In the second part of his close season pondering, Stephen Goldsmith considers the defensive options of MON and (never short to put forward his views) suggests that despite the manager’s first signing, he give some serious thought to who fills the right back position.
Many Villa fans have been extremely quick to have a go at us lot at Sunderland recently. Doubtless this stems from our refusal to acknowledge Darren Bent’s sideward step to Villa as anything other than for financial gain. The clear bitterness a lot of them display towards O’Neill is also apparent. They are quick to slag his signings off and at a quick glance some of them do indeed look poor. But the actual fact is that Shorey, Davis and Warnock who are deemed as being amongst the biggest faliures, were all sought after players and I highly doubt that Villa fans were complaining at the time. Show me a manager who hasn’t made a bad signing or two. A lot of Villa fans have accused me of being obsessed with them on here before, so I better take this oppurtunity to reassure you all that there’s a relevant link to my point, no matter how tedious, and I’m in no way obsessed with Aston Villa. I was having this very discussion with my children Dalian and Atkinson just the other day.
The point I’m eventually getting to is that a lot of Sunderland fans appear to have strung along with this theory without thinking about it rationally. While it’s nothing short of fascinating wondering just which players we are going to sign, I admit it is a tad scary also. But I definitely think we should all take a leap of faith with Martin.
Carlos Cuellar was pretty safe, it has to be said. No transfer fee and probably more than affordable wages to boot. What his signing does do however, is re-open a whole discussion on a certain player in red and white who has been the centre of debates that I have seen last for hours.
I say with intended sarcasm that I think I may have mentioned in my previous article that I was going to look at the implications of Carlos Cuellar’s arrival on the defenders already at the club. Here is a topic that, at times, would seem to tax even the finest brains from Cambridge and Oxford combined.
I bring you: The Phil Bardsley debate.
Sunderland’s right backs have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous in my life time and our current number 2 appears to divide opinion more than any other. Dariusz Kubicki was a fine full back if my childhood memory serves me correctly – as an elegant full back as you will see. John Kay needs no introducing and the bloke was probably as hard as anything anybody will ever come across, but was clearly lacking elegance. But it was Chris Makin who really delivered on the field as a natural right back for me, the kind of which makes attending matches seem worth it. As hard as nails in the tackle, positionally sound and very comfortable on the ball. Watch the highlights of the 2000/01 season and he can be regularly witnessed around the 25 yard mark, often dictating play and offering a lot more in a creative capacity than people automatically give him credit for. It is a rarity that a full back, certainly a Sunderland one, can display genuine qualities in defending one on one, going forward and being positionally watertight. It is a rounded and proper full back that ticks all three of these boxes and Makin was the only one I have seen pull on a red and white shirt in the flesh that done so to high levels.
You see, I have never been one for an ironic cult hero. With the risk of sounding like a miserable bugger, any amount of praise and admiration for somebody like Nyron Nosworthy just evades my common sense radar altogether. It really does. I remember in Nosworthy’s first season, and one game specifically, where he proceeded to carry the ball into an open space similar to that of Barnes Park. Instead of this turning into a viable and effective counter-attack, it resulted in Nyron taking the ball unchallenged, over the touchline for an opposition throw in. It was too crap and funny to start booing so the entire stadium started laughing. It was quite remarkable. Now I am fully aware that he managed to divert attention away from these incidents a little as his effort and determination could not be faulted by anyone. In the 2006/07 season, as the Keane machine steamrolled to promotion, it is also commendable that Nosworthy managed to win player of the season. Some turnaround. Unfortunately the cynicism in me can’t help but conclude that this triumph was a decision made by the general group of supporters who had their judgment clouded by the notable improvement he had made rather than his actual quality. If we had the dreaded ‘most improved player’ award at senior level then a worthy winner he would have been. I wasn’t fooled, however, and the quality of Johnny Evans making his job easier failed to camouflage his actual ability to me.
Now some people attempt to put Bardsley into this bracket. When he came second in last season’s player of the year award, it sent Twitter into melt down. The main consensus in the anti-Bardsley brigade was that he was a 100% man lacking in genuine quality. I think there’s an element of truth in that, certainly. He allows too much space behind him at times and too many of his last ditch tackles can be as a result of covering for his own mistakes. He should still be credited for having the recovery ability, however. Could we really expect to see John O’Shea spin and recover with a sliding tackle once he allowed a player to get by him? Only at the cost of a torn hamstring you feel.
A lot of people campaign for John O’Shea to play ahead of Bardsley at right back because he is more defensively sound. It would be hard to argue with that. His undoubted experience at Manchester United and at international level see him hold his line well and generally take up a better defensive position than Bardsley but that, for me, is outweighted by his weaknesses at full back. A modern full back needs to far more mobile than O’Shea and his poor distributional qualities on the ball reduce the flow and speed of our counter attacks far too much for my liking.
I was surprised when O’Shea was employed as right back by Bruce in the first place. Wes Brown spent years playing first choice right back for Man utd and O’Shea always looked much more able as a centre back, so when these roles were reversed it surprised many to say the least. I have a sneaky feeling that O’Shea asked to play right back as a demand to sign for the club as he was playing there for Ireland and maybe wanted some continuity after years of being shifted across the back four by Sir Alex. He was possibily trying to shake this theory that he was a jack of all trades yet master of none. He has shaken that theory off alright, but it comes firmly in the form of being a master in the centre half position, nothing more. I hope so anyway.
Despite the obvious flaws in Phil Bardsley’s game, he is the closest to the most polished right back seen here since Chris Makin. I understand the theory that he is of the standard that you would expect from a mid-table club and not a top half one. And that if we wish to be established firmly in the top ten then we need better players than Phil. Well I actually agree with that. And boy have we have had plenty of right backs prepared to put their heart on the line for the cause despite their limited ability through the seasons, Darren Williams springs to mind. If you switch to the other side of the pitch, Danny Collins also winning player of the season is further proof that you don’t need to be the all round and finely polished full back to be effective and win the fans’ hearts.
But it’s harsh to place Bardsley into this bracket. He may not excel as a top full back but he isn’t out of his depth either. He ticks all the boxes that Makin did to a slightly lower standard. He will need to be replaced soon, of that I’m sure, but it’s hardly a matter of life of death.
Indeed, my stance on him was always this. Full-back is a position which is notorious as one which can carry a player. I suggest there are far more important areas of our team that need strengthening – positions where it would be much more detrimental to carry average players. Until we improve our central midfield, central defence and centre forward positions, it seems illogical to go and spend big on a right back when Bardsley is no major weak link.
Then O’Neill signs Carlos Cuellar!
All the noises coming from the Villa faithful are that Cuellar is a much better centre half than right back. Apparently his positioning is sound but his low mobility and poor distributional qualities make him a very average right back compared to a cracking centre half. How very John O’Shea of him. He seems like a great replacement for Turner on the surface of things. I do also, however, seem to remember seeing on good old Twitter somewhere some stats that show he played more as a right back for O’Neill than centre half.
Hmmm, the mystery goes on.