Joe Bennett had a rough year in an Aston Villa shirt.
He may not have suffered the dreaded relegation, but he was certainly the source of many a sigh from the crowd: Of all the fledgling players Paul Lambert brought to the club last season, his development was the slowest.
Matthew Lowton and Ashley Westwood, also lower-league prospects brought in at the start of the season, have flourished: The former made the second-most interceptions in the Premier League this season (111) and has revolutionised Villa’s right side, while the latter is a pass-master who’s now been compared to Michael Carrick.
But Bennett has limped through his first full season in the top flight, and the left-back became the scapegoat for all of Villa’s problems before the side’s late resurgence in form.
Was it fair to blame Bennett entirely? Of course not, but there’s no denying there were some genuine issues haunting him throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
Villa started the season with central defender Nathan Baker at left-back, then tried Eric Lichaj there whilst simultaneously scrabbling for a new man on the market. The club were outpriced by Ipswich Town for Aaron Cresswell, and in the end settled for Middlesbrough man Bennett.
“Anything’s better than Lichaj” said the fans, but it’s arguable that wasn’t the case.
Bennett was billed as an attacking left-back, but spent most of his season tucked in too narrow and too deep alongside Ciaran Clark, stunting Villa’s width on the left-hand side.
He’s slow to react stepping out to meet his winger and never puts in a challenge, preferring to wait and react to their movement.
This attitude led to sides purposely attacking Villa’s left, hammering it for the opening 20 minutes to see if they could make any progress.
Sunderland played Adam Johnson in multiple times at Villa Park, Norwich City targeted it at Carrow Road and Manchester United murdered it at Old Trafford to win the title.
Defensive liabilities are forgiven if they attack with intent—Rafael of Man Utd is a prime example of this—but Bennett remained timid going forward.
He failed to filter out wide and venture into space, eventually leading his teammates to distrust him on the ball. Ron Vlaar, Clark, Westwood and Andi Weimann would actively seek to avoid passing to him, making Lowton the only viable passing outlet at full-back.
The result? A lop-sided team both offensively and defensively.
Bennett made limited progress throughout the season, but no matter how good he gets, the damage is done: His teammates do not trust him, and therefore will not give him the ball.
Lambert spends 45 minutes each game pulling and pushing Bennett into new positions and commanding his side to use him, but they still look for alternate options.
Villa will lack width on the left for as long as Bennett is the incumbent at left-back, and that makes signing a new one incredibly important.
Bennett could develop into a solid player, but that won’t happen at Villa Park.