Aston Villa’s academy has changed immeasurably in the past decade and while Jack Grealish is one of few homegrown graduates to make a name for himself in the first team, there’s fresh hope that young talent is starting to come through the ranks once again.
Since Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens took over the club in 2018, Bodymoor Heath has gone through changes both in-house and indeed to the physical shape of the academy. Since then, preparations for HS2 were dealt with by building a brand new state-of-the-art £14million academy, which stands separate from the first team building.
Fit with a 500-seater stand, a match pitch and other facilities also on-site to mimic matchday at Villa Park, the academy – now flooded with exceptional young talent – has every tool to help youngsters realise their potentials at the club.
Up to £6million has also been spent on extending the first team’s headquarters with a state-of-the-art performance centre perhaps the most eye-catching of NSWE’s investments. A brand new multi-purpose gym is now home to Villa’s incredible sports science team who will endeavour to maximise player potential with all the tools and modern technologies available.
Internal changes and appointments, such as Johan Lange’s in the summer of 2020 spoke volumes about Villa’s ambitions to link the club together, from the academy to the first team, with a clear pathway to the top for youngsters. Furthered with the investment in youngsters from abroad, both Under-18 and Under-23 squads are littered with exciting players, most of whom travel away with their respective national teams on international duty.
Local lad and Under-23 captain, Kaine Kesler has worked his way through youth sides at Bodymoor Heath and has become a stand-out during an impressive Under-23 campaign this season.
The full-back has even travelled with Villa’s first-team squad for Premier League games this season and the promising youth player is only one of many a Villa youngster hoping to break into the first team in the not too distant future.
During Dean Smith’s pre-season preparations for the 2020-21 season, he invited Kesler – along with a host of other young hopefuls – to a pre-season training camp in Wales last summer. Kesler enjoyed 60 minutes for an Aston Villa XI against Bristol City when returning from the camp, and after impressing during the time he has spent alongside the first team this term and last, the right-back has caught the eye – not only through some tekkie celebrations, with back-flips and dancing routines aplenty.
Those celebrations aren’t a rarity though as Kesler has scored five goals from a seemingly reserved full-back role this term. With a couple of assists to his name this also this year, the right-back has become an integral part of Mark Delaney’s Under-23 side who despite boasting some of England’s most exciting youngsters in Louie Barry, Carney Chukwuemeka and Jaden Philogene-Bidace, Kesler is too well within a shout of becoming the next successful Bodymoor Heath graduate.
The four points we will look at in this analysis all influence Kesler’s overall game, and so we will look at each one in a specific order. Firstly, we will analyse his athleticism and pace.
Speed and athleticism
Kesler’s first notable asset as a modern full-back is his rapid speed. As tactics develop and the offensive phases of a game become all the more important, a player’s speed is becoming more of a requirement rather than purely an additional strength to a full-backs game. Kesler’s ability to operate down the flanks with exceptional speed has been a huge plus to Villa’s U23 side in both attacking and defensive capacities this season and with the U18s last term.
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As Villa’s midfielder picks the ball up with limited passing options in front of him, Kesler is already breaking stride to accelerate into the vacant space on the right-wing. He’s an outlet for Villa’s young side with a rate of speed that is extremely difficult to contain.
His attacking instincts are obvious and when Southampton, as evidenced here, are applying a low block, his movement is crucial. Kesler isn’t looking to receive the ball to feet and instead, he understands that with a well-weighted pass into his stride, he can impact the game from an advanced area even if his role in the team is to first and foremost protect the wings with his improving defensive game.
Kesler takes the ball down with an effective first touch after making up the space afforded behind the Southampton left-winger. The young full-back makes up ten yards quicker than his opposing marker which again demonstrates his rapid acceleration to move into space and become an effective outlet for Villa’s academy teams.
While his ability to move from ‘A to B’ in most games is generally unmatched, his physical maturity for a footballer of his age is impressive. Below, we can see how he is powerful enough to climb above taller strikers to dominate aerial duels too.
Marking Portsmouth’s tallest forward poses many challenges but Kesler doesn’t let his shorter starting height prohibit him from winning a header under a challenge from a player more accustomed to aerial duels throughout a game. Kesler is clearly an athletic youngster, but making an impact on the game by asserting his physical dominance is another advantage altogether.
Explosive strength is an important asset for any young player whose development is set to be fast-tracked through academy levels. Kesler’s physical capabilities are evident in observing his U23 performances, and such full-back fundamentals can be as much an offensive or defensive tool for a modern defender.
A composed and technically astute full-back
Kesler’s game is largely centred around his athletic efficiencies, but the technicalities that he demonstrated throughout his time with Villa’s U18 side last season and with the U23s this year demonstrates why club officials were keen on handing out a new contract after he turned 17 years of age.
