While many feared that the arrival of Alex McLeish would stunt the side’s attacking threat, few questioned the manager’s capabilities to ensure a strong defensive unit, with the first 3 games of the season indicative of significant progress from an awful record last season.
Villa finished the 2010/11 season under Gerard Houllier with a goal difference of -11 having shipped 59 goals in the league, 1 more than McLeish’s relegated Birmingham. Early into this, despite only playing arguably inferior opposition, Villa’s back-line has conceded just once in their opening 4 fixtures in league and cup, with the partnership of Dunne and Collins looking back to its best following a turbulent campaign for the duo last year.
James Collins has come out and admitted to a personality clash with Houllier and insisted that training under McLeish, a manager who has “played at centre-back and he knows what he is on about”, is “a million times better”.
Last season the defence was called into action on plenty of occasions, with Dunne and Collins making 3.6 tackles per game between them (2.3 & 1.3). In the three games this season, fewer errors at the back and in midfield have meant that the duo have made just 2.7 tackles per game, with Dunne again chief challenger with 1.7 to Collins’ 1.
Thus far it has been apparent to me that the most significant development in the pair’s game has been their ability to win aerial duels, particularly important when it comes to defending set-pieces- a real problem area last term. Collins won just 63% while Dunne won 66% of his duels last season compared to respective figures of 70% and 80% this.
If anything, Richard Dunne seems to have started the season in much improved form, eclipsing his defensive partner in terms of aerial success, tackles per game and interceptions per game, but an area in which Collins’ game has improved is one that was significant from last term. All too often the Welshman seemed to hoof balls forward to no-one in particular, completing just 68% of his attempted passes last season compared to 76% thus far this term.
His range was noticeably better on Saturday, finding a man- inevitably Heskey (who deserves credit)- with 7 of 9 long balls attempted having completed just 2.8 per game last season.
With Warnock also looking more reliable at left-back, all-in-all the good ship Villa looks a far more sturdy one, though despite an excellent deputy display at right-back from Chris Herd last time out, the club look a little short in this area.
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