I’M not a fan of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As disappointing as our loss to Bournemouth was at the weekend, I’m not convinced it merited the reaction it got. There were hugely frustrating aspects to our performance but I’m not sure we need to buy-in an entire new backline, goalkeeper and strike force.
A similar response was to be found in some quarters to our loss to Burnley. We then went on to win five of our next six, including a 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and went unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions. The goalkeeper isn’t the next Brad Jones and more than that the fella on the bench is secretly Ray Clemence, and has just been pretending to be shit for the previous three years.
Likewise Roberto Firmino hasn’t suddenly become massively over-rated nor has Jordan Henderson ‘been found out’. Teams lose games, it happens. As much as I’ve never bought into the notion of the Premier League being ‘the best league in the world’, the fact that lower-half teams can beat sides involved in a title challenge is what makes it so exciting and I’m quite sure a similar shock will present itself to one of our rivals before the campaign is over.
The only thing that did concern me, though, was the state of our defence. Jürgen Klopp knows a lot more about football than all of us, apart from a few fellas on a forum somewhere whose talents are definitely being wasted, yet I’m not sure his decision to have Lucas Leiva as our third-choice centre-back is a wise one. Especially not when the converted midfielder will inevitably end up playing alongside another converted midfielder in James Milner.
As much as Milner has genuinely impressed in the left-back slot, and made more than a few of us look foolish, having two players out of four in the backline playing in a position that isn’t natural to them will mean that things might not always go smoothly when the defence comes under pressure; something that proved to be the case at the Vitality Stadium over the weekend.
Only Klopp will know if he fancies Lucas more than Ragnar Klavan or whether he simply thought the Brazilian was the better choice in a match where he assumed the defence wouldn’t come under significant attack, but I think not looking for an additional centre-back in the January transfer window would be madness for a team hoping to challenge for the title.
That said, it’s always worth thinking about the alternatives available to our rivals at such a time. This may come back to bite me on the arse, but I’m going to say that the other teams who look capable of mounting a title challenge from the current league situation are Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Since he reverted to his favoured three at the back formation, Antonio Conte’s centre-backs have been César Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Azpilicueta is actually a full-back, though it works to play him in a back-three because that formation allows for more flexibility in your players. But who would come in if one of those three picked up an injury?
On the bench at the weekend were Branislav Ivanovic and Nathaniel Chalobah. The former is now 32 and, like Azpilicueta, is primarily a full-back, whilst the latter is a 21-year-old who can play as a defender or a midfielder. There was also Ola Aina who is a 20-year-old right-back. John Terry was nowhere to be seen, with injury cited as the reason, though the truth is that he’s no longer an integral part of Chelsea’s defensive unit and won’t be moving forward.
Amongst all the talk of the problems we’ve got at the back, if Joel Matip is absent then it’s worth bearing in mind that had one of Chelsea’s first-choice centre-backs failed a late fitness test they would have had to turn to an ageing full-back or one of three youth players, none of whom are out and out central defenders. It’s not exactly the strength in depth you imagine for a club that has more money available to it than a small nation.
For City the story wasn’t all that much different at the weekend. Nicolás Otamendi is clearly a classy centre-back, but has John Stones yet turned into the player everyone expects him to become? For all of their millions the bench featured defensive options in the form of 33-year-old Bacary Sagna, 31-year-old Pablo Zabaleta and Gaël Clichy who is the same age. Obviously age isn’t the all-important factor for defenders, but I’d hardly be excited if the Reds went all out to buy any of them in January.
So how about Arsenal? Are they packed full of defensive options that put our decision to depend on Lucas Leiva to shame? It’s long been a problem position for Arsene Wenger. He’s always had decent full-back options available to him, with Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin impressing whenever I’ve seen them. There are also options to replace them in the shape of Rob Holding, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs.
When it comes to centre-back, though, things aren’t quite as rosy. I think Laurent Koscielny might be one of the best in the league, actually, and I’ve also been impressed with Shkodran Mustafi so far this season. Gabriel Paulista is OK, though Wenger’s been employing him as a full-back recently. Mathieu Debuchy is another who has been used in the centre but is actually a defensive midfielder by nature and is often deployed as a full-back by the Frenchman.
The only players Arsenal had on the bench for their 5-1 win over West Ham at the weekend were Kieran Gibbs and Rob Holding. Per Mertesacker is hoping to return in the new year, just as Kurt Zouma is on his way back from injury for Chelsea and Vincent Kompany may be able to play two games in a row at some point in his career. Are any of them defensive saviours for their team in a time of crisis, though? I’m not so sure.
I suppose my point in all of this is that it’s natural to assume that other teams have much stronger squads than you and that they’d be able to cope with an injury crisis much more easily than your side. Yet if you took Cahill out of Chelsea, Koscielny from Arsenal and Otamendi from Pep’s Manchester City side, are their replacements significantly better than Lucas Leiva or Ragnar Klavan? Perhaps they are. Perhaps they aren’t.
I’m still very much in favour of us buying a decent centre-back in January and can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed to see a story emerge recently that said we’ve got no interest in signing Virgil van Dijk from Southampton. Yet I don’t think things are as bad as others do and I’m far from convinced that we’re in a decidedly worse position than our title rivals. You can throw the baby out with the bathwater if you want, but then you’ll have neither a baby nor water and you’ll be left with nothing but an empty bath.
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