Monday, 19 November 2007

Case For The Defence

A two-week break is an opportunity for the players to take a breather and, now that international call-ups are the exception rather than the rule, for the injured to recover. For us lot it’s an excuse to blow off some steam, wheel out recollections, and to make assessments of the season to date. And with the January transfer window not far off it is reasonable to speculate on where there might be some effort to strengthen the team to help drive us on to an automatic place (yes, that optimism is back).

The way the season is shaping up it would be surprising were four of the top six places not to be taken by us, Watford, West Brom and Ipswich. Sheff Utd look like they may come through (although the Robson factor should continue to work against them). Teams like Wolves, Stoke and Coventry could make up the numbers in the play-offs but don’t look consistently threatening. But even with these clubs (bar Coventry of course) their supporters will be looking at the possibilities and calling new signings.

Of the four main contenders, we may well be in the worst position to be spending money in January. By then the figures for last season will have been released and from what I have read (by Wyn Grant and others) come January there won’t be much to spend. By then of course there may have been developments regarding additional financing, but as things stand we will be in no position to think about anything more than one maybe two players to do a job in The Championship (ie there can’t be any thought of preparing for next season). By contrast Ipswich have significant new money, while Watford and West Brom I would imagine have some cash to spend.

It will no doubt be a tough call for Richard Murray and the board, given the financial implications of missing out on promotion for want a player or two. Nobody can say they didn’t back Dowie - or Pardew for that matter. But for now at least let’s assume that if we need someone to bolster midfield it ain’t going to be Ronaldo. I’ve seen some suggestions that Ipswich have a couple that we could use. We have to be realistic. Unless we are streets ahead of them come January their players won’t see much attraction in moving to us – and their owners won’t be inclined to sell.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that transfers are two-way. Deadline day has been an unhappy experience for us in recent years, with Parker and then Murphy jumping ship at the last minute. It can’t be ruled out that there will be offers for some of our players, especially if Big Chris keeps knocking them in.

So, intro over this is the first of a three-parter, this one looking at the defence. It’s a mark out of 10 for overall performance to date, a ranking for the priority for strengthening in January (bar injuries of course), and a comment on the chances of what we have being adequate for The Premiership.

Three successive clean sheets and suddenly we have on paper one of the tightest defences in the division. It just doesn’t feel like that, because we still panic and make silly mistakes. Maybe that’s just an aspect of The Championship that we (supporters) haven’t come to terms with. At this level you just get away with more mistakes. But perhaps most important the unease is because some of the players bought by Pardew have not as yet worked out. And it’s not yet clear if suddenly we’ve become tighter at the back because of Sodje coming in, playing five in midfield, or just luck. Probably it’s down to all three.

Goalkeeper: Weaver, Randolph, Elliot.

I’d give Weaver a 7/10 for the season to date (a tad generous, it could have been a 6). He has made crucial saves and I can’t really think of any howlers. It’s his inability to dominate his area and to take the responsibility to organise his defence that count against him (especially as there is no real ‘general’ in front of him). I guess that’s not going to change, so it’s something that the other defenders have to compensate for.

Barring injury we’re not going to get in another goalkeeper in January, the priority ranking to strengthen here is very low. As for next season, I just haven’t seen enough of Randolph to say. I hope he goes on to be number one for Charlton and Ireland for years. But let’s face it two untried youngsters and Weaver means that we’d be on a wing and a prayer as far as next season in The Premiership is concerned.

Right-back: Mills, Moutaouakil, Sankofa.

Collectively it’s an 8/10 for me so far (including McCarthy’s honourable effort before Mills was brought in). Yassin was a star before getting injured and Danny has been excellent (barring his second half against QPR). As things stand this is a strong position for us. But there are some decisions to be made.

Unless we buy him Mills goes back to Man City at the end of the year, The demands to do so are already going out. I’m not so sure. I hope we keep him, but how much will he cost? If he’s a free it’s a no-brainer, provided wages are not a block, and if talk of Ericsson being given massive cash is true it’s fair to assume that Mills doesn’t figure in their plans. But if it’s a choice between alternatives, paying money for a right-back when Yassin could be one of our better players and Sankofa, back for the reserves, an adequate back-up, might not be the best option. Perhaps the answer is to buy Mills and ask Yassin to do a job at some point on the right side of midfield (as Konchesky often did on the left). But that still leaves Sankofa.

