The less often we see Shay Given doing this the better. (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
The defense built by Martin O'Neill for the 2009-10 Premier League season was an absolute force. Richard Dunne and James Collins were an absolute brick wall; Carlos Cuellar functionally gave the team a third central defender at right back, while Stephen Warnock was as good as any left back in England not named Ashley Cole. Only Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool allowed fewer goals that year, and those clubs all played a style more heavily reliant on possession than Villa. This was a team that rarely held much over 45% of possession, yet they still managed to hold opponents to 1.03 goals per game-despite surrendering seven to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in one afternoon.
Despite having the exact same personnel available to them (save Wilfred Bouma, who made zero appearances in 2009-10 due to his lingering ankle injury) things didn't go nearly as well last season. Injuries were at least a part of that, as was the dramatic tactical shift spearheaded by Gerard Houllier. But the lion's share of the blame has to fall on the players. Whether it was conditioning, a lack of focus, decline or some combination of the three the performance levels were far below what should have been expected.
So, what should we expect for this season? Was 2009-10 just an illusion, or was last season just a blip on the radar? Let's take a look, position by position.Goalkeeper
Brad Friedel has moved on to Tottenham, and though his service was greatly appreciated there aren't a great many who are too disappointed with his replacement. Shay Given is a fantastic keeper, likely an upgrade on Friedel in fact, and for the fee paid he might be one of the better buys of the off-season. There's no a great deal of concern where the #1 is concerned. But what about those behind him? Brad Guzan is far from perfect, but as backup keepers go he's a nice guy to have around. So nice, in fact, that it's tough to think he's especially happy in that role. Guzan is far from old (especially for a keeper) but he's reaching a point where his career needs to find some direction. He's likely aware of this, and while Guzan isn't exactly in a position to force his way out of the club if there are interested parties it's difficult to see Villa forcing him to stay against his will. Beyond Guzan are Andy Marshall and Elliot Parish. While I haven't seen enough of them to have any real opinion, I think it's fair to say we'd all better hope Given avoids injury.
Watching Richard Dunne towards the beginning of last season, it was difficult to imagine that he'd been one of the best center backs in the Premier League the season before. He looked an absolute shell of his former self, out of shape and off the pace. After taking some time off due to injury Dunne returned, and he looked greatly improved; still not the player from the year before, certainly, but still a presence in the middle of the back line. This pre-season has been even more encouraging; Dunne looks to have dropped quite a bit of weight, and his performances have been universally excellent. It's too early to get carried away, but a full season of vintage Richard Dunne would go a long way towards making Villa's odds of improving on last year's performance a reality.
James Collins didn't suffer as extreme a drop-off in performance as Dunne, but he was quite clearly not as effective as he had been the year before. Collins is an aggressive defender, with all that entails; he's going to win a lot of balls and break up a lot of attacks, but he's also going to go too far. It's possible that the dip in Collins' quality was less about his performance slipping and more about his failings being amplified because of a less strong supporting cast. When Collins misses and gets bailed out, it's a lot less noticeable than when he doesn't. He's a good player no matter what, but his failures are pretty spectacular and any back line that he anchors is going to leak a few goals.
If Villa have a strength in central defense, it's depth. Behind Dunne and Collins are Carlos Cuellar and Ciaran Clark, a pairing a lot of teams would likely be pretty happy with in their own right. Cuellar is one of the most bafflingly under-appreciated players in the Premier League; when he plays, he's almost fantastic. But the next week he's right back on the bench. He's had more than his fair share of injury trouble, but even when healthy he was unable to break into Gerard Houllier's regular rotation. He'll get a better look this year, assuming he doesn't end up back with Rangers. Clark is as talented a young player as any in Villa's system, but given his position and rawness he's also least likely to end up as first choice. Still, Clark's advantage is in his versatility; he can play in the middle, on the outside and in defensive midfield. Not a lot of players at this club can play so many roles, and that makes it likely we'll see a whole lot of Clark this year. Behind the first four, there's Nathan Baker and Shane Lowry. Both got some time last season, and while neither is likely to break into the rotation any time soon they're far from a problem at this level of depth.
This is where it gets "interesting" for Villa. Currently, Stephen Warnock and Luke Young are the starting fullbacks. Young isn't a great concern; he's far from a world beater, but he's a smart player, well aware of his limitations and not the kind of player that's actively going to lose games for his team through costly mistakes. Warnock is a far bigger question mark; his performance in 2009/10 earned him a place in the England side in South Africa. Unfortunately his performance in 2010/11 earned him a place in the Aston Villa reserves. Despite the attempts of some members of the press corps to paint Warnock's expulsion from the side as some remnant of a grudge from his days at Liverpool under Gerard Houllier, the reality of the situation is that Warnock was actively terrible, the worst player on the pitch in nearly every game he played. And while it's true he didn't get a whole lot of opportunity to earn back his spot, there was the little matter of Villa's entire season collapsing around them. Playing Warnock just wasn't worth the risk. as for this season? Well, I remain a skeptic. To put it bluntly, I'm just glad Ciaran Clark has experience playing the position.
If the first-choice players at the position weren't uninspiring enough, there's always Habib Beye. Beye really shouldn't see the pitch in the Premier League, but he probably will and that should terrify you. Eric Lichaj is infinitely better than Beye and may very well have a place as a starting right (or left, if his summer with the US National Team is to be believed) in the Premier League. Depending on how bad Warnock is, it may very well be this season. Lichaj is good, but he's very raw and capable of putting in some very woeful performances. He's going to get more time with the first team this year, there's little question of that, but it may well be a bumpy ride at times. It usually is with defense, but the talent is most certainly there; he just needs experience. Outside of those two, there's...very little. Chris Herd fancies himself a right back, apparently. And Carlos Cuellar didn't do too bad a job in his half season at the position. But this is a thin spot for Villa, especially if McLeish is intent on using the fullbacks extensively in the attack.
It's really impossible to know what to expect from this unit, which is more than a little frustrating. If they can turn in a performance closer to 2009/10 than 2010/11, this season might not be quite as bad as many are expecting. If it goes the other way, well, it could be very unpleasant. There's talent in this defensive unit, somewhere. They need to find it again. All of the turmoil of last year; the relegation trouble, the dropping of points, the losing winnable games, was a function of poor defensive performances. This team is going to score some goals, and if they can keep other teams from doing so at a respectable rate they'll be fine. But the question marks are big enough to keep anyone from feeling all that comfortable just yet.