I’ve rarely seen a player at Villa Park who divides opinion quite as much as Neil Taylor.
Since joining us, in an exchange deal with Jordan Ayew in the January transfer window 2017, Taylor has split the Villa fanbase, except for a good spell at the very start of his Villa career.
Throughout his time at Villa, Taylor has been in and out of the team. During Steve Bruce’s reign as manager, he regularly found himself behind Alan Hutton – naturally a right-back – in the pecking order and was often left out of the matchday squads completely.
Since Dean Smith has been in charge though, the left-back has become an ever-present in the starting eleven. And that has extended into this season, where, up to now, he has been keeping £11 million signing Matt Targett out of the first team.
But, should that be the case? Is he good enough when comparing his abilities to everything a modern day left-back is expected to do? Has he done anything wrong to warrant dropping him from the starting eleven? Let’s take a closer look.
When anybody talks about Neil Taylor, the first thing they tend to mention is his defensive ability, which is understandable as this is the most competent side of his game.
He is part of the 4th best defensive unit in the league this season, as Villa have only conceded 6 goals. This defence also has the joint most clean sheets in the league and this is something that he has contributed to.
His personal stats (according to whoscored.com) are fairly decent too, whilst obviously not hitting the heights of his colleagues Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels. This season, he has played every minute of Villa’s opening 5 games. During those 450 minutes, he has made 9 successful tackles and has only been dribbled past twice. He has also made 6 interceptions, 10 clearances and has blocked 13 shots and crosses combined.
Whilst these may not sound like excellent figures, they do begin to show his capabilities in defence. It’s also worth noting that stats don’t tell the full story.
Having watched all of the games, Taylor has looked good at the back. He has played against a lot of talented wingers and has been solid. He has rarely been beaten down the line and has shown that he is much stronger than his slight stature.
His start defensively has also been made more impressive by the limited cover that he has had in front of him. With the questionable defensive capabilities of the likes of Anwar El Ghazi, Taylor has had to shoulder most of the defensive responsibility down his side. This was something that Tyrone Mings laid into El Ghazi for in our last game against West Ham.
Limited Attacking Ability
However, his defensive ability has never really come into question. The major sticking point with Taylor has always been his perceived attacking inability. This is the reason for fans questioning his place in the team.
Taylor is an old school left back. His first thought is to defend, which is an admirable trait for a defender. However, that’s not where the modern day fullback’s responsibilities end. Good fullbacks should be able to attack as competently as they can defend. They should provide the winger with attacking support, as they would expect the winger to provide them with defensive support. They should be a danger on the wing and support the attacking play, ready to provide a good cross or possible goal-threat.
When watching Taylor though, it often seems that he has no clue what to do when going forward. Often, he is passed the ball whilst on the wing in the opposition half and his first thought is to stop with the ball and go backwards or sideways.
This attacking insecurity was clearly evident in our most recent fixture against West Ham when, in the latter part of the game, the ball came in the air to Taylor. Instead of showing calmness and composure around the box, he tried to side-foot volley the ball back into the danger area first time, only for the ball to go the wrong way, ending in us losing possession.
When looking at Taylor’s personal attacking stats, his offensive frailties are highlighted. During his 5 outings this season, he has attempted no dribbles. Absolutely zero! Taylor has more than double the amount of unsuccessful long passes as he has successful long passes and has only managed to play 1 key pass. Finally, he has only attempted 1 cross this year, which I don’t believe is good enough for a full-back.
If we compare those stats to those of Frederic Guilbert on the opposite side of defence, then we can see a clear difference of philosophies. Guilbert has played only 3 games – 2 games less than Taylor – but has attempted 5 dribbles, 4 shots and has double the amount of key passes and more than double the amount of crosses.
If we go back through his career though, it makes for very interesting reading. Including the games played this season, Neil Taylor has now played 264 games across all of the divisions in English league football. In that time he has scored no goals. To me, that shows a massive lack of confidence in getting forward to join the attack and try and influence matters further up the pitch.
So, what should we do? Should we drop a player who has been defensively sound this season? Should we bring in Matt Targett, who may not be as solid at the back but might influence the game more higher up the pitch, where we are a desperate for more of a cutting edge?
In my opinion I think that we should bring in Matt Targett for a run of games. I know that he has been injured but now that he is nearing full fitness again, I’d like to see him being brought in as soon as he is ready.
We seem so desperate for more of an attacking threat and I believe that Targett could help to provide this. From his days at Southampton, he seems like he is more comfortable than Taylor around the opposition penalty area and his crossing ability is greater than Taylor’s.
Also, I don’t believe that Taylor is suited to the passing game that Smith wants to play. He isn’t comfortable enough with the ball at his feet and he often looks fairly clueless when trying to attack.
I don’t believe that Neil Taylor will be the answer for much longer anyway. Although it’s hard to believe, Neil Taylor is now 30 years old and is 31 towards the start of the new year. Based on the youthful feel that Dean Smith has tried to bring into this squad, I can’t see Taylor being the long term answer.
So with that in mind, whilst he is a good and solid defensive player, I believe that his limitations going forward should mean that Targett is our preferred choice at left back from now on.
By Daniel Horton