Villa’s squad -- the strengths and weaknesses

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesVilla fans know they are in safe hands with Brad Guzan as their No.1.

After an early summer flurry of incoming transfers, it's all gone rather quiet at Villa Park in recent weeks with the club's struggles to offload some of the unwanted members of the existing squad, thus potentially stalling any further investment.

If any future deals do hinge on Villa sealing outgoing moves for the handful of out-of-favour players -- and with Alan Hutton's switch to Real Mallorca and Barry Bannan's transfer to Blackburn both reportedly collapsing due to personal terms not being agreed upon, it's clear this is far from straightforward business -- it's probable that Paul Lambert may have concluded his spending prior to the season’s kick-off, and perhaps even until the re-opening of the January transfer window

That being the case, how strong is Villa's squad, in terms of being capable of holding its own in the Premier League? Here's an assessment, position by position.

GOALKEEPER

No concerns over the quality of Villa's undisputed No.1 keeper, Brad Guzan, who was outstanding last season in barely putting a foot (or glove) wrong. An unflappable character, the American exudes confidence and leadership. The concern for Villa is not about Guzan at all, but avoiding any kind of situation which may keep him out of the side for any reasonable length of time. Whereas in 2012-13 when Villa had Shay Given to call on when required, now the back-up slot is owned by Jed Steer, who joined from Norwich. Steer has talent but no Premier League experience. Villa will be hoping he can develop at his own pace and not be required to sink or swim if pitched into a pressure situation.

FULL BACK

At right-back, it's a case of hoping the excellent Matt Lowton does not lose fitness or form, while at left-back it's a question of who, between Joseph Bennett and Antonio Luna, shows up strongly enough to start. Question marks against them both -- Bennett after a difficult first season last year, and Luna, facing his debut PL season and looking like he might be happier going forward than defending.

Lowton has the right-back spot sewn up -- he could push for an England call-up this season -- and a good job too, for Villa's only cover for that role comes in the shape of two players who are not specialists in that position: Leandro Bacuna and Chris Herd.

CENTRE BACK

Very much a wait and see story developing here. Villa have four senior central defenders to call on, but there isn't a definitive first-choice partnership as yet. Ron Vlaar and Nathan Baker did well enough towards the end of 2012-13, though Jores Okore and Ciaran Clark will be pushing hard to get in. Okore could be the best of the group, Clark perhaps the fourth choice at present.

Vlaar had a mixed time of it last season but he is the captain, and his goal against Malaga in the final pre-season friendly demonstrated that he brings a certain measure of spirit to the team. Okore partnered with him in that game; perhaps a hint to Lambert's thinking. Overall, this is a key area of the Villa team and the area needing the most significant improvement. For Villa to defend better this season, either Vlaar, Baker and Clark need to improve, or Okore needs to be something special. Or both.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD

A real problem area for Villa in recent seasons, towards the final third of 2012-13 Lambert found consistency and balance. The Villa manager typically played two central midfielders in not-quite-holding roles, though remaining conservative going forward, and Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph emerged as the regular selections.

Westwood was excellent last season, taking almost obsessional pride in keeping possession, while Delph, particularly unlucky with injury since arriving at the club, showed signs of maturing nicely. More adventurous than Westwood, he learned the discipline of his role and started to cut out the silly fouls. This pair will probably be Lambert's first choices.

Villa are well covered for support here; Karim El Ahmadi didn't enjoy the best of debut seasons but remains a neat passer and has had a good pre-season, Yacouba Sylla is a little rough around the edges but still brings athleticism, and Gary Gardner could make a decent contribution if he stays fit.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

Villa need something a little extra from midfield, and the complexities of Lambert's formation allow for an attacking type, on occasion. Villa field either three conventional midfielders or use two and make the third a playmaker -- this could be Lambert's preference, but it comes down to personnel. It's still the missing link in the Villa side. It won't be Charles N'Zogbia, injured and possibly available to leave. It could be two of the new Villa signings, Bacuna, the Dutch midfielder, or Bulgarian Aleksandar Tonev, who is two-footed and quick on the ball. Persistent links with Nuremburg midfielder Hidetoshi Kiyotake suggest that Lambert is still searching for his perfect No.10, however, and Villa have lacked that player with the subtle gift of creating something from nothing for too long.

- Villa mull Kiyotake bid

FORWARDS

This is the section of the squad that Villa can feel confident about -- the first-choice front three of Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor is as good as anything outside the Premier League's top four, and Benteke's monstrous form in pre-season has emphasised what an outstanding talent the Belgian is. It's a threesome which should give Villa a chance of troubling any defence.

What will be fascinating is witnessing what new signing Nicklas Helenius brings to the table. The Dane has shown so far that he's more than a tall target man -- he's a very clever footballer and may bring a more creative edge to the Villa attack. Overall, Villa's attacking options are plentiful and full, the strongest part of the squad.

All in all, on paper, this Villa squad looks more competitive and balanced than a year ago, but still two or three new signings away from the ideal. Cover at right-back, and a midfield playmaker, and manager Lambert can feel very pleased indeed with the options at his disposal. Whether those players will arrive by the end of August remains to be seen.

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