Through four games and a month of Premier League action, Aston Villa fans have been placed on an emotional roller coaster ride, punctuated with Monday's news that defender Jores Okore would miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury.
Losing Okore to injury is particularly worrisome for a Villa defense that has been extremely inconsistent in both form and fitness.
Having arrived from FC Nordsjaelland for £4 million during the summer, Okore was touted as one of Paul Lambert's marquee signings. Okore had impressed last season playing in the Champions League and had turned down an earlier approach to sign for Chelsea.
Okore quickly impressed the Villa fans with his performances against Chelsea and Liverpool. He started Saturday's match against Newcastle, limping off after sustaining what would be a season-ending injury.
From Okore's perspective, his injury will be extremely disheartening as it will halt his rapid progress as a player. Just 21 years old, Okore had secured a move to the Premier League and had broken into the Danish national team as well.
His injury will likely prevent him from being fit in time for the World Cup, should Denmark qualify. Furthermore, missing a season's worth of action will not help Okore's case for selection even if he recovers in time to play in Brazil.
Paul Lambert will now be placed in a difficult but somewhat familiar situation. Villa are now left with Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker as centre-back options.
These are the same three players Lambert chose from last season, when Richard Dunne missed the entire campaign through injury. In addition, right-back Matthew Lowton is capable of covering in central defense, as is utility player Chris Herd.
Although Clark and Baker are young and improving players, Villa fans must be worried at the prospect of fielding the same central defenders that almost saw the club relegated last season.
Furthermore, both Clark and Baker have experienced their own injuries this campaign, creating fear that Lambert will have even less choice in his partnership in central defense.
Villa's best hopes at strengthening their defense are to find a consistent partnership at the heart of it. Central defenders must develop a strong chemistry and mutual understanding to be most effective, and the constant injuries to Villa's defenders are preventing such bonds from properly forming.
Vlaar, Clark and Baker all possess different qualities that favor their respective selections for a first-choice partnership.
As the club captain and most experienced of the trio, Vlaar is the most likely to consistently be in the starting XI. While Clark is more experienced than Baker and offers more in attack, a Vlaar-Baker partnership seems to be Lambert's preferred pairing.
The two defenders played together for the majority of Villa's late run of form last season that saw them secure Premier League survival. In addition, the pair started together in the opening win against Arsenal, the only game in which all of the defenders were fit.
Most importantly, by committing to a regular defensive partnership for the season, Lambert is more likely to generate consistent performances from his central defenders than if he rotates among his options.
Despite the uncertainty generated by Okore's injury and the reality of losing three consecutive matches, there are intriguing defensive statistics to consider in order to project Aston Villa's future prospects.
Villa have been surprisingly resolute considering their quality of opposition and continued run of 26 games without a clean sheet, according to OptaJoe.
Statistics from WhoScored show that they rank 13th so far this season in allowing shots, ahead of teams such as Arsenal and Liverpool, despite having the second-lowest amount of possession in the league at just 42.3 percent.
This indicates that Villa's defense has been relatively well-organized and capable of preventing opposing teams from turning possession into quality opportunities.
While their opponents see more of the ball, they have not generated an above-average amount of scoring opportunities.
If Villa can increase their amount of possession without weakening their strong counter-attack, then they will relieve their defense of much of the pressure they face each game. Improving in this area is especially important now due to Okore's injury.
With their star signing stricken, Villa fans can only hope that their manager finds a consistent partnership in defense to finally earn the team an elusive clean sheet and guide them up the Premier League table.
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