Ron Vlaar's Villa future
The one player yet to feature in any part of Villa's preseason preparations so far is the individual generating the most interest.
Ron Vlaar, enjoying an extended holiday after Netherlands' run to the semifinals of the World Cup -- the two other Villans involved in the tournament, Brad Guzan and Philippe Senderos, have been back with the squad for a couple of weeks -- will be present at the club's friendly against Groningen on Saturday, but won't play. He'll return to training next week, and his immediate future should be the first thing on manager Paul Lambert's agenda.
Vlaar, 29, is a player in demand. If Netherlands exceeded all expectations by finishing third in Brazil, the centre-back's profile has done the same, soaring to a career high; previously unheralded, a series of assured and commanding performances at the heart of the Oranje defence ensured Vlaar was considered one of the best defenders in the tournament. The missed penalty in the semifinal defeat to Argentina barely overshadowed his overall display, particularly when Dutch coach Louis van Gaal disclosed that Vlaar took the first kick only because none of the other players would. Kudos for having the courage to stand up.
Villa fans watched Vlaar with a mixture of pride and concern. As pleasing as it was to see the player do so well, from a purely selfish standpoint, every neatly read interception or covering tackle increased the chances of other clubs taking note -- as is so often the case, a player impressing at an international tournament then becomes fuel for transfer speculation. There have been rumblings about Vlaar's future for weeks, not least because he has just one year remaining on his Villa contract.
Entering the final 12 months of the deal he signed in the summer 2012 means Villa's control over Vlaar is not as strong as it could be. It might be argued that top-class footballers hold power over clubs anyway, but in this case it's certainly true: Vlaar is in charge. In an interview credited to Dutch football magazine Helden, he maintained a neutral stance, admitting that "Aston Villa absolutely don't want to let me go," and that, in the weeks since the World Cup, he'd simply been enjoying his holiday, playing with his children on the trampoline. However, he would be meeting with his agent to discuss the "various options."
In those handful of quotes, Vlaar hasn't said anything you would not expect him to. There is clearly a big decision coming up, but he's in an enviable position. A new, improved offer to extend his stay at Villa will be made shortly. He has the tempting option of declining that to play a third and final season in Birmingham before becoming available as a free agent in 2015, or he can agitate to move by the end of the transfer window.
Who would want Vlaar? He's an attractive proposition for clubs in need of a dependable, experienced defender, still on the right side of 30, and with (potentially) reasonably realistic salary expectations. Because of his contract situation, Villa can only demand a fee so high, though if he was made available for sale that fee could inflate if clubs trigger a bidding war.
Two Premier League clubs have been linked frequently. Vlaar has a connection with Southampton manager Ronald Koeman through their time together at Feyenoord. The Saints certainly need players, and the club definitely have (or should have) the funds to pay a little over the odds for him. But at this stage of his career, and off the back of the best month of his professional career, should Vlaar choose to sign for a club that has just lost their best players?
Then there is Manchester United, coached now by Van Gaal, the man who put Vlaar at the heart of his international defence. United's is the interest Villa should fear. Vlaar is not in the same class as outgoing centre-backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were in their prime, but he's a definite improvement on the current trio of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Van Gaal may be looking at Mats Hummel and Daley Blind, but Vlaar would be a solid and gettable alternative.
What's best for Villa? Vlaar signing a new contract, ultimately, but even keeping him at the club for a third season, even if it means him walking away next May, would be preferable to selling him now. With the way things stand at Villa, it shouldn't be taken for granted that a Vlaar sale would result in a replacement of similar quality arriving; it's quite plausible that any fee received would be diverted elsewhere within the club and Lambert instructed to make do with his existing defenders.
Without Vlaar, the Villa back line looks vulnerable. Too many questions: Is Jores Okore as good as everyone hopes? Has Senderos anything left in the tank? Are Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker capable of improving their game sufficiently to genuinely become central defenders of Premier League class? With Vlaar playing, the pieces of Villa's defence can just about knit together effectively. But without, as has been seen over the last two seasons, the frailties are frightening. Unless a Vlaar sale comes with an absolute guarantee of Lambert being able to bring in a worthy successor -- Steven Caulker would have been ideal -- Villa must do all they can to keep him.
A swift announcement of a newly signed contract would be a welcome boost for Villa; a sale on the final day of the transfer window would be a tactical disaster. As for the player, affectionately known as Concrete Ron, it's impossible to second-guess his current state of mind. In his time at Villa, he appears to have developed a real love for the club, and he takes his role as club captain extremely seriously. Whatever his affinity with Koeman, or Van Gaal, it shouldn't be assumed that he doesn't have a great bond with Lambert. And Lambert, of course, was able to talk Christian Benteke back from the brink of leaving last summer.
That said, this is Vlaar's career, and he probably has one last big contract in him. He has worked hard for his time in the sun, overcoming three serious knee injuries while he was trying to establish himself in Holland. His tenure at Villa, too, has been punctuated with time on the sideline. Injury has robbed years from him. If he does receive an offer from a club that can give him the chance of Champions League football, few -- even those with claret-and-blue blood -- would begrudge him that.