There are plenty of stories to be found in Aston Villa’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday. One of the biggest, of course, is that of the way Anthony Taylor lost control of the match early on, leading to several questionable decisions and the unwarranted sending-off of Laurent Koscielny. There’s also the off-the-pitch drama, which centers on the lack of players brought in during the transfer window. A home loss to a club that finished 15th last season isn’t going to calm Arsenal supporters’ fears, particularly with the first leg of their Champions League qualifier coming up next week. Certainly many stories will be written about what went wrong during their opening match, and speculating on who might be brought in to help repair the damage.
There are also the stories to be written from the Villa perspective. Paul Lambert started off this transfer season with a bang, bringing in seven new players, but started just one of his fresh faces against Arsenal. Did the team’s experience playing together last season help them hang on for all three points? Or was it simply Lambert’s consistent emphasis on attacking play? But while the exuberance of this young Aston Villa side may be a joy to watch, it means that sometimes the biggest Villa flaw is overlooked: its haphazard defense.
Villa’s defense has been all over the map for the past couple seasons, and for much of the opening match it appeared as though nothing had changed. While his goal in the final minutes of the match may have made many label Antonio Luna’s league debut as “stunning,” it overshadowed his defensive capabilities at left-back. Ron Vlaar allowed himself to be pulled out of position, enabling Olivier Giroud to score the opening goal for Arsenal. Nathan Baker came off early with yet another head injury, being replaced by the inconsistent Ciaran Clark, who did little to dissuade Arsenal from threatening the goal.
But that’s where Aston Villa’s hero of last season, Brad Guzan, comes in. It’s difficult to remember now, but Guzan was not the starting goalkeeper when Villa kicked off last season. Instead, it was Shay Given between the sticks for the first two matches, during which he conceded a combined four goals to West Ham and Everton. That led to Guzan being given the gloves for the League Cup match against Tranmere Rovers and the rest, as they say, is history. Guzan started the remaining 36 league games, making 114 saves and being named Villa’s Player of the Year for the 2012-2013 season.
Despite Christian Benteke’s 23 goals last season, Guzan was also the top player for the fans, with the goalkeeper collecting the Supporters’ Player of the Year award as well. Although the Belgian’s goals undoubtedly helped Villa stay up last season, it was Guzan’s ability to keep the opposition’s out that was ultimately most important. His impressive heroics behind the shambolic Villa defense did not go unnoticed by Jurgen Klinsmann, either, and the American was rewarded with starts against Mexico and Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying.
This season’s first match should further convince Klinsmann that Tim Howard cannot be the presumptive favorite between the sticks for the United States. Sure, Guzan did not keep a clean sheet, but neither did Howard for Everton — and clean sheets aren’t the only factor that caps should be based upon. Guzan put in an impressive performance against Arsenal today, particularly after Koscielny’s sending off. Arsenal may have been down a man but they were bent on scoring an equalizer, and multiple shots found their way through the Villa backline. It was only thanks to the heroics of Guzan — in particular one block which looked as though the keeper saved it with a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy — that Villa managed to stay in front.
It was Tim Howard that started the USMNT qualifier against Honduras in June, and Howard who played the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week. In between, Nick Rimando took the gloves during the Gold Cup. But it’s Guzan, who at almost 29 years old is reaching his goalkeeping prime, that should be the one in goal should the United States reach the 2014 World Cup. His command of the area, his distribution, and, most of all, his ability to mop up the mistakes of an incredibly shaky back line demonstrate his worth — both to country and to club.