Wednesday, 21 November 2007

January Options Part Two: Midfield

After the defence, what about the midfield? I’ll try to use the same system as before: an overall mark for performance to date, an assessment of whether strengthening in January is a priority, and some comment on how our current group of players might cope as and when we are back in the top flight.

Overall rating: Perhaps surprisingly I’m only going to give the midfield a 7/10. This is perhaps a reflection of having expected more, with the midfield containing the real quality that Pardew talked of, and to date performance has been mixed. I think there are reasons for this which lie in the limitations of the options available to us (more later). But such a rating is unfair on two players: Reid and Semedo.

Both have been first names on the team sheet and both have been outstanding. Reid has his drawbacks and of course not everything he tries comes off. But there has been no questioning his appetite or his quality, while his goals have been more than useful. He remains central to what we do. Equally Semedo, whether or not pressed into service as a defensive midfielder by the absence of Holland (I’ve no idea if he will end up in central defence), has barely put a foot wrong (leaving aside the air kick in our box against Cardiff: nobody’s perfect). We all saw what happened when he was withdrawn at half-time against QPR.

Of the others, Thomas is looking as though he is putting early season problems behind him, which if true is a massive bonus for us. He ought to be a shoo-in. But can we have some goals please? Sam was excellent before his sending off and we badly missed him. But can we have some goals please? Zhi has contributed a few goals but to my mind hasn’t excelled, either in a four- or five-man midfield. Perhaps he is settling into his role in the latter and more will come.

Ambrose has been disappointing. I felt early in the season that a four-man midfield containing Reid and Ambrose was unbalanced and left us short of pace. Like Reid, he lacks the pace to be a winger and to date too often he seems peripheral to the game rather than imposing himself on it. I just hope we see more from him as and when he is called on again (which is bound to happen). Of the others its either too soon to judge (Racon, Christensen, Sinclair) or an open book (Holland). And I’m assuming that nobody else is coming up fast through the reserves (Arter being one for the future).

There are in my view problems whether we play four or five in midfield. This is hardly surprising, no formation in football is perfect and we don’t have unlimited resources.

If it’s four in midfield the problem is Reid. Wide left and he usually has to come inside to do his best work, and although he delivers a quality cross he just doesn’t have the pace to operate as a winger. We can get away with it, especially if it’s Sam on the other flank. But we are also left with a central two of Semedo and Zhi (or Ambrose). Good players but not a combination that’s going to control a game. Basically as we’ve seen it’s not bad but not great either.

If it’s five in midfield? Like all good armchair critics I think there are some golden rules to this set-up. The two best examples of the formation I’ve seen were Tottenham and Chelsea. The former saw Clive Allen up front and Hoddle and Ardilles in midfield. They didn’t bother to play the ball up to Allen to hold it up. His job was simply to get on the end of the ball in the box. All the play came through midfield interplay or down the flanks. To work that needs a real poacher to score the goals, good and fast wingers, and a central unit that is comfortable on the ball. The latter was the Drogba, Robben and Duff combination. Whether it was 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 became irrelevant as their power and pace destroyed teams.

So what about us? In an ideal world five in midfield with two genuine wingers means you need a third on the bench, in case of injury or just to try someone different without altering the formation. If we start with Thomas and Sam the third option – as has been tried with some success – is Varney. I’m assuming that Christensen isn’t ready yet; maybe he will get his chance. So we’re reasonably well covered.

More problematic is the three in the centre. Murphy-Smertin-Kishishev worked very well because they operated as a unit and knew their jobs. Reid-Zhi-Semedo isn’t the same. We have Reid as the playmaker, Semedo as the defensive cover, and Zhi expected to get forward and support Iwelumo. It’s actually still quite stretched out and vulnerable, despite the numbers, especially given the fact that opposition midfielders can simply run past Reid. Here too, it’s not bad, especially at this level, but not great.

Now that Matt Holland is coming back we have cover for the defensive midfield spot in the event of injury or suspension (or indeed if Semedo was to drop back to central defence). The fear that some have raised is what happens as and when Reid is not available? I have to say I’m not as worried as some seem to be – and to that extent don’t see cover for Reid as a priority for strengthening in January.

If Reid is not available I would suggest we have two options. First would be Ambrose as a straight replacement in a five-man midfield. This might prompt howls of protest, but I think he could do the job. Maybe he has to believe it too – and to go out and prove it. The alternative would be to bring in Racon and play differently. A central combination of Semedo-Racon-Zhi might play at a faster tempo and get the best out of the wingers (although heaven only knows what language they would communicate in). It has been a weakness of late that we have struggled to maintain a high pace of play (whether or not through simple fatigue). When we do we look as if we can take teams apart.

I’m certainly not advocating Reid stepping down. He is first on the team sheet, and Racon is as yet untried. But we have to have a plan to cope for his absence and as long as we accepted a need to play differently if he isn’t available it might not be the disaster it first appears. And if we bring in another possible playmaker does Reid go back on the flank (at the expense of Thomas or Sam?).

In conclusion (yes, I’ve already gone on too long and can’t be bothered to redo the above to stick to the promised format) do we need to strengthen midfield in January, and if so where? I’d rate this as desirable but not essential. If Song from Arsenal is available again on loan he would be a good option as he knows the set-up. I don’t think we need an overhaul in midfield. It’s more a case of getting the best out of what we have as that should be good enough at this level.

After all, if it’s not 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 we have the resources to go to three at the back (with Yassin and Basey as the wing-backs). And the midfield set-up is of course contingent on options up front. Maybe its more about the players continuing to improve collectively as they play together more. If not, bring on the diamond/triangle/rhombus formations. As it is friends and I tend to disagree during the game over what formation we are actually playing (do they not see what I see?) let alone what formation we should be playing.

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