When John Terry departed at the end of our “almost” season, sparking the beginning of our Summer of woe and uncertainty, it was clear that a sizeable hole had been left in both our defence and team as a whole.
Despite our obvious financial issues in the Summer, Steve Bruce must have been aware of such a glaring weakness. As a Centre Back himself in his playing days he must have understood that any team wanting success requires a solid foundation on which to build that team.
Replacing a player of the calibre and experience of Terry is understandably no easy feat, but not replacing any departing Centre Backs at all, was just recklessness. Yet that is the scenario we found ourselves in by the time our new owners came in to rescue us from the oblivion. Having to deal with bringing in new players in the final few weeks of a transfer window isn’t an ideal situation either, but a centre back was the clear priority that needed fixing. Instead we brought in two goalkeepers, a midfielder, two wingers and a striker. For the most part, barring the goalkeepers, those signings have been largely successful additions, but the lack of a central defender or a left back are glaring omissions, when those had already our weakest positions.
Appearing to alienate Tommy Elphick from the starting 11 at the expense of playing Mile Jedinak uncomfortably out of position, before farming him out on loan to Hull City without finding a replacement was squad management lunacy. That decision alone – whilst not necessarily being entirely Bruce’s call – was a pivotal point in the collapse of Bruce’s tenure. We have subsequently been struggling throughout the opening months of the season with a makeshift defence in every match, and have unsurprisingly got the defensive record to show for it (the third worst in the division currently). Our defensive issues are relegation worthy, so it’s fortunate that our attack has been good enough to bail us out for the most part.
On top of these issues, there has been a discussion amongst some quarters of Villa’s fanbase as to whether James Chester has regressed, or whether he merely thrived next to a defensive partner as good as Terry. I don’t believe it’s either, I think Chester has been left with a thankless task, holding together a broken defence almost single-handedly, trying to form a partnership with Jedinak in a position he has never been comfortable in, whilst further trying to protect Ørjan Nyland. Neither player lets Chester concentrate on his own game as they require constant assistance and management, so Chester has been required to do the defensive work for three on all too many occasions without adequate enough protection in front of him to help him out.
Jedinak at centre back is really only useful for providing an aerial strength, but away from that, he looks uncomfortable in almost every regard. His slowness in reacting to situations and getting into a defensive shape, has often left Chester having to do extra defending to cover those weaknesses. If that isn’t the problem, then Chester has often found himself, as well as the rest of the defense, having to go above and beyond in an attempt to protect a frustratingly timid Nyland.
There are times in matches when goalkeepers are required to some tidying up and calm things down, but Nyland remains staunchly on his line 90-95% of the time. That means that the defenders are required to do their defending right the way up to the goal line at times, and try to deal with almost every single set piece with no assistance. Nyland just doesn’t give his defense any break and you can see the effect it has, as we look collectively concerned and unsure every time the opposition are within 25 yards of our goal. It is certainly not a recipe that imbues our defence with any real belief or confidence.
In truth – as most people who watch us can see – there are a myriad of issues with our defensive set up: players playing out of position; unconfident, nervous goalkeepers and no strength in depth (or just no depth at all). It all adds up to a list of problems which individually would make us weaker, but in combination make us desperately weak against almost any style of play. We are weak against quick, pacey, tidy sides like Brentford, but we’re equally weak against basic, rudimentary set piece driven sides like Millwall. It doesn’t seem to matter how our opposition sets up to attack us, they still create numerous chances and invariably score goals too. We have conceded 20 goals so far this season, and none of them have been especially difficult to score, in fact a fair few of them have been down right embarrassing. As Kevin MacDonald said post game on Saturday, “there are individual mistakes from a different player each game,” and there have been some very glaring mistakes at that. His further assertion that we need to individually and collectively “tidy ourselves up” is clearly no understatement.
Now we have received the news that Dean Smith will be taking over alongside the returning John Terry, that “tidying up” process can begin in earnest. Terry’s presence behind the scenes, in the locker room and on the touchline will certainly help our defensive frailties, even if we are low on playing personnel in those positions. We may be excited to see what Smith does in shifting our playing style in an attacking sense but of equal, if not greater, importance is what we do at the back, especially if we want to be contenders in the promotion race.
The truth is we are currently painfully unbalanced as a squad. Smith has inherited a lingering defensive legacy that requires some immediate work to rectify to make us more competitive. The winter months are a relentless graft in the Championship, and without some serious work to how we play and how our defence operates we could be in for a long, arduous slog waiting for the January window to open. It may be that at present, our best form of defence is our attack, if we can unlock the potential of our attacking players to dominate sides like they should be able to, then a philosophy of “however many you score, we’ll score more” may prove to be our best option. It isn’t a long term option though, eventually you have to fix the damaged parts and work towards a mentality of stopping the opposition scoring at all.
The best teams invariably have the best defensive records too, and that should be the long term strategy that any success is built upon. This is the foundation we have to rebuild with a very real urgency. Bruce’s most damaging final act was leaving this mess for the next guy to fix, it might require some initially creative surgery to stem the flow of goals conceded, but with some hard work on the training ground, and a renewed philosophy that everyone can get behind then we can get the whole team back on the same page and working together towards our common goal.
For Dean Smith and John Terry there are no real quick fixes for our ailing defence right now, but there are steps we can work on to make us more competitive and to better solidify the increasingly brittle backline. Here’s hoping that Smith and Terry can offer some bold, creative ideas defensively as well as offensively.