Aston Villa have been hunting down more clean sheets after registering 14 of them from the first 26 Premier League games of the season, following a goalless draw against Wolves at the start of March.
After recording a sixth shut-out during a ten-game run in which Dean Smith’s side would lose their influential skipper Jack Grealish, at that point in the season, Villa still had one eye in Europe after keeping clean sheets in more than half of the Premier League games they had played.
Though, after winning just three of the last 12, Villa have found goals hard to come by while results have also left a lot to be desired without Grealish on the pitch. Throughout the season, at the other end, Villa’s defence have been chasing down Brad Friedel’s record of keeping 15 clean sheets in a single Premier League campaign.
In the 2009-2010 top-flight season, Friedel and the solid defensive unit in front of him managed to help the club towards a top-six finish. Although, while finishing in a European spot is off the cards this season, Emiliano Martinez, Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Matt Targett will form the base of a solid foundation that Villa hope to play off next term.
Only through injuries or suspensions have Villa not fielded the same back four plus Martinez in goal throughout this Premier League season. A notable shout-out to Douglas Luiz and John McGinn is deserved too, who at the start of the season formed an effective deep-lying midfield partnership to protect the defence.
The first sign of Villa becoming a more secure unit – having shipped the second-most Premier League goals last season up until Project Restart – came after football across the country was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Smith knew he had to attend to the many weaknesses that had stumped Villa’s progress last term, with set-pieces a particular Achilles heel which coincided with Villa’s poor defensive record until the league’s suspension last year.
Villa went into the lockdown period having conceded 56 goals at an average of exactly two per game – by a long way one of the worst defensive records in the Premier League.
“We were conceding too many chances and too many goals,” Smith said when re-evaluating his side’s form pre-lockdown.
“We had to come up with a plan to stop that and we have done that. During the lockdown, we did video sessions with the players. We did group sessions. We got their input. I certainly had a vision of how I saw us moving forward and the players worked hard in that mini-pre-season that we had.
“We worked on best practice. We looked at the two best teams in the league, Manchester City and Liverpool. The togetherness, the team shift when they lose the ball, the counter-pressing.
“We had to get better at recovering the ball back if we lost it and, if we could not, making sure we got numbers back behind the ball and forcing the opposition one way.”
Whilst Villa returned to training only weeks before the Premier League got back underway, Smith, Richard O’Kelly and John Terry would join online meetings to review performance and connect with players like Luiz and Trezeguet who hadn’t adjusted to life in Birmingham as first hoped.
Both players were signed with good reputations abroad, but Villa fans had been struggling to see what either could offer in the fight for survival, though with the man management of Smith and the comfortable environment of behind closed doors stadiums, both thrived to become integral members of a thin Villa squad.
Never had Smith chosen to hang a player out to dry last season, nor disrupt what was a sensitive dressing room full of inexperienced Premier League footballers. Instead, he nurtured their talent and brought the best out of two players in particular who’d been written off before the new year.
Konsa also came into his own in time for the league’s restart – a player Smith labelled as having “no ceiling” to his potential. Partnering Mings, the two were both assured and comfortable in forming a partnership that took three clean sheets in the post-lockdown period.
Konsa, alongside Grealish and Luiz, were the first three players on a team sheet that had been chopped and changed throughout the season as Smith was still learning the qualities of his squad. Finding his best eleven was a timely benefit for Smith who used lockdown purely to Aston Villa’s eventual advantage.
Defensive partnerships will stand Aston Villa in good stead for a European charge
After making full use of the momentum discovered at the back end of Project Restart, Villa went on to set a new club record winning start to the 2020-21 Premier League campaign. With four wins out of four, Villa put themselves in a great position to make a fist of a top seven challenge this term.
New signings, Martinez and Cash were added to a back five already consisting of Konsa, Mings and Targett who were all questioned at parts last season, but have since proven their worth to become mainstays in Smith’s side.
Smith’s trust in a defence that had shipped so many goals last season has paid off and as Villa hunt down more club records that demonstrate their defensive solidity this term. The squad will be in even better stead for a full season of understanding each other’s games ahead of the new campaign.
Either side of Konsa and Mings, Villa have a quality full-back pairing capable of encouraging Smith’s dynamic and exciting brand of football, made all the more effective with insatiable appetites to improve at the club.
Full-backs were once the least fashionable role on a football field, having rarely garnered the headlines in decades past, but in modern-day football, they’ve become a vital component in various playing formations.
After spending over £200million on transfer fees alone since achieving promotion back to the Premier League in 2019, Villa’s recruitment chiefs have apportioned in excess of £30million on full-backs during that time.
The role of the full-back is so complex and developed in the current climate, but what can’t be doubted is the influence that both Cash and Targett are capable of having on Smith’s side, this season and next.
Cash and Targett are required to play a crucial role in both defensive and attacking capacities – almost like a traditional box-to-box midfielder would when in and out of possession from a wider starting berth.
While Villa were toiling in the Championship as little as three years ago, managerial appointments in the Premier League would soon impact the English game, as is so often the case. Following Villa’s worst Premier League campaign for almost a generation in 2016, one shining light in that season was the emergence of Jordan Amavi. His quality from a full-back role was indicative of the modern times, an upgrade perhaps on Antonio Luna, but his physical and technical proficiencies were evident.
Over the years the role of the full-back has evolved and much of the progression from a reserved defender to an all-action, attack-minded, dynamic wide player. Once close allies, now Jose Mourinho’s best of enemies, Pep Guardiola has played a key role in revolutionising the full-back role as fashionable.
With a decreased number of traditional number tens, as instanced by Villa’s own unique talent in Jack Grealish, and an influx of inverted attackers, full-backs are now tasked with providing creativity from wide areas while remaining defensively sound going the other way.
Cash and Targett also share a great relationship off the field too and centre-back Konsa has recently admitted that the chemistry between the ‘boys at the back’ has helped towards their success this season.
Villa’s rampant lion has a history of sitting on the proud chests of some iconic centre-backs down the years, from Paul McGrath to Martin Laursen – no-nonsense defenders have been a staple part of many a top side at Villa Park in years gone by.
Not nearly as recognised amongst his greater mortals yet, but Konsa has continued to display a promise that will undoubtedly secure his place amongst Villa heroes, while the prospect of playing for the Three Lions at major tournaments in the coming years is also very much in his favour.
Schooled on the very pitches that his current tutor, John Terry learnt his trade, Konsa’s grounding on the Wanstead Flats pitches of East London was one that many England internationals, including the likes of Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, and even former Villans, Ugo Ehiogu and Jlloyd Samuel all also enjoyed.
Konsa spends hours during the week reviewing his own clips from matchdays with Terry, who despite being linked with plenty of managerial jobs elsewhere last year, has made his impact on Villa’s defence known this season. Since Terry joined Villa’s coaching staff, Mings has earned an England call-up, Konsa is in line for his own international debut while Targett has gained enough recognition that a late EURO 2020 nod might well be on the cards.
After keeping three clean sheets during Project Restart, Konsa said he wanted to keep building a relationship with Mings on the pitch ahead of the new campaign.
“I want to continue building my partnership with Tyrone,” Konsa said.
“I feel like we grew as the season went on, especially in the last few games.It was a dream come true to play in the Premier League. I enjoyed every minute. I am learning every day and with help from the coaches and my teammates, I can only get better.
“It was a tough end to the season. It was something I believed we could do. We all had that belief and you could see the first game we went back. It was an intense last couple of games but we got through it.”
The foundations in which Villa have built to help accumulate more Premier League points in a single season for over a decade will allow Smith’s side to attack the league’s higher reaches next term as the club seeks to continue improving season after season.