Villa's new-look defence impresses
Andreas Weimann's goal gave Villa a winning start to the new Premier League season, but it was his defensive colleagues who deservedly stole the headlines.
Villa's man of the match might have been Ron Vlaar, Philippe Senderos, Alan Hutton or Aly Cissokho. The truth was that all the members of Paul Lambert's new-look back four emerged from Saturday's 1-0 victory over Stoke with credit. No doubt there will be tougher times and bad days to come over the duration of the season, but this was an excellent start for a defence containing two new signings and a player brought back from the wilderness of loan deal limbo.
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The Villa defence has looked so vulnerable during each of Lambert's previous two seasons in charge that the need for a drastic overhaul was no secret. Three months ago, few could have predicted the players who would line up on opening day. Senderos arrived on a free transfer following his release from relegated Fulham, the Londoners already having deemed him surplus to requirements for the final months of the season, having loaned him to Valencia.
Truth be told, there was a fair bit of sniggering about Villa's decision to sign him, especially when his World Cup experience boiled down to coming on as a substitute and shipping five goals as Switzerland were embarrassed by France.
Cissokho, the newest defensive arrival, struggled last season on loan at Liverpool. But failing to fit in to Brendan Rodgers' masterplan at Anfield is a markedly different challenge to being able to play capably in the Premier League. His lowest moments in a Liverpool shirt might have made for a "hilarious" video montage, which duly did the rounds on Twitter last week, but Lambert will have done his homework rather more extensively on Cissokho. While there is nothing particularly subtle about the Frenchman's technique, his strength and pace are obvious assets.
The other "new" arrival to the Villa defence has been at the club since 2011. Hutton's return to the first team is nothing short of remarkable given that he was effectively ostracized from the senior squad when Lambert became manager. Unlike Shay Given and Darren Bent, who both remained active members of the squad in Lambert's first season, Hutton was immediately persona non grata.
In lieu of a permanent transfer, he was loaned to Nottingham Forest, Real Mallorca and Bolton, and when Lambert admitted this new season would be a "clean slate" for everyone at the club, there were few who would have expected Hutton to start the campaign in the side.
That he has says a lot for the mental strength of a man who must have thought he'd never play for Villa, or under Lambert, again. Hutton seized the initiative with a series of impressive displays in preseason and performed very well at Stoke.
In effect, Lambert has reshaped Villa's defence for just 2 million pounds -- the fee paid to Valencia for Cissokho. Alongside Vlaar, the three "new" guys were determined, committed and resolute. And unflappable. With the game in the balance, there was no sign of panic or chaos. Villa saw the match out calmly enough and the celebratory fist-bump between Vlaar and Senderos suggested the central defensive pairing were happy with their afternoon's work.
Experience among defenders is valuable, and perhaps more so than in any other area of a team. Hutton, Senderos and Vlaar are all 29 years old while Cissokho turns 27 next month. Behind them, goalkeeper Brad Guzan turns 30 in September. Contrast that with the age of the defenders who faced Stoke in this fixture last season, a game the hosts won 2-1: Matt Lowton (24 at the time of the game), Chris Herd (24), Nathan Baker (22) and Ciaran Clark (24). It's not just about age, of course. It's about playing experience. Between them, there isn't a lot Hutton, Vlaar, Senderos and Cissokho haven't seen or done.
If Villa can crack it at the back, they can afford to be a little more adventurous going forward, and the arrival of defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez will certainly help. As an attacking force, Villa did just enough to beat Stoke, although the team should have been ahead when Gabby Agbonlahor missed a tap-in on the edge of the 6-yard box after Kieran Richardson had squared the ball. Agbonlahor has lost his goal-scoring touch in the last 12 months, which is why Darren Bent might have started the game in the centre-forward role instead. Bent would have surely scored in that situation.
Substitute Leandro Bacuna also should have scored late on instead of yanking the ball wide from a great position. Creativity and conversion remains a work in progress for Lambert, but let's not get too ambitious and expect all faults to be corrected at once. Fixing Villa's porous defence is a major priority, and after a clean sheet against Stoke, there's at least something promising to build on.
Kevin Hughes covered Premier League football at Match magazine and was later deputy editor of Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @KevHughesie.