PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Goalkeeper Brad Friedel of Aston Villa makes a diving save during the Barclays Premier League match between Portsmouth and Aston Villa at Fratton Park on April 18, 2010 in Portsmouth, England. (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)
With the World Cup behind us, things are going to begin heating up where transfers are concerned. A few high-profile moves have been made, but for the most part the past month has been relatively quiet. There are plenty of places you can go for rumors and speculation, but that's not the purpose of this post. Rather, I intend to look at the squad as it is currently composed and suggest areas that I think could stand to be shored up or improved and in some cases the type of player I'd prefer to see pursued.
While these are options I would like to see the team explore and not necessarily what I believe the team will actually do, this exercise is grounded in certain assumptions. As much as I think MON would be better served exploring different formations and tactics (more on that a bit later,) I assume he will be using a 4-4-2 or, if he's feeling especially adventurous, a 4-3-3. I am also assuming that Villa will continue to be a primarily counter-attacking side with an emphasis on defense. That's how the team is built and it's how MON has done things his entire career. As neat as it would be to watch an attack-minded RB, it's probably not really the best idea for the system.
First up: goalkeepers and defense.
Goalkeepers: Villa are in as good a shape as any team in the Premiership in goal. Brad Friedel isn't in the elite class of Gomes, Given, van der Sar and Howard, but he's not far behind either. Guzan looked shaky at times during the Carling Cup, but towards the end he performed quite well and has a solid reputation. He's a capable #2 and were Friedel to miss any time I wouldn't lose any sleep over having Guzan in goal. I don't know a great deal about Andy Marshall or Elliot Parrish, and while I mean them no offense I'd prefer it stay that way. While I suppose it's possible Villa could look to add some depth at the position I can't foresee any situation in which the team make a move of any consequence that involves a goalkeeper.
Defenders: By most measures, Villa's back line was amongst the best in the Premier League last season. In the center, Villa's first team pairing of Richard Dunne and James Collins are as good as you will find anywhere and the depth provided by Carlos Cuellar and Curtis Davies makes CB less of a concern for Villa than any other outfield position. Those are four fairly valuable commodities and it wouldn't surprise me to see one shipped out and a lesser talent brought in to shore up depth. Given Carlos Cuellar's ability to play RB in addition to CB, I'd expect that player to be Davies but that is pure conjecture. If Cuellar is the team's RB going forward, I think that it would be wise to target some depth at CB, though Ciaran Clark and Shane Lowry could make a case for first team appearances with a strong showing in training and in friendlies. Nathan Baker is an interesting prospect, but at this point he is still a prospect and does not figure to make much of an impact on the first team. In any case, much like GK I'd be surprised if Villa make a big splash at the CB position.
Stephen Warnock is a quality LB and while he is slightly more defensively minded than others, he's capable of going forward and does well linking the back line to the midfield and down the wings. He had a few memorable gaffes towards the end of the season, but that's part of the nature of the position. Warnock is an asset and a player I'm glad to have on the squad. Behind him are Habib Beye and Nicky Shorey. I'd be surprised if both Shorey and Beye are with Villa to begin the season. Shorey appeared to be permanently Fulham bound until Roy Hodgson's departure and he's likely to have a few suitors. Beye is something of a poor man's inverse Carlos Cuellar; more effective at LB but capable at CB. He's decent, versatile depth but could find himself surplus to requirements. The aforementioned Shane Lowry also played a great deal of LB during his loan stint at Leeds United and should he make the first team could find himself in the rotation at the position should injury problems arise.
It's a bit more complicated on the right. Luke Young began the year as Villa's starting RB, but a shoulder injury halfway through the year saw Carlos Cuellar take firm hold of the position. Young is more capable going forward and Cuellar is stronger in defense, and the lineups toward the end of the season seems to have highlighted MON's preference. I like Carlos Cuellar a great deal, and I think his versatility is a huge asset. I think that he is probably roughly equal to Collins at CB and with Dunne's advancing age and Villa competing in four competitions this season, high-level depth at CB is a huge asset. He also performed admirably well at RB last year as an injury replacement, and while I think MON does in fact prefer defensive ability all along the back line, I think it's pretty clear that he felt that Luke Young was either not fully recovered or was simply off form. It is again pure conjecture on my part, but I don't see Young starting at RB come August 14th, and it would not surprise me in the least to see him in another uniform entirely. With that said, I think that if Cuellar is Villa's starting RB going into the season it is a problem.
Villa were derided by fans and pundits alike last season for having a penchant for playing anti-football, and though I loathe the term and in any case do not believe that the charge is true, I found myself frustrated at times by their inability to do much going forward. A dangerous counter-attacking team need dynamic passing from the wide backfield, and that's not really something I think Carlos is capable of providing. As an injury replacement I think Carlos is a good solution, but I don't think he's an adequate Plan A at RB. Many Villa supporters see the forward position as the one most in need of an upgrade, but to me it is the RB position. Villa's greatest strength up front is their speed, and a great deal of that is wasted without adequate service from the back. It's difficult for Gabby to exploit space in the center or for Ashley to blaze down the wing and cut back towards goal behind the defense if they're waiting for long, aerial passes from the back time and time again. Heskey's ability to link-up play is only beneficial if the opposition haven't had time to set up in defense of their own goal. If Villa wish to succeed playing a controlled, methodical and largely aerial attack, they'll need to make a lot of changes at a lot of different positions that are far more expensive to fill than RB. And while I don't think that bringing in a RB with greater distribution ability will solve all of the team's problems on the attack, I think that it could go a long way towards optimizing the talent on the squad as it stands.
To be clear, I am not suggesting Villa need Dani Alves or his equivalent to compete next season. It is more an issue of Villa punting attacking capabilities from the RB position entirely. Fullbacks must get forward and become involved in the attack to some extent, and though Cuellar did his best, he's never going to do much on the attack anywhere but on set pieces. He's a central defender playing wide, and Villa need to target a fullback. Not an attacking fullback, not a true goal-scoring threat at fullback, but a genuine fullback. Eric Lichaj appears to have a bright future at Villa Park, but he's a long way from being ready for the first team. Villa have shown the past couple of years that they are a legitimate threat for the top four and starting Carlos Cuellar at RB is not the type of decision a team with Champions League aspirations should be making. There areas I would love to see Villa upgrade, but the only position that I feel is an absolute must is RB. To not do so would be a large failing on MON's part.