In this frame, we can see how Kesler’s awareness to turn opposing markers benefited Villa’s U18s last season.
Facing towards goal, Kesler’s immediate vision is one surrounded by Portsmouth shirts apart from goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo, who acts as his only passing option. Though Kesler is confident enough in his own ability to turn a player and set Villa away from tight spaces on the wing, in his own defensive third.
Having the technical ability and indeed the agility to turn a defensive phase into an attacking phase is a major asset to Kesler’s quickly developing game. Many full-backs of his age have the ability to beat players and offload the ball with accuracy, but having the nous to set traps and get out of them time after time is a cause for real optimism as Kesler eyes his senior breakthrough next season.
After taking two Portsmouth markers out of the game, Kesler can dribble at the heart of the midfield, where after already beating a couple of players, he has the choice of passing the ball in-field or out wide to centre-back, Mungo Bridge who is adept at receiving and recycling passes from wide areas.
It would be naive to suggest Kesler is well versed in getting out of tight spaces on the pitch. Instead, we must applaud how he sets traps to engage opposition pressures and as this analysis goes on, we can identify that starting attacking phases from the right-back position was a common theme of Villa’s U18 games last season.
Even more impressively, Kesler can distribute and make use of his previous hard work. Offloading the ball can often be the pitfall for full-backs in academy football, but Kesler has shown he is more than capable of finding a pass, an accurate cross or even a shot from range.
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After dribbling past four opposing Portsmouth players, Kesler has the option to carry the ball even further or switch the play over to the left flank where Dominic Revan can take over this particular attack.
What we can identify here, is that Kesler’s game is much more advanced than simply a rapid full-back with an eye for an assist. With a composure to match his technical skillset, in both dribbling and distribution aspects, Kesler is a modern full-back with the capability of covering a multitude of positions, from midfield to out wide.
Proficient in flipping midfielders by himself, we can infer that Kesler’s composure on the pitch is another asset to a game that has drawn acclaim from Villa’s coaching staff, and certainly, this level of maturity to take the game but the scruff of its neck from his withdrawn position is very promising.
Expanding on this point, in the next frames in a game against Southampton, Kesler’s ability to perform the modern full-back role is demonstrated.
Standing up Southampton’s left-winger, Kesler shifts the ball inside the pitch by using an advanced, technical skill, the ‘elastico’. Now, he’s no Ronaldinho yet, but if the 17-year-old is capable of beating his marker with the confidence needed to execute such a skill inside his own half, he can presumably beat a player with an assured swagger almost anywhere else on the pitch.
After taking two players out of the game, we see Kesler once more driving in-field, towards a familiar position where he likes to affect the game, more particularly in attacking sequences.
Later in the same passage of play, after moving beyond several defenders, Kesler finds himself only yards outside Southampton’s penalty box having brought Villa through the final third.
His exceptional ability to dominate the right flank will be crucial to Villa’s U23s attacking output next season. A full-back with the capacity to flip an opposition’s midfield after one passage of play that sees him explode through the thirds is an encouraging sign that Villa might have unearthed a full-back to call a first-team star in years to come.
With the composure to pick a pass despite being surrounded by several opposition midfielders means Villa can take players out of the game with Kesler’s running ability with the ball at his feet. Entering the final third as instanced in the graphic here, Philogene-Bidace has a chance to shoot on goal after his teammates’ amazing run.
An offensively threatening modern-full back
Performing with an explosive speed that few defenders match, with an ability to carry the ball into threatening areas, Kesler has all the makings of an overlapping dream for teammates but also a real thorn in opposing defences.
His game is so developed that in fact, Kesler’s most effective area to cause damage to the opposition is within the central areas of the pitch, more so away from the flanks.
As highlighted below, and discussed through this analysis, Kesler likes to dribble inside the pitch after taking away opposing pressures whom he invited to wide areas, leaving space in the middle of the pitch.
This theme to his game is very hard to prevent, such is his ability to beat a player even with his back to goal. Explosive power and effective agility allows Kesler to break into a sprinting motion quicker than his marker, who is often a winger without the defensive capacity to nullify his unique threat at source.
Here, we can see how he advances further up the field in the same passage of play, against Swansea City U18s.
A brief opposition analysis will highlight Kesler’s knack of beating a press before striding in-field towards the opposition’s final third, but limiting his effect on Villa’s output going forward can be very testing. In defensive capacities – while the youngster has in fact been converted as a striker from his younger days in the Villa academy – Kesler will continue to develop and mature having come up against players up to seven years his senior with the U23s this season.
Kesler couldn’t be in better hands as he eyes a first-team breakthrough in the next 18 months with Villa’s U23 head coach, Mark Delaney monitoring his progress this season, and while Kesler still has plenty of learning to do, there’s certainly a pathway for another one of Villa’s rising stars to make a name for himself in years to come.