Aston Villa: Experience and Structure at the Back Will Lead to Early Success

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Aston Villa: Experience and Structure at the Back Will Lead to Early Success
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Aston Villa kicked off their 2014-15 Premier League campaign with a comfortable away win at Stoke City on Saturday. 

Andi Weimann's second-half goal gave Villa a deserved lead that they never looked like surrendering. In stark contrast to previous seasons, Villa's well organized and disciplined defence won Villa the match and will be a key feature to watch develop during the season's early goings.

In Paul Lambert's previous seasons in charge, Villa have had a plethora of defensive problems that were largely responsible for Villa's consistent struggles. At one point, the club went 26 league matches without keeping a clean sheet, underlining how poor the defence was. 

Lambert's well publicized affinity for using young players left Villa with inexperience across the back. With the exception of captain Ron Vlaar, all of Villa's defenders over the past two seasons have been under the age of 25.

While young players are more than capable of excelling with talent and practice, being fully reliant on less experienced defenders left Villa dreadfully exposed on numerous occasions. Silly, individual mistakes lost Villa many points in seasons that the club barely staved off the drop.

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These problems were evident all across the back line. At centre-back, Nathan Baker and Chris Herd have proven themselves to be notoriously uncultured, undisciplined and untrustworthy. Irishman Ciaran Clark has shown slightly more aptitude, but he has suffered from plenty of poor decision-making in his own right.

Furthermore, both full-back positions have been occupied with more attacking than defensive players. From Matthew Lowton and Leandro Bacuna on the right to Joe Bennett and Antonio Luna on the left, Villa's players often seemed more suited as wing-backs or midfielders than traditional defenders.

The summer transfer window and the first match of 2014-15 has seen a marked change in Lambert's strategy as he has completely altered his approach at the back in order to address this conundrum.

Summer arrivals Philippe Senderos and Aly Cissokho broke the mold by signing as more traveled, seasoned players. These moves—along with the recall of outcast Alan Hutton—were greeted with some scepticism from many who believed the players to be high on experience but short on quality.

To his credit, Lambert ignored his critics and was not bashful in selecting Senderos, Cissokho and Hutton to join Vlaar at the back on Sunday. All three men rewarded Lambert by helping Villa to a clean sheet and all three points.

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Senderos' nervy performance at the World Cup demonstrated why many were doubtful of his signing on a free transfer, but the Swiss defender answered these critics with a mistake-free performance on Saturday and showed a good understanding with his fellow veteran, Vlaar.

Cissokho impressed few last season on loan to Liverpool but a move to Birmingham seems to have suited him as he was terrific against Stoke. He was completely untroubled defensively and even contributed well on a few attacks.

The performance of Hutton was harder to judge. The Scottish defender tackled heartily and was not culpable for any threatening Stoke chances, but he was far less disciplined than his team-mates and was often pulled out of position at right-back.

Despite these critiques, Hutton must be applauded for his resurgence after being left in the cold for the last two years at Villa Park. It will take more than just Saturday's performance to regain the full trust of the Villa faithful, but Hutton's comeback over the past month has been a pleasant surprise.

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Adding to Villa's new emphasis on organization and experience, Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez, a member of the country's World Cup team, signed from Elche on Friday to give Villa a true shield in front of the back four that will further contribute to the restructuring of Villa's defence.

Villa have been lacking a hearty defensive midfielder ever since the retirement of Stiliyan Petrov. Yacouba Sylla was signed with such a role in mind, but the Frenchman was not up to par and has justifiably been sent out on loan for the season.

Ashley Westwood has filled the role of the deepest lying midfielder over the past couple of seasons, but Sanchez is a more natural fit for the job. Westwood has positioned himself conservatively and has done well at keeping attacks flowing with simple passing, but he is not a particularly strong tackler or a very physical player.

Whether he outright replaces Westwood or allows the Englishman to play further up the pitch, Sanchez will come in and offer Villa the no-nonsense first line of defence they have been sorely missing. The Colombian is no Andrea Pirlo on the ball, but he is a destructive tackler who will snuff out chances before they develop.

With these new signings Lambert has made a concerted effort to protect keeper Brad Guzan and has given the fans a boost with the win against Stoke.

Only time will tell if Villa's latest additions can maintain their form throughout the season but, thanks to Villa's impressively disciplined defence on Saturday, there is reason to believe that Villa are taking steps to improve their leaky defence.

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