Ciaran Clark is one of a number of youngsters at Villa Park to have broken through the ranks at the club and staked his claim for a starting berth in Gerard Houllier’s plans. The defender will have been used to playing with the likes of Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton but will no doubt have been as surprised young Villa counterparts to have played such an integral role this season. Fellow 21-year-old, winger Marc Albrighton may have taken the headlines of the three but it has been Clark who has perhaps been most assured in making the step up into senior team football. Clark, who opted to play for the Republic of Ireland alongside team-mate Richard Dunne over England last year, has undoubtedly been asked the most out of, from all of the up and coming stars and indeed perhaps the whole squad. Coming through the youth and reserves set-up as a goalscoring centre-back, Clark has had to show his competence as much in an attacking sense as in defending this year having played in centre midfield and left back during the course of the season. His reputation of being capable of bagging the odd goal has transferred into the full squad having netted 4 times in all competitions against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn. It now seems that the naturally left footed defender may have to settle for a place at left back with former senior team regular Stephen Warnock falling way down in Houllier’s rankings after expressing an interest in leaving the club. So we have seen plenty of Clark this season, but to which position is he best suited. To read my thoughts on the matter
In my opinion, despite showing a real competence as a versatile member of the squad, Clark is certainly best in a central role. At centre-back he is a no nonsense, heart on sleeve sort of defender but faces competition from 3 highly competitive colleagues. Ricahrd Dunne’s return from a fall from grace he suffered towards the end of last year appears to have rejuvenated the Irishman with his mainstay partner, James Collins perhaps being the club’s most consistent defender this term. Add to this Carlos Cuellar who is possibly, along with the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, the sides most unfortunate player. The Spaniard rarely disappoints when called upon but has suffered under Houllier as he did under O’Neill in his favoured centre-back role, being called upon only as back-up and dropped upon the recovery of his team-mates, i.e. last time out against Man Utd. So who, according to my player ratings, deserves to be starting regularly in the back four. Of the four defenders in question Ciaran Clark has the highest average rating of 6.56, ahead of Collins (6.39), Cuellar (6.38) and Dunne (6.25).
In an attacking sense he has certainly been the most useful of his competing defenders having scored 4 goals and assisting once in 17 starts. 2 of these goals came against Arsenal in centre-midfield, a position in which he seemed to adopt with consummate ease. The 21-year-old is very comfortable in possession and has a surprising trick or two in his game. He plays the defensive role as well as Nigel Reo-Coker but is more competent in an advanced position. In comparison to captain Stiliyan Petrov he has a better engine due to the Bulgarian’s advanced age but is slightly less capable in picking out the telling pass. Early indication’s against Manchester United from Jean Makoun, to me suggested that Houllier may well have captured a fusion of Reo-Coker’s tireless approach and Petrov’s experience in retaining possession which may well see the end of Clark’s hopes in a midfield role.
Clark is by no means the finished article but shows real promise. I would say the main thing he hasn’t to iron out of his game is his outstanding ability to pick up a booking! At one stage in the season he put together a run of 7 straight appearances in when he was cautioned, serving a one-match ban in turn. He appears to have stopped the rot somewhat but 8 yellow cards in almost half of his starts is far too much. It is due to his eagerness to tackle that this is the case and I believe this has been his downfall against a certain type of player. Clark has played admirably in an unfamiliar role on the left but it has perhaps been his least consistent position. I feel that against the quicker, trickier player he tends to commit himself a little too soon which is something which will only come with experience. Last time out against Nani he was undone to a degree and faced similar problems against Adam Johnson when the England winger was introduced in the 1-0 win earlier in the month. These however, are the sort of players that any full-back dreads facing so perhaps I’m just nit-picking. He’s certainly been an improvement on Warnock’s dismal half of the season and I have no doubt he will be an invaluable asset for Villa in the years to come.
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