Aston Villa will come back to the Premier League as an unknown quantity in 2019/20, especially in defence.
Their promotion-winning season was largely one of two halves as they changed their manager from Steve Bruce to Dean Smith several matches into the campaign.
Furthermore, there is currently some uncertainty about who will be the regular number one goalkeeper for Villa next season.
Also, a high number of loan players playing a key role in the defence will require work for the manager over the summer to bring his promotion-winning back-four up with him.
What is Aston Villa’s clean sheet potential?
At this stage, it is hard to predict how Villa will cope defensively in the top flight next year.
Their 2018/19 campaign was very much split into two halves, with only the second of these seeing them in anything close to promotion-form.
After the first 23 matches of the campaign, they were just 11th in the Championship table but a 10-game winning streak between March 2 and April 22 propelled them into the play-offs, which they eventually won.
Across the whole season, Villa conceded 61 goals, which was the second worst in the top six, and top-half, in fact.
“The first half of the season was an absolute catastrophe defensively. Steve Bruce was completely negligent with regards to the state he left us in defensively. James Chester has been our best player over our years in the Championship, and he has damaged his body for the rest of his career due to having to play with an injury because we only had two proper centre backs at the club up until January.” – Dan Bardell, The Villa View
In total, they kept 12 clean sheets from their 46 matches with 10 Championship sides keeping more, including both Norwich and Sheffield United.
That winning run produced a higher rate of clean sheets once Dean Smith’s January signings had time to settle in. Villa recorded shutouts in 26% of their 2018/19 league matches but did so in 50% of the games between March 2 and April 22.
“Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe have been revelations on loan, Tuanzebe will play for England, I’m absolutely certain of it.” – Dan Bardell
As we saw with Norwich, Smith’s men were not particularly solid at the back when playing at home.
The 36 goals they conceded at Villa Park was the second worst in the whole division for 2018/19.
Only Rotherham (38) shipped more than that in front of their own fans, who were relegated to League One. Even more damning was the fact that Ipswich (31), who finished bottom, and Bolton (35) both conceded fewer than Villa in home matches.
By contrast, the Villans’ defence away from home was one of the best in the league.
On their travels, they conceded 25 goals in 23 matches, with only Middlesbrough (24), Sheffield United (24) and Norwich (23) shipping fewer than that.
Once again, it is also worth pointing out that Aston Villa secured promotion with a large contingent of loan players, who may not necessarily be at the club next season.
In defence, the key figures in that respect were Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings, who made 18 starts and Manchester United’s Axel Tuanzebe, who made 27. These are two players particularly credited with Villa’s upturn in form during the Spring.
Either way, it is difficult to know exactly how much we can read into Villa’s defensive performances from 2018/19 when assessing their chances in the Premier League next season.
The combination of two managers in one season and major changes in January based around temporary players muddy the waters somewhat.
“Again it’s difficult to say at the moment as we need to try and get loans turned into permanent deals, and our backup defender will all most likely leave on free transfers as they’re out of contract.” – Dan Bardell
Starts: 23 | Substitute appearances: 0 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 0
Norwegian international Ørjan Nyland was the number one at Aston Villa at the start of the season after arriving in the summer from FC Ingolstadt.
However, he did not play a single match in 2019 after rupturing his Achilles in a December training session.
“There was nothing that could be done about it. It was just one of those things. He was warming up and then it’s just gone. He will have an operation next week and that should put him out for the season.” – Dean Smith
He is expected to be fully fit for the 2019/20 and with two years left on his contract will be hoping to stake his claim for a return to the side.
That said, Nyland did not necessarily impress before his injury. When his season-ending knock was confirmed, Villa had conceded 38 goals in 25 matches, 1.52 per game.
In his 23 appearances, Nyland recorded 2.9 saves per game, with 16 Championship goalkeepers recording better than that over the season. Although, of the Villa shot-stoppers who made more than five starts, this was actually the best.
Either way, his injury and questionable displays in the early part of the campaign make it impossible to suggest whether or not he will be first choice come August.
Starts: 18 | Substitute appearances: 1 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 0
The man who helped guide Villa to promotion from between the sticks was Jed Steer, who in December was still playing League One football on loan at Charlton.
He was recalled on December 31 following that injury to Nyland to act as cover for January signing Lovre Kalinić.
However, after just seven starts for the Croatian, he too picked up an injury, opening the door for Steer to take over in goal.
It was Steer who helped Villa to that remarkable 10-match winning run to the point that he was able to hold off competition from Kalinic, even after he returned to full fitness.
Smith’s trust in Steer was rewarded as he saved two penalties in the shoot-out against West Bromwich Albion in the play-off semi-finals.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air since he’s come back. I’m so happy for him as he works so hard every single day. He’s in the gym, the last one to leave and recently he’s got his time to prove himself and he’s done that.” – Jack Grealish
Despite Steer’s success since coming back from loan, the local press are still not completely sure who will start in goal next season.
The money spent on both Nyland and Kalinic is not believed to be cheap so that could play into Smith’s thinking.
Ahmed El Mohamady
Starts: 35 | Substitute appearances: 6 | Goals: 2 | Assists: 8
Former Hull City and Sunderland defender Ahmed El Mohamady will be back for a seventh FPL season in 2019/20.
He may now be 31-years-old but the last 12 months proved to be the Egyptian’s most productive in English football from an attacking perspective.
In helping Aston Villa to promotion this year, El Mohamady was involved in 10 goals, more than in any of his previous league campaigns in this country.
No promoted defender managed more than his eight assists, which were provided on the back of his textbook delivery from wide areas.
