After a turbulent summer off the pitch, it has been an indifferent campaign for Aston Villa on the field of play this season, which culminated in the sacking of manager Steve Bruce last month.

The arrival of boyhood Villa fan Dean Smith from Brentford has added a much-needed freshness to the Championship outfit as they have won two of their last four fixtures under his stewardship ahead of their trip to Frank Lampard’s Derby County on Saturday afternoon.

Regardless of the current situation, promotion to the promised land will always be the main aim for Smith, but there is no doubt the onerous assignment facing him at this moment in time is mending the club’s problematic defence.

Ask any Villa supporter and they will tell you that for the past two seasons centre-back James Chester has been there preeminent and most reliable of defenders.

Despite a Man of the Match performance during the 2-0 win over Bolton last Friday, for the majority of this campaign, Chester has looked the shadow of himself.

So, what has gone wrong?

Chester vs. Chester

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Credit: WhoScored

In the image above, you can see a comparison of Chester’s performances for Villa since his move from West Brom during the summer of 2016. During the previous two campaigns, the former Manchester United academy product showed consistency and reliability at the heart of the club’s defence. In his first season, Chester made an average of 1.6 tackles per game, with that number dropping by only 0.1 for the following season. However, that number has worryingly ebbed to an average of 0.9 tackles per game this time around.

When it comes to interceptions per match, once again, Chester’s average has curtailed in the wrong direction. The Welshman has only made 0.9 interceptions per encounter this term, failing to match his best of 1.6 during the 2016/17 campaign. The same minor decline can be seen in average blocks per match.

The one area where the former Hull man has not suffered too much is average clearances per game. Chester has cleared the ball an average of 7.4 times this season, matching that of his first campaign and only 0.4 down from his best.

Chester vs. Change

One major reason behind Chester’s dip in form was the departure, and subsequent retirement, of John Terry in the summer. Villa conceded only 42 goals last season, with the duo at the heart of the club’s defence, only promoted duo Wolves and Cardiff shipped fewer goals.

During this campaign, they have already conceded 23 goals from their 16 encounters, only seven other sides in the division are worse off. Truthfully, Chester’s lack of form has played a part in Villa’s decline at the back, but so did the tactical changes made by Smith’s predecessor.

As you can see from the image below, Bruce struggled to find the right formation and personnel to fit any of his questionable systems following the play-off final defeat to Fulham in May.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Credit: Wyscout

Midfielder Mile Jedinak, who was a rock in front of Chester for the previous two seasons, was drafted alongside him in a number of unusual tactics by the four-time promotion winner. Added with that, centre-back Tuanzebe was being played at right-back, whilst Alan Hutton was operating in the other full-back position. Furthermore, goalkeeper and summer signing Orjan Nyland was continually making rash mistakes and showing signs of unnerving the whole stadium at any given moment. All of this mixed together was not boding well for the usually-consistent Chester.

Chester vs. his teammates

As you can see from the image below, Chester has not faired too well compared with his centre-back partners this season. Tommy Elphick did play alongside him for the first game of the season, but he has since been loaned out to Hull City. Nonetheless, aside from clearances, both Tuanzebe and Jedinak beat their club captain in every defensive stat. Another clear sign that Chester has taken the biggest of hits from Villa’s play-off heartache and summer of trouble.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Credit: WhoScored

Chester vs. opponents

In the next images, you can see two examples of Chester’s lapse in concentration proving to be deleterious for his side.

In the first image below, Chester has made one of the ultimate sins a defender can make, allowing your opponent to see your name and number. This mistake allows Norwich striker Jordan Rhodes to make a late run in behind Chester as a cross is being delivered from the left-hand side.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Chester should be positioned closer to Rhodes and left-back Neil Taylor (closest to your picture) needs to understand that his teammate has lost his marker and could be in trouble. Credit: Wyscout

The final image shows Rhodes sneaking in behind Chester, getting that extra half a yard ahead of him and poking the ball into the back of the net. Villa went on to lose the game 2-1 and Smith suffered his first defeat as boss.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Rhodes is in control of the situation because he positioned himself where he can see and trouble Chester. Credit: Wyscout

Three days later, the Midlands outfit were on the road again, with Chester, once again having a moment to forget.

As you can see below. Following a throw-in to QPR, the ball falls to Geoff Cameron just before the halfway line. The USA international decides to play a ball over the top, with striker Pawel Wszolek doing well to get in between Chester and left-back Neil Taylor.

Unfortunately for Villa, Chester is ball watching and he fails to drop back to prevent the big striker from running in on goal. As a result of another lapse in concentration, the QPR man is through one-on-one with the keeper and he ends up scoring what proves to be the winning strike. Another un-Chester-like moment.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Chester is caught out and should, at this moment, drop back. Instead, he watches the ball, loses the flight of the ball and then the situation. Credit: Wyscout
James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Chester is now back peddling, with QPR striker Wszolek waiting for the ball to drop so he can pounce. Credit: Wyscout.
James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Wszolek gets a clear shot on goal, with the ball hitting the underside of the crossbar and goal-line technology awarding the strike. Credit: Wyscout.

Chester vs. Terry

Last season, Villa had one of the most fearsome defensive backlines the Championship has ever seen. The back five, including on-loan Manchester United keeper Sam Johnstone, was led by Premier League great John Terry. Love him or loathe him, he had the credentials, qualities, experience and mindset to change any dressing room. Despite being towards the back end of his career, once the then 36-year-old proved he had the legs to constantly compete in the ever-gruelling nature of the second tier, many would have backed him to be Villa’s standout defender. Not when Chester’s around!

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Credit: WhoScored

As you can see from the illustration above, during Villa’s road to the play-off final at Wembley, Chester more than matched the qualities Terry brought to the Villa Park table. In every defensive department, bar average interceptions per game, Chester stood ahead of his man. The two statistics that loom in the bright lights for Chester compared with the now Villa coach is average tackles and clearances per game. The younger legs of Chester made an average of 1.5 tackles per game to Terry’s 0.8. Added with that, Chester was dealing with danger a lot more, making an average of 7.8 clearances per game to his counterparts 6.2.

Chester vs. Swansea & Bolton

To the delight of Villa supporters, after a little blip, they are now seeing the Chester of old reappear again. Despite Smith losing his two away games in charge and conceding three goals to boot. He has won back-to-back home matches, securing clean sheets in both those fixtures against Swansea and Bolton, respectively.

James Chester, Aston Villa, Tactical Analysis, Statistics
Credit: WhoScored

As you can see from the image above, Chester had two outstanding games against the possession-based Swans and the more direct Trotters. Compared with his season average, his tackles, interceptions and clearances were on a high. There is no doubt that this is a sign of things to come from the Welshman, who is now thriving with a bonafide and regular centre-back partner beside him in Tuanzebe.

Conclusion

A hangover from the play-off final, player departures, odd tactics and poor form have all played their part in Chester looking like the shadow of himself. However, the arrival of Smith has added a much-needed ray of light into his game as Villa push for those promotion places.