The flurry of transfer activity at Villa Park has been conducted pleasantly early this summer.
Foreign imports such as Nicklas Helenius, Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev, Jores Okore and Antonio Luna have all arrived at the club within the last six weeks, alongside goalkeeper, Jed Steer, acquired from Norwich City.
Paul Lambert has further delighted the Villa faithful by retaining many of last season’s key players on renewed long-term contracts. The manager has been instrumental in securing deals for Nathan Baker, Matthew Lowton, Brad Guzan, Andreas Weimann, Ashley Westwood and (following the withdrawal of an earlier transfer request and severe fan consternation) Christian Benteke.
Undoubtedly, the manager has bolstered his lean squad with the requisite quality and has acted decisively in the transfer market.
Perhaps the only ongoing concerns for Villa fans is the team’s defensive weaknesses. Villa’s recent performances in their five pre-season games thus far have done little to dispel these worries.
In each of these games Lambert has been largely experimental in his approach, often making wholesale substitutions and formation changes at half-time. Understandably, squad rotation and match fitness for his players has been the focus of Villa’s preparations for the new season.
However, the familiar poor defending from first-team regulars such as Ciaran Clark and captain Ron Vlaar has meant that clean sheets have again proved elusive even against lower-league opposition.
Too often last season, Villa’s back four were oufought and often bullied by opposing wingers and forwards. Poor marking, basic passing errors, an inability to clear aerial balls and crosses, and a distinct lack of cohesion typified their defending in the 2012-13 season.
Aside from Villa’s strong finish to last season, where the team finally grew in confidence and beat many of their relegation-threatened rivals to survive in the Premier League, the abiding memory for many fans was a succession of embarrassing, often calamitous performances from a porous defence.
Only relegated clubs Wigan and Reading conceded more goals than Villa last season. On average Villa shipped 1.8 goals per game, 69 in total. Last year’s Christmas fixture list was particularly humiliating for Lambert’s young troops as they lost consecutive matches 8-0, 4-0 and 3-0 to Chelsea, Spurs and Wigan respectively.
Demoralising defeats like these became commonplace, but Villa’s defensive nadir came in the 3-1 League Cup semi-final defeat at League Two Bradford City. Simple goals scored from headers at set-pieces and a maddening inability to properly defend corners proved Villa’s undoing once again.
While there was a clear improvement in the final quarter of last season, Villa haven’t managed a clean sheet in their last 22 league games. That statistic tells its own story, and the need to augment or perhaps overhaul aspects of the defence should be obvious to Lambert.
In spite of an injury-curtailed pre-season thus far, Jores Okore will be a shrewd addition at centre-half. The 20-year-old has a physical presence and aerial strength which belies his youth, and is remarkably pacy for a central defender. His arrival will perhaps allow Lambert to adjust his central defensive partnership to accommodate one of Vlaar, Baker or Clark.
The acquisition of Antonio Luna from Sevilla will generate badly-needed competition for the left-back position with Joe Bennett. Last season often saw Bennett exposed as the weakest link in Villa’s armour, and though culpable for some basic errors, he was unfairly made a scapegoat by some fans for Villa’s defensive shortcomings.
At right-back Matthew Lowton is an exciting prospect who showed continual improvement throughout his debut Premier League season. However, Villa do lack cover in this area. Chris Herd is a useful utility-player who can deputise in Lowton’s absence, but another full-back would certainly be beneficial to the squad.
Whilst it is not reasonable to fixate on pre-season results, or use them as a barometer for predicting the season that lies ahead, Villa’s defensive woes need to be addressed immediately. Last season’s over-reliance on the goalkeeping heroics of Brad Guzan cannot be taken for granted this time around.
Hopefully, Lambert will know his preferred back four by the start of the new season and will have them well-drilled, organised and focused on minimising individual errors.
If he can achieve this without compromising his team’s exciting attacking approach, Villa should be able to re-assert themselves in the top half of the league table once again.
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