When compared against the rest of the Championship, El Mohamady was one of the most creative defenders in the league during 2018/19.
Of those who made at least 20 appearances in a defensive position, the Egyptian ranked joint-second for his 1.5 chances created per game, behind only Wigan’s Reece James (1.7) and Leeds’ Barry Douglas (1.7).
El Mohamady also compares very favourably to his team-mates in this department too. In the 2018/19 season, Jack Grealish (78), John McGinn (75), Conor Hourihane (70) and were the only Villa players to play more key passes than his 53.
The other appeal of El Mohamady is his versatility. On 13 occasions this season he was deployed on the right of midfield and recorded two goals and two assists in those matches.
That number of appearances in that position is probably not sufficient to see him classified as a midfielder on FPL but is certainly enough for him to have the potential for playing out of position.
In total, El Mohamady made 35 league starts in 2018/19, more than anyone else in defence, despite the changes made when new manager Dean Smith came in. That should ensure he is nailed-on to start in the Premier League.
Perhaps the only thing to put us off initially, on top of uncertainty of clean sheets, could be price. El Mohamady looks like the only defensive option at Villa with a chance of coming in at anything more expensive than £4.5m, and might follow suit with £5.0m men Tommy Smith and Barry Douglas in recent years.
Starts: 31 | Substitute appearances: 3 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 3
Also relatively assured of starts in the Aston Villa defence for the new season, barring extensive summer recruitment in his position, is Neil Taylor.
The former Swansea City left-back was in the starting line-up 31 teams in 2018/19, although he offered much less than El Mohamady in terms of attacking returns.
Taylor managed just three assists and no goals, having created just 20 chances (11th-best in the Villa squad).
The data tells us that Taylor is more of a steady defensive option. In Villa’s promotion-winning campaign, he ranked third among his colleagues for tackles and fourth for tackles won – which could contribute to bonus points next season.
However, the chances of these sorts of numbers ever contributing to Fantasy appeal seem quite slim given Villa’s uncertain clean sheet potential at this stage.
Centre-back / left-back / right-back
Starts: 28 | Substitute appearances: 0 | Goals: 5 | Assists: 0
As already mentioned, James Chester struggled with injury this season and missed the final 18 games with a serious knee problem. Prior to that, he was an ever-present as one of the few centre-backs at the club.
The Welsh international played through his fitness issues this season and has reportedly caused damage to his body that may have to be managed for the rest of his career.
“I’ve damaged my body indefinitely. It’s something I’m going to have to manage for the rest of my career. Hopefully, I can look after it and play for as long as possible. It is what it is, I’m a professional. I’ve been training for the last six weeks. It’s a case of managing what I do. I’m feeling better and better as the weeks go on. The break over the summer will hopefully help me do well and I can come back and give it a go next season.” – James Chester
While that is not a hugely encouraging update, provided in the wake of Villa’s play-off final victory, if Chester can get fit for the 2019/20 season, he could offer a lot to Fantasy managers.
Despite making just 28 appearances in 2018/19, the centre-back scored five goals, more than any promoted defender.
All of them were netted from set pieces, as Chester presents a real threat in the air. No player in FPL managed more goals from dead-ball situations in 2018/19, Shane Duffy and Callum Wilson both scoring five each.
The 17 shots that Chester had in the box was more than any of his defensive colleagues, again impressive considering his limited minutes this year.
His total of five efforts on target was also the highest of any Villa defender this season.
But we must remember that whether Chester can be relied upon for his goal threat in the Premier League will depend on his fitness, as well as the centre-back situation at Villa…
Centre-back / left-back
Starts: 18 | Substitute appearances: 0 | Goals: 2 | Assists: 0
As already mentioned, Tyrone Mings has been an incredibly important player for Villa since signing on loan from Bournemouth in January.
At a time when the club was short of options at centre-back, the 26-year-old slotted into the team and put on some impressive commanding performances.
He scored two goals during his five-month stint at Villa in 2018/19 but had just a total of seven shots in that time.
In truth, at this stage, it looks as if Mings might not have a great deal of Fantasy appeal, but whether or not he is present in Villa’s squad for 2019/20 may have an impact on their clean sheet potential.
As things stand, Mings’ loan has now expired and he remains a Bournemouth player.
According to reports in the local press, Villa manager Smith considers getting Mings on a permanent deal a serious priority for the summer transfer window.
That is understandable, given his role in that impressive 10-match winning run. Fantasy managers should definitely watch how this transfer saga develops in the close-season.
Centre-back / right-back
Starts: 27 | Substitute appearances: 1 | Goals: 0 | Assists: 1
The same should be said about Manchester United man Axel Tuanzebe.
As already mentioned, it was his partnership with Mings that helped Villa make improvements to their defence in the final few months of the season.
Smith will certainly be hoping to bring Tuanzebe back to the club for 2019/20, but he may have to wait a while.
It was recently reported by the Daily Mirror that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is keen to give the centre-back a pre-season campaign at Manchester United in an attempt to assess his viability for the first team in 2019/20.
That does not necessarily mean he won’t come back to Villa again, but it does suggest we’ll have to wait and see what happens with him.
As mentioned Villa manager Smith has already started to make changes to his side ahead of a return to the Premier League.
Despite making 33 starts this season, right-back Alan Hutton has been released by the club.
Centre-back Tommy Elphick, signed from Bournemouth three years ago, was also let go at the end of May.
Kortney Hause is another defensive player who’s future is currently uncertain.
He joined Villa on loan from Wolves in January, playing six matches at centre-back and four at left-back.
His deal reportedly allows Smith to make his move from Molineux permanent but that is subject to the go-ahead from Villa too.
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