I’m inclined to assume as a general rule that if a player isn’t first choice or back-up by the time he’s passed 20 he’s best shipped out. Sankofa is 22 and has managed 12 league starts. He has spent most of his time at Charlton as understudy to Luke Young and now has to contend with Moutaouakil. Through no fault of his own (injury) he missed the chance to make a claim for the place before Mills was brought in. If we buy Mills he’s third choice for the foreseeable future, which is no good for him or us. And Yassin may start to get unsettled (let’s not forget the mess we made of the goalkeeper spot between Myhre, Andersen and Kiely).

Signing Mills is a decision for January, so this is a priority area but not a case of looking to buy because we are short. All I would say is that this is down to available resources and if Pardew decides to let Mills go back to Man City in favour of strengthening elsewhere so be it. As for next season, I hope Yassin proves to be a star at the top level. Him as first choice and Mills as back-up (and cover in central defence) would look good to me.

Left-back: Powell, Basey, Thatcher, Gibbs, Youga

The burden has so far been shouldered by Sir Chris and his youthful squire Basey and it’s an 8/10 for the season to date. But let’s face facts, we have too many left-backs on the books. Youga comes back in early January and we have to assume that Thatcher will be available before too long. Gibbs’ unavailability is sad for him and us. I hope he would be first-choice this season. Basey’s chance has come sooner than might have been expected, but he’s not a kid.

It’s safe to say we’re not going to sign a new left-back in January. For this season I’m happy with Powell and Basey/Youga. If Thatcher comes back he could be first choice, but I haven’t yet forgotten his mindless sending off at Blackburn. Next season in The Premiership? Well, of the available options it’s only Basey and Youga that inspire confidence, assuming that Chris’ legs go completely at some stage. I wouldn’t want to rely on Thatcher (he was a good signing as an attempt to stay in The Premiership), we can’t rely on Gibbs, so it will be one to worry about – just not yet.

Centre-back: Sodje, Fortune, Bougherra, McCarthy (Semedo, Mills).

Let’s be generous and give them a 5/10 for the season so far. It’s been edgy, fractious and inadequate. All you can say is that defending is a team job and sometimes those in front of them (and behind) have left them exposed. But it’s not good enough.

Bougherra was a January signing by Pardew and did nothing much last season; this season he failed to form an effective partnership with Fortune and now finds himself out of the first team. McCarthy was I believe intended to be Pardew’s general for this season and hasn’t so far justified a place. Fortune can do a job if alongside a mobile and intelligent defender; but he’s not going to develop into a top-flight defender and was lucky to get the nod to partner Sodje. We were, after all, about to let him go to Stoke before Diawara wanted out. Sodje is here for the whole season and in a short space of time has made himself the first name on the sheet.

It looks to me as though Bougherra or Fortune can play alongside Sodje – and that McCarthy is the back-up if Sodje gets injured/suspended. Bougherra and Fortune together just didn’t work. But it’s an area where we lack quality – unless McCarthy can get it together. Clearly Pardew saw something in him. I hope he comes good. Otherwise central defence is the position where we are vulnerable and may well need to strengthen in January.

An imponderable is whether Semedo or Mills could do the job in central defence. Did Pardew sign Semedo as a holding midfield player? If Yassin is given the start at right-back would Mills be a better option in central defence? Questions which only Pardew can answer. In conclusion, if we strengthen the defence it looks like another one for the centre. But the chances are that, barring more injuries, it will be a case of muddling through with what we’ve got, especially if we keep Mills. The priorities may lie elsewhere.


Hilltothevalley said...

A god and fair assessment of the defence, I look forward to reading the next installment

Anonymous said...

A good read!
Just one point: There's no doubt the signing of Gibbs was one of Curbs' worse decisions. Along with Gary's Poole and Rowett. Crocks the lot of 'em. Gibbs should be, shall we say 'released' There's plenty of cover at L.B. as you have pointed out.

Anonymous said...

For me, the interesting thing so far this season has been the obvious difference in quality at the back. Our defence has usually made at least one howler per game that they've managed to get away with due to the quality of the opposition. We've still shipped goals of course, so let's be in no doubt that we would have struggled in the Prem this season.

For me, any team needs a spine to be successful; a goalkeeper who can be relied upon to make the right decisions more often than not, a central defender who can hold the line and put in those last-ditch tackles, a central midfield ball winner and a striker capable of hitting the back of the net on a regular basis.

I don't have a concern at the moment about the striker or ball-winner; the problem is that the goalkeeper simply does not inspire confidence, and only Sodje comes close to what is required of a general at the back. His Steve Brown qualities are great in the Champs, but would he be good enough in the Prem? Reading seem to have their doubts.

For me, one of the major trajedies of relegation was that we weren't able to sign Scott Carson. We wouldn't have been able to afford the 10mil Villa are supposedly paying of course, but there was a keeper you could really start to build a team from.