A case for the defence – and prayers for Mensah’s fitness

All week Salut! Sunderland has been promising a new writer, and here he is: Neil Ruttley, who popped up with this thoughtful look at the defensive problems – and options – confronting Steve Bruce …

The coming month will be pivotal to Sunderland’s season, a month in which Steve Bruce has much to ponder.

If he gets it right, Bruce could become the most succesful Sunderland manager since Peter Reid. If he gets it wrong, the current cold snap could become another “winter of discontent” as he likes to describe last year’s 14 game winless run.

The back five provide the most dilemmas. Craig Gordon has come back from injury and been beyond reproach until last week’s defeat against Wolves.

He was criticised for a couple of the goals and he needs a good performance, preferably with another clean sheet after the one against West Ham, to boost his own, the back four’s and the fans’ confidence.

If Bramble and Turner had not been injured this would have been much easier to achieve. These two players have shown great apptitude as individuals and as a pair.

Bramble has overcome much scepticism. The gaffes that fans were expecting have not materialised and he has brought a degree of calmness to a notoriously jittery back four. For £1m, he has been value for money.

Turner is a no nonsense defender and Bruce probably sees much of himself in him.

Like Bruce, Turner will probably never be recognised with international honours. Sometimes he makes mistakes. His distribution is not always perfect and he is unlikey to play the ball out of defence like Bobby Moore but his bravey and commitment cannot be questioned. He never shirks a challenge and his injury was caused when saving a certain Everton goal despite knowing he was going to collide with the goalpost.

Sunderland’s defensive record this season has generally been good. Clean sheets against Blackburn, Stoke (somewhat fortunately), Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea are no mean feat.

Some may point to the Newcastle result as a counter argument but generally this centre half partnership has been excellent.

Bruce must hope that John Mensah can play through the Christmas period. When fit and firing on all cylinders, Mensah is a world class defender. He is big and strong, comfortable on the ball and used to the big occasion.

This will also a big month for Anton Ferdinand. He has an opportunity to prove his worth and make it hard for Bruce to leave him out the side when Bramble and Turner return to fitness.

Ferdinand has recently talked about living in his brother’s shadow but with Rio currently injured maybe this is Anton’s chance to step into the limelight and show the Premier League that he can fulfil the potential everyone in football thinks he has. It can have done him no harm to be involved in the win, without conceding goals, against his old club?

The dilemma for Bruce is that Ferdinand has suddenly emerged as an integral part of his plans. Ferdinand’s standing has changed from being pre season bad boy who nearly left the club, to fourth choice centre half to now being the fittest centre half at the club.

Bruce must be willing Ferdinand to take his chances with both hands because it is quite possible he will at times be the senior centre half in games.

If, or more likely when, Mensah is unavailabe through injury, Bruce will have some tough choices for the back four. There are only really wo options for Bruce.

Option one

Bardsley, Onouha, Ferdinand, Richardson

Bruce sees Richardson as a left back and either Zenden, Welbeck or Malbranque could play on the left of midfield. Bardsley is also a natural right back and on current form there would be no concerns as to playing him here.

However, this shifts Onouha from right back, arguably his best position, and pairs two centre halves who looked vulnerable against Wolves.

Options two

Onouha, Ferdinand, Da Silva, Bardsley?

In some ways this is a more natural solution. It allows Onouha to stay at right back and gives Bruce more options in midfield. Henderson could be rested and the reliable Zenden could play in the centre with Cattermole. This would leave Richardson, Malbranque, El Mohammady or even Welbeck to play in the wide positions if Gyan partners Bent up front instead of Welbeck.

Whilst Da Silva is undoubtedly a cultured centre half and has an international pedigree to match John Mensah’s, Bruce clearly has reservations about his ability to perform in the Premier League.

If Bruce gambled on this centre half partnership it would leave him open to much criticism if results are not as expected.

If, like Ferdinand, Da Silva is able to step up to the plate and prove his potential then this partnership could be fantastic.

Other unthinkable options:

Angeleri, Onouha, Ferdiand, Bardsley?
Angeleri, Onouha, Da Silva, Bardsley?
Angeleri, Ferdinand, Da Silva, Bardsley???

Sunderland are likely to score goals in December with the attacking talents of Gyan, Bent and Welbeck.

But it is the defence that will occupy Steve Bruce’s christmas wishes.

Please Father Christmas, keep John Mensah fit and let Anton Ferdinand have the month of his life.

Neil Ruttley on Neil Ruttley:

My father’s side of the family are all from Sunderland and despite his moving away from the area when he was ten, and me never having lived there, his being a Sunderland fan rubbed off on me. I get to a few games but not as many as I would like.

7 thoughts on “A case for the defence – and prayers for Mensah’s fitness”

  1. Thank you , Danny.

    I think you are right about Mensah. He does seem to give his partner confidence. Elmohamady is decent at right back or Richardson could play left back with Bardsley moved to right back if Onouha stays at centre back.

    Yes, Definitely need Mensah to stay fit so fingers crossed.

  2. Decent analysis, Neil.
    Sod’s Law has struck, of course, with Aton’s hamstring injury at Craven Cottage yesterday. So the focus now shifts to the Mensah / Onouha pairing. Both were brilliant after Anton came off but John Mensah is something else entirely. Apart from being a top class CH he appears to impart confidence to his CB partner. I am convinced that is part of the reason why Nedum had such a good game at CB compared with his Carling Cup debacle against WHU.
    We all expect Mensah to succumb to injury at any moment but maybe, just maybe, the fact that his old injury has not flared up again this season could indicate that his specialist treatment has cracked that issue. Fingers crossed, for the CB pool is quickly being drained.

  3. If Bruce doesn’t fancy PDS against the likes of Wolves etc he probably won’t want to pit him against the aggression and physicality of Clint Dempsey either.

    It doesn’t look as if Bruce has any faith in him against a typical target man. That may be with some justification but it doesn’t explain why he signed him in the first place. It’s difficult to judge someone playing domestic football in Mexico because the game is so different. I don’t watch it that frequently (Gol TV) but in defence of Bruce you wouldn’t know that PDS would struggle against a big target man until you piited him against one. Having said that I don’t recall PDS exactly having a nightmare on those few occasions that we’ve seen him. For me if this lad is good enough to play at LB for Paraguay then he is good enough to have had a run out there for us earlier in the season. Paulo’s days at the SOL are numbered and he’s heading out the door sooner rather than later. It’s a shame.

  4. I’d go with Option 2. Da Silva hasn’t been given a fair chance since he came to the club. So why sign him in the first place? For three years of bench-warming? I like Neil’s characterisation of him as a “cultured” centre half. The potential absolutely is there but Da Silva has to be allowed to show it. I think his performance in the pressure cooker of the World Cup more than proves his readiness for the Premiership. It just takes a little leap of faith on Bruce’s part.

  5. Bramble is the biggest miss he brings calm and culture to the back he has two good feet ( rare in the modern game) is good in the air and has learnt from his mistakes. It is difficult to see when Da Silva will get a game and I believe if he had come on last week instead of El Mohammedy maybe we wouldn’t have conceded the two late goals and won the game. This decision to replace a centre back with a midfielder shows Bruce doesn’t rate him. He has never really had a bad game for us or beed given a chance.

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