Over the holiday season when Aston Villa conceded 15 goals in just three games, the only excuse mustered for their accommodating defence was the absence of injured captain and Dutch international Ron Vlaar.
Vlaar has proven popular with the home supporters this season, and not just because his surname sounds like a Birmingham native pronouncing "Villa." He’s a key figure at the back for the West Midlands outfit, ensuring his young teammates aren’t overawed by their opposition, particularly after conceding. His recent enforced time off from the lineup highlighted how important he is to the defence.
With Vlaar starting the first 13 games of the 2012-13 season, the Villains conceded an average of 1.7 goals per game; without him the average ballooned to 2.4 in the last eight games. Peculiarly, their points per game have risen from a derisory and relegation-guaranteeing 0.8 to a slightly improved 1.1. With Villa’s goal scoring record holding firm in Vlaar’s absence, it means that while results have picked up marginally, when they lose they lose heavily.
Villa manager Paul Lambert has fielded seven other defenders in the Premier League this season, and their average age is just 22. More tellingly, before this campaign they had just 80 appearances in the English top flight between them. Their festive thrashings have seen Villa’s defence become the worst in the league.
Missing injured veteran Richard Dunne (he has over 400 Premier League appearances) has been costly and made Ron Vlaar’s signing for a princely sum of £3.2m from Feyenoord all the more necessary. But with Dunne’s interest in a retirement package at the New York Red Bulls and no set date for Vlaar’s return from the sidelines, a move for another experienced defender is vital. To survive a relegation battle it’s crucial to always have a wise head at the back.
Joleon Lescott has been linked to the club. Ousted from the Manchester City starting eleven due to the emergence of Serbian teenager Matija Nastasic, the boyhood Aston Villa fan has been linked with a loan move which would keep him in Roy Hodgson’s England plans.
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His no-nonsense approach, prowess in aerial situations, and knowledge of the league would make 30 year-old Lescott a huge asset at Villa Park. If you believe the forever-fabricating English press, QPR look to trump Villa with an £8m bid.
Lambert may need to add older heads in all areas of his squad. The defence should be his first priority, but it’s no coincidence that a so-far tough 2012-13 has seen them break their club record of the youngest side ever fielded in the Premier League. Twice.
The midfield is youthful, and those who have experience, namely Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia, have never produced their best in the claret and blue of Villa. The influence in the middle of Stiliyan Petrov, who has been unavailable since last March while he recovers from leukaemia, has been sorely missed.
But perhaps one of the biggest conundrums of the 2012-13 season is why Lambert continues to overlook 28 year-old striker Darren Bent. Signed nearly two years ago for £24m, double their second highest purchase, Bent has scored over 100 Premier League goals and has 13 caps for England.
One of Lambert’s earlier moves when he took charge in the summer was to appoint Bent as interim captain in Stiliyan Petrov’s absence. After just three league games, the responsibility was handed to Vlaar.
Presumably Bent’s loss of the captaincy and, two weeks later, a spot in the starting 11 was due to a poor attitude. Christian Benteke has certainly made the most of spearheading Villa’s attack, notching six goals in 16 starts, while Andreas Weimann has supported the attack well with four goals in 11 appearances. But there are question marks over the latter’s technical ability. Gabriel Agbonlahor, meanwhile, has underperformed.
It’s clearly a season of transition for Aston Villa and Lambert. The Glaswegian’s youth policy still seems to have the support of the fans, but he will have to maintain Premier League status in order for it not to subside. Signing a couple of Premier League troupers in the January transfer window may be what’s needed to see his youthful ranks ensure survival.
No time like the present for Lambert though, as he’s the bookies’ favourite to be the next managerial casualty in the league. A win over fellow strugglers Southampton at Villa Park on Saturday would be huge.