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.
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.
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.