Aston Villa has been on the front foot since the summer transfer window opened and a flurry of new signings have helped to create a real buzz of excitement amongst supporters. When new signings arrive, existing players are often overlooked. Is it the right time to phase out James Chester?
Lazy comparisons with Fulham’s ultimately doomed attempt at strengthening last year has become a by-product of our own spending spree. However, everyone connected with the club can see the major differences. After releasing so many players after our playoff final victory, we simply had to replace bodies.
In particular, our defence is currently in the process of major reconstruction. Dean Smith did wonders in patching up the threadbare backline that he inherited from the negligent Steve Bruce. It was only ever a short term fix though with the loan signings of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause coming in, as well as Tommy Elphick being recalled from a loan stint at Hull City that he should never have been sent on in the first place.
Of course, both Mings and Hause have now been signed up permanently. And in addition, Smith has added a further centre back option in Ezri Konsa from Brentford and the imminent arrival of Bjorn Engels from Reims looks set to be another.
However, possibly being overlooked in all this is Captain Chester.
Is Chester being overlooked?
There has been a lot of discussion about Chester recently among Villa fans and not all of it as complimentary as it perhaps should be. First of all, I think it’s incredibly important to recognize the contribution he has made over the last three years. Not least, his commitment during the first half of last season.
Everyone could see the Welshman wasn’t fit and playing through an injury. This meant that at times, Chester wasn’t as reliable as usual. Several noticeably mistimed tackles led to penalties against Reading and Preston, the latter even resulting in a red card.
Chester was clearly struggling. Not only with injury but also with often covering Mile Jedinak, who Bruce incessantly played alongside him at centre back. Bruce insisted on deploying Axel Tuanzebe at right back. It’s farcical looking back at the decisions that Bruce was making.
As alluded to earlier, there were simply no other options to step in and let Chester recover. And so, he continued, instead of ruling himself out. Whilst there may have been one or two mistakes as he battled on, there were moments such as his acrobatic goal-line clearance against Bolton Wanderers at Villa Park which shouldn’t be forgotten about. And neither should the fact that he also scored in that game to help seal a much needed 2-0 victory.
Return to training
Chester began training again towards the end of the season but didn’t return to the matchday squad. At this moment in time, we’re unsure as to what the future has in store for the man who is still at the moment, our captain.
The fact that Smith is investing so heavily in numbers at the back suggests that Chester will, at best, have a fight on his hands to be starting games. If we’re talking about centre backs, then Mings for me is the only sure-fire starter. Along with Hause, Konsa and Engles, Chester is now one of four players vying for one spot.
We’ll start to get an idea of whether Chester is in Smith’s plans throughout pre-season. Starting this Thursday with the friendly over in the USA against Minnesota United. But for me, despite his commitment and quality, I would be surprised if Chester emerges as anything other than a backup option this season.
In his favour is the fact that he is the only option, except Mings, who can boast Premier League experience, both with Hull City and West Bromwich Albion. Further to that, and again unlike his competitors, he’s also got international experience. In particular, he was an integral part of Wales’s overachieving side at Euro 2016.
The irony is that the knee injury that Chester worsened to help out the team is likely to be a huge factor in his future at the club. In speaking with Birmingham Live back in May, Chester admitted that ‘I’ve damaged my body indefinitely’. He went on to state that he would need to manage his injury for the rest of his career.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean Chester should be ruled out as an option. The legendary Paul McGrath had dodgy knees of course and was probably the best defender the club has ever seen.
A central defender is probably the one position where you can cope with it more than others. Ledley King also managed his chronic knee problems for years. Jonathan Woodgate is another who had to adapt and barely train. So it is possible.
Yet even despite this, we know that Smith is keen on having pacey and strong centre backs who are calm in possession. I just don’t see Chester being a preferred option, especially as Smith has now bought in his own players who more suit that criteria. If there is an area that Chester falls down on, it is being comfortable on the ball. And that is increasingly important.
Premier League improvements
I don’t doubt that Chester could do a job for Villa in the Premier League, defensively. He’ll throw himself in front of the ball and put his body on the line. But as Smith has demonstrated by also searching for a replacement for Jed Steer, improvements everywhere are being sought after rather than just sticking with ‘good enough’. That has to be the way forward.
Smith also cannot risk Chester’s knee injury flaring up again and leaving the team short of cover. So, again, he is right to bring in bodies in that position.
Chester has been a vital player for Villa over the last three years. We would’ve been even further off the pace than we already were if he had decided to rest his injury when he should’ve done. So in that regard, I don’t think promotion could’ve happened without Chester doing that for the club. We should never underestimate or forget the importance of that commitment.
If fitness allows, I think he is still capable of making a contribution if called upon. I certainly wouldn’t be despaired to see his name on the teamsheet. That’s also why I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see him leave this summer if a bid from a Championship club came in. I think the club would also allow him to leave for a relatively modest fee.
Smith is, rightly, building a team to suit his style of play. Sadly I’m not quite sure James Chester quite fits into that model. And equally as sad, as we’ve already seen with others leaving the club, there is no room for sentiment, unfortunately.