Aston Villa defender Nathan Baker has been a somewhat polarising figure among the claret and blue faithful since establishing himself in the first-team during the 2012-13 season, with a sizeable number of supporters doubting his Premier League credentials since.
Making 59 appearances over the past two relegation-threatened campaigns, while featuring at both centre-back and left-back, few believed the 23-year-old’s spot in the line-up alongside captain Ron Vlaar was deserved, as he and fellow academy product Ciaran Clark struggled to hold their own against top-tier opposition.
With veteran Philippe Senderos arriving this summer on a free transfer, and the promising Jores Okore looking set to return from ruptured keen ligament which sidelined him for most of his debut season, Baker’s chances of seeing much action looked grim at the start of this term, but he so far proceeded to prove his doubters wrong.
|2014-15||Total Tackle / apps||Total Clearance / apps||Duel Won / apps||Duel Success||Aerial Won / apps||Aerial Success||Interception / apps||Pass Acc||Apps||Mins|
Thrust into the starting XI due to the calf strain Vlaar suffered in the 1-0 victory over Hull City, the former England under-21 international delivered a man of the match-calibre display in the 1-0 win at Liverpool, which led to manager Paul Lambert hailing his recent progress.
'I thought Nathan was outstanding [at Anfield],' he said at the time. 'He’s grown into a man – a big lumping guy. His performance alongside Senderos was excellent.'
Baker would miss the following weekend's 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal with the illness which ravaged the first-team squad, but then returned to the line-up over Clark and Okore to continue deputising for the ailing Vlaar.
Villa have since suffered 3-0 and 2-0 losses to Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively, but those scorelines haven't reflected what have in fact been fairly commendable defensive performances, with Baker's displays one again showing a great deal of promise.
Though Vlaar is finally due to return on Saturday for the trip to Everton, a thigh injury to Senderos means the former Milwall loanee is set to make his third consecutive start in what's likely to be a somewhat more competitive matchup than recent fixtures.
With there is currently a great deal of speculation surrounding the future of Vlaar, who has entered the final season of his deal, a solid showing on the weekend from Baker, followed by a few further impressive outings, could even convince management that selling the Manchester United-linked Dutchman in January might not be a total disaster if new terms can't be reach.
That said, with Senderos's injury not thought to be a long-term problem, and Okore in line for some first-team action after proving his fitness is up to scratch in recent weeks, Baker's role is still largely that of a backup, even if he does continue to produce praiseworthy performances.
Nevertheless, after being written off in the summer, he has certainly been one of the more pleasant surprises so far this season and, while he's by now means the star some thought he would develop into upon his Villa debut in January 2011, it's at least reassuring to know that the club could have a solid top-flight contributor on their hands after all.