It's fair to say that Aston Villa's first half display against Liverpool left the majority of their fans scratching their heads on Saturday evening. They'll have been used to the side performing far better on the road this season, with the eventual point they picked up at Anfield taking their tally on the road to 16 - double that of the meagre 8 they've managed at home - but this was different.
Whether it was a lack of fitness, confidence or most likely both, Christian Benteke looked like the player that put the frighteners up so many defenders at the tail end of last season from the very first minute. Andreas Weimann, who opened the scoring, was full of the energy and verve that had made him a real fans favourite in the previous campaign, while Gabby Agbonlahor, who has been the most consistent of the three this season, was at his very best to set up both goals to give the visitors a 2-goal lead.
It should have been more by that point. The team looked dangerous throughout the first half and could have had a couple before they eventually did break the deadlock. A lapse in concentration at the back let the hosts back into the game at the worst possible moment and Liverpool secured a point courtesy of a second half penalty - the award of which still divides opinion.
Nevertheless, Aston Villa were good value for their share of the spoils and manager Paul Lambert was quick to stress after the game that he thought their performance on the day was superior to that which saw them pick up a shock victory at the same ground last season. He probably had a point, as Villa held their own under pressure to keep 44% of the possession compared to the pure counter-attacking display from the previous campaign, in which they held just 28%.
While the front three were rightly credited for looking back to their best from the season before, one knows that when making the trip to Anfield you face the unenviable task of keeping Luis Suarez at bay. The Uruguayan had scored in each of his 7 home games in the league previous and netted 15 in total in those matches. Step forward the man that they lovingly call Concrete Ron to ensure that the forward's record against Villa remained underwhelming; Suarez now has just 1 in 7 when facing the Midlands outfit.
If Christian Benteke is the brains and or brawn of the Villa team then the heart is undoubtedly Ron Vlaar. Without him they simply don't function in any real aspect and his role in the side, while noted, remains undervalued. His experience is invaluable amongst a side that have had to grow up the hard way and looked lost without their captain.
The Dutchman's individual statistics are good in the most part, not great, but there are few that have the same impact on their side as a whole, in any position. His per game figures for both tackles (2.1) and interceptions (1.5) are in excess of both Clark and Baker, who have been the players that have rotated alongside the 28-year old when fit, but it's Vlaar's know-how that gives Villa an edge.
In 44 league appearances for Villa the Netherlands international has been dribbled past just 10 times. Therein lies the reason that he drew comparisons with a concrete wall in his homeland. Perhaps more importantly, however, in a young side that has been far too rash in the challenge - picking up the most bookings in the league this season (52) - he is a cool head.
He's committed just 14 fouls since joining the club - no centre-back in the league with as many appearances has made fewer - and picked up just 3 yellow cards. Between them Clark and Baker have committed a massive 93 fouls in the same time period and amassed 18 cautions.
This calming influence at the back resonates throughout what is an impressionable team and had Vlaar stayed fit during his time at the club Villa's fans would probably have been far more comfortable over the last 18 months. This much becomes abundantly obvious when looking at the side's record with and without their skipper.
Having started just 44 of a possible 60 league games since his arrival Vlaar has been absent 27% of the time, which is a considerable amount for a centre-half. Of the 16 matches that he's missed Villa have won just 2, managing just 0.63 points per game. Meanwhile they've conceded 2 goals per game without him, with a goal difference of -22 over the 16 matches.
In comparison Villa have won 14 of 44 games when Vlaar has started, picking up 1.25 points per game - an average that over the course of a full season would probably see the side finish in the top half. While they've undoubtedly still conceded too many goals when he's played (1.5 per game), the confidence that his presence brings has seen them score more than twice as many per game at the other end (1.34 to 0.63), leaving their goal difference over the 44 matches at a far more respectable -7.
Aston Villa have picked up twice as many points per game with the Dutchman than they have without him (a positive difference of 0.62 points per game). It may not seem spectacular but when you consider that the positive difference in points per game with and without Christian Benteke (who has missed 13 matches having signed in the same summer) is just 0.11, Vlaar's influence becomes more apparent.
While very few would name the former Feyenoord man amongst the best centre-backs in the division, it's not outrageous to say that he is perhaps more important to his team than any other.
How have you rated Ron Vlaar's performances this season? Let us know in the comments below