouch and possesses really decent pace. He’ll happily run up and down for 90 minutes. However, his threat has an attacking outlet is hampered by his poor crossing which has been one of the most frustrating aspects of his game for years.
The alternative here is Ahmed Elmohamady who similarly, despite being in his thirties, has good pace, and more importantly, a much better delivery than Hutton. For me, I’d deploy De Laet on the left and Elmohamady on the right.
But there is no real strength in depth options. James Bree could perhaps do a decent job but despite being bought from Barnsley due to his attacking performances seems to lack the pace to be an effective wing back. The ideas of using Albert Adomah and Andre Green are laughable and shouldn’t be entertained.
If we do head into the new season sporting a defensive 3-5-2 formation I think we’ll have another slow start on our hands. I don’t think we have the players for it to be used effectively and it feels that we are once again putting square pegs into round holes. On top of that, despite some decent results during pre-season, the performances haven’t been great. We won’t get so lucky in competitive matches.
It’s a major concern as it is how threadbare we look defensively and a 3-5-2 system doesn’t suit the players that we currently have available to us. Unless defensive reinforcements are being looked at between now and the end of the transfer window, I think we could find ourselves playing catch-up due to a slow start for the third season running.