Expiring Contracts – Summer 2015’s Top Ten Free Agents
As the summer transfer window looms before us, transfer talk rages. Squads look to strengthen their roster while players look to make a grand, expensive exit. Some of the season’s most exciting stories emerge from the non-playing period of the summer. While transfer fees are bandied about and the whirlwind of speculative “could he, would he” whips about, there are several cheaper options available. Free agency this summer is full of great talents and squad players that could make the move to or around the Premier League. The following series is an analysis of the top ten best free agents of the upcoming transfer window and how they might fit in English football.
#9. Ron Vlaar – Aston Villa
From attacking flair to stalwart defense—this article focuses on analyzing 30-year-old center back Ron Vlaar and his potential move in the summer. A long-standing addition to the Dutch national team since the 2012 European Cup play-ins, Vlaar’s football has received just as much attention as his contract status. His size makes him a mountain to move around, and while a bit on the slow side his feet are quick. With the right pairing, a center back like Vlaar could play for several clubs in the Premier League, including some top sides. Even with news recently breaking that he would prefer to stay at Aston Villa, the question remains: will he? Can a financially-ailing club like Aston Villa turn down the chance to free up some room on the wage bill?
The breakdown of statistics for a complicated player like Vlaar has to be a little less streamlined than others on this list. Vlaar in the Premier League creates a bit of a divided opinion. Aston Villa have been in relegation battles of the course of the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons that have very nearly sent the historic side down to the Championship.
Among many problems, the defense has simply let through too many goals. A combination of inconsistent goalkeeping from Brad Guzan and a jumbled mess of a back line have failed to keep the ball out of the back of their own net. The centerpiece of their defense since 2012 has been Ron Vlaar. Because the spotlight has been on him, many would focus the blame on him. Others would maintain that the reason he’s kept his starting position is due to positive performance while dealing with underachieving defenders.
Statistically speaking, there’s more evidence for the latter than the former. Vlaar averages only one defensive error a season. In a league with players that commit errors as many as five or six times a year, one is a good number to maintain. As previously stated, Vlaar is good with his feet when going in for a tackle. Though he spent most of the season injured, his previous seasons speak loud enough themselves. Vlaar averaged two tackles per game in both 2012/13 and 2013/14 while managing less than one this past season.
One of the primary explanations for a poorer season than usual is, much like Yoann Gourcuff, injuries. In and out of the side at several points in the season, Vlaar missed 50% of Aston Villa’s matches. After a brilliant defensive start to the campaign, Vlaar’s game time became inconsistent. Four weeks into the season, he disrupted a calf muscle. An undisclosed injury stole November from him. After New Year’s Day, a knee injury kept Vlaar out until the end of February and another calf injury confined him to just one match played in eleven.
The relatively small amount of injuries sustained in previous seasons shows a little bit of wear-and-tear that might keep prospective clubs away. On the other hand, there seems to be an explanation. Coming off a World Cup year, Vlaar never got the chance to really rest and regain his fitness. Coupled with a Villa team that allowed 57 goals all season, a drop-off in overall performance can be expected. But the 30-year-old Dutch defender still has quite the noise being made around him. Where’s the buzz coming from?
The answer is one very, very highly rated World Cup. The grandest stage offered Vlaar the chance to further prove his worth to the national team, and he performed admirably. The best matches to consider from a stats perspective were the two draws against Costa Rica and Argentina. The quarter- and semi-finals of the tournament went to penalties with 0-0 scorelines, and the two teams couldn’t have been more different. Upstarts Costa Rica hampered the Dutch defense with pace and intensity while Lionel Messi and his wealth of attacking Argentinians did their best to work a relatively young back line.
In the end, neither squad could find a goal. Ron Vlaar was at the heart of that stalwart defense. 13 and 20 defensive actions respectively, 100% aerial duels won, five tackles and seven clearances in two matches. So there’s good reason why there was buzz around the Dutch center back at the beginning of the season. Now, at the end of a poor campaign, clubs will look to tear him away from Villa Park. Though recent reports quote manager Tim Sherwood stating that both he and Vlaar want the defender to stay at Villa, the transfer window giveth and taketh away. Should he leave, there are several clubs that would have him.
Goodness, has this transfer rumor been beaten like a dead horse. Since the arrival of Louis van Gaal, Manchester United have struggled to find the “just right” center back pairing. Finishing in a Champions League spot clearly shows that a stop-gap was successfully made, but anyone watching the Red Devils knows there’s room for improvement. Vlaar would be a cheap upgrade on several United defenders that were given a run out in the side, including Johnny Evans and Tyler Blackett. Van Gaal and Vlaar also share quite a bit of international experience together. The 3-4-1-2 system used by Holland during the World Cup was unsuccessfully implemented at the beginning of this Premier League season. The primary problem for United—their defense—would have a solid center back in Vlaar that’s highly experienced in the 3-back system. A line of Rojo, Vlaar, and Jones (or someone else new) would be powerful going into the 2015/16 season.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Moderate to High.
Who Would Vlaar Most Benefit?
This, of course, won’t happen simply because it’s both smart and easy. Regardless, a stopper like Vlaar opposite a ball-playing Sakho would be a great tandem at the back. The Dutchman is quick enough on the ball to maintain the center of the pitch while Sakho tries to take the ball from the opposition. Compared to Skrtel, Vlaar seems to be more intelligent on and off the ball. Compared to Lovren, Vlaar is actually a defender. On a free, this upgrade would be surely welcomed by Liverpool fans if they could simply ignore Aston Villa’s defensive record as a whole.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low to Moderate.
This might seem out of left field, but a solid replacement for Mertesacker still needs to be found. Mixed reviews on Gabriel Paulista have kept the jury out on the Brazilian defender. Vlaar’s international experience is worth mentioning here, and the need (whether he knows it or not) to get out of Villa Park is apparent. Without the height of the German Mertesacker, Vlaar could come in and replace him based on the style of play Arsenal have at the back. Koscielny plays the ball while Mertesacker sits still and prays someone fast doesn’t come near him. The Dutchman isn’t a spry center back, but he can at least hold his own in a one-on-one. Have him come to the Emirates while Paulista is being bred into a top class defender. By the time that transition is made for Gabriel, Vlaar will be near retirement age anyway.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low to Moderate.
Alderweireld will be gone come July, or at least he should be. While the Saints will look to secure a permanent move for the Belgian, there’s surely a set of back-up plans ready to be pushed forward if the need arises. When Alderweireld wasn’t playing, he was replaced by Maya Yoshida. Personally, the Japanese defender wasn’t entirely impressive. Enter: Ron Vlaar. He plays that sort of bruising game that Southampton developed over the course of the 2014/15 season and would partner Jose Fonte well. With two defensive midfielders protecting them both, there would be little need for a stylistic alteration. Neither Fonte nor Vlaar are great ball-playing defenders. But that’s not expected of them within Ronald Koeman’s system. On a free, this would be a good move. However, there are younger options that would surely be ahead of Vlaar on Southampton’s list. Coupled with the incredible youth system on the south coast, the Dutchman is more likely to remain in Birmingham.
Worth the Buy? Probably.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low.