With the expiration of Axel Tuanzebe, Kortney Hause and Tyrone Mings’ loan spells following Aston Villa’s play-off promotion in 2018/19, the club only had James Chester and Tommy Elphick as recognised centre-halves on the books going into their first season back in the top flight since the ill-fated 2015/16 relegation season.
The key goals to address this shortcoming – neither of the permanently injured Chester and Championship journeyman Elphick were fit for the Premier League – were to chase the full signatures of our loanees and perhaps bring some experience into the fold to compete.
Throughout the window, the main transfer links were Tyrone Mings and Gary Cahill, who the club were said to have sought on a free transfer after the expiration of his Chelsea contract. The possibility of signing Axel Tuanzebe seemed very slim, as Manchester United wanted him in their squad for the season (they then proceeded to use him very sparingly, often out of position, before he sustained another injury).
Mings and Cahill were set to be our two main centre-halves, if we could agree on a fee with Bournemouth for Mings, and if we convinced Cahill to join and paid his wages. We were also linked with Galatasary’s Christian Luyindama, a deal that failed to materialise but could yet do so this summer as the links don’t seem to be going away.
Outside of that, we needed squad depth in the position, as Elphick left for the recently relegated Huddersfield under guarantees of first-team football, and James Chester’s fitness was a massive bone of contention.
First through the door was Wolves’ Kortney Hause; the previous year’s loan deal had a handy option to buy clause which rapidly accelerated negotiations. For a meagre £3 million, Hause was a shrewd bit of business. At just 24, he still had room to grow, and being a natural left-sided centre-half has massive benefits in the modern game.
Also, he had already demonstrated his ability to deputise at left-back for us in 2018/19, making him all the more versatile. With no real expectations to be a regular starter, Hause represented a cheap, useful bit of squad depth. In terms of his season, like many Villa players it was a mixed bag but it arguably came good in the end.
Despite making a few errors leading to goals, his aerial dominance was helpful in handling high balls into the box. He was a core part of the back three Villa trialled at the turn of the calendar year, and started frequently early on in Project Restart when Ezri Konsa was filling in at right-back. He doesn’t strike me as convincing on the ball, but Hause remains a useful piece of squad depth, and should still be at the club going into next season.
After what felt like an age, Tyrone Mings signed on the dotted line and was unveiled as a Villa player in the second week of July. At a steep £20 million, with potential rising in addons, many opposition fans jeered at paying such a high fee for a player with his history.
As he always does, Mings mugged them off. At times, he was inconsistent, and he made a couple of errors leading to goals. But for a first campaign in the Premier League, it could hardly have gone better. With the most clearances in the league, the galvaniser and organiser of our back-line, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d have finished bottom of the league if not for Mings. He was duly rewarded with his England debut thanks to his efforts. Tyrone was immense, as always. And nobody’s laughing at that £20 million fee now.
A few days later, Ezri Konsa followed into Bodymoor. A signing from Brentford, a player that Villa manager Dean Smith had signed for his former club, the young centre-half came in with rave reviews. He was certainly one for the future, but having been called upon quite a lot this season, he’s done very well – and for £12 million, an excellent bit of business.
Konsa epitomises the modern centre-back in that he’s lightning-quick, excellent on the ball, and always looking to build into an attack. He’s also solid at the back, and especially in the lockdown starred in a consistent partnership next to Mings. Ezri Konsa has earnt his spot as Mings’ partner next season, and I think he’s going to have a breakout season, establishing himself as one of the best young English centre-backs.
Up to when Konsa signed though, there was still no sniff of Gary Cahill, or Christian Luyindama. Then Villa hit us out of left-field, with the signature of Reims’ Bjorn Engels for a fee believed to be in the region of £9 million. A former target for Brentford, Engels was familiar to Smith, and started the season as Tyrone Mings’ partner. However, as the season went on, Engels struggled.
Mistakes against Southampton, Leicester, and Tottenham at home didn’t help his confidence, and he spent a long spell on the sidelines with an injury. He’s an astute defender; tackles, clearances, blocks, and interceptions are his bread and butter, but for my taste, he’s a bit too slow – as seen when caught out with balls in behind in those aforementioned matches. For now, Konsa has pushed him out of the side, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him leave this summer, though I would like to see him compete for his place next season.
In terms of improvements we could make for next season, I don’t think we necessarily need a centre-half, though if Engels leaves I’d like someone in with a bit of experience who can compete with Konsa. The Belgian half of ‘Mingels’ may leave after a disappointing season, and with Konsa still relatively inexperienced and learning his trade, I think getting an experienced centre-half into supplement the squad wouldn’t go amiss.
The competition aspect must be crucial – we don’t always need one starting ahead of the other, I think that both Konsa and Mings need to be pushed to higher standards.
Overall though, centre-back remains relatively low on Johan Lange and Rob MacKenzie’s list of positions to strengthen; it’s certainly behind strikers, wingers, centre-midfielders, and full-backs.
The general defensive organisation of our backline has to improve, but with Craig Shakespeare coming into the coaching staff to hopefully aid in sorting that out, and encouraging signs in Project Restart, I think it’d be fine if Villa had a quiet transfer front in terms of centre-halves.