Even after Villa’s 5-1 drubbing of Crewe Alexandra last night, the evident defensive frailties remain a cause for concern.
Villa conceded 69 goals during the 2012-13 league campaign and only Reading and Wigan, both relegated, conceded more. Just as worrying is the fact that it has now been a scandalous 28 games since Lambert’s Lions kept a clean sheet.
Although Lambert’s pre-season approach has been experimental and has involved blanket changes, dodgy defending from first team regulars like Vlaar and Clark has meant a repeat of last season’s errors in marking and passing and a continued lack of organisation, even against lower league opposition.
In Vlaar’s absence last season, Villa’s youthful back four found themselves outmuscled by the opposition. It is probably no coincidence that Villa were without the injured Dutchman during the calamitous Christmas campaign, when Villa conceded 15 goals in 3 games on the bounce. While ‘Concrete Ron’ has admitted he was unhappy with his overall level of performance in his inaugural Premier League campaign, he is a capable defender who offers more strength and grit than his younger counterparts. It is hoped that the Dutch international will offer more this season, honing his skills as a player and a leader to shore up the side’s shapeless defence.
Clark has been viewed as a promising young defender for some time but his rash decisions have led to frustration among the fans. Despite those errors, the 23-year-old Irish international came through a challenging season with only Ashley Williams and Brede Hangeland having made more clearances in the Premier League, which perhaps suggests he is in a good position to press on and learn from his mistakes. With new signings at Villa Park and slightly more depth to the defence, it is not unbelievable to think that Clark might be playing as a defensive midfielder next season, with ballsy Baker perhaps stepping into his role beside Vlaar.
Of course, Clark and Vlaar will not be alone. Right-back Lowton’s first season is claret and blue will be remembered for his wonder strike against Stoke but he acquitted himself admirably throughout the campaign and made more interceptions that any other Premier League defender. The former Sheffield United player is an exciting prospect and fans expect another good season from him as he pushes for an international call-up.
With only Herd for cover in this role, another defender would be a useful addition to the squad. It’s unlikely that Zabaleta will be clambering to play in claret and blue so I’d expect any additional signing to be a relative unknown, discovered in the lower echelons of European football.
Villa fans haven’t seen much of new centre back Okore, who limped off in the closing stages of the game against SV Rodinghausen, yet. However, many will recall his composure and maturity against Chelsea in the Champions’ League and take that as a sign that the 20-year-old can find his feet quickly at the top level of the English game. He is thought to be pacy and good in the air: at 6 foot the Danish international clearly offers an aerial presence that could help Villa to improve their appalling record in defending set pieces.
One of last season’s scapegoats, Bennett was nonetheless guilty of schoolboy errors at times and it’s fair to say he didn’t settle in on the left as easily as Lowton did on the right. With Lichaj off to pastures new, Baker more comfortable in Clark’s position and Stevens all but forgotten, Bennett’s competition in the upcoming season is likely to come from another new signing, Luna, whose strengths seem to lie in intercepting and blocking the ball.
With pre-season games against Newport County, Walsall, Shamrock Rovers and Malaga still to come (and the transfer window wide open), Lambert has some time to decide on his starting back four as he’ll be all too aware that conceding 69 goals, keeping only 5 clean sheets and being overly reliant on his last line of defence again this season simply will not wash.