Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chris Baird and the art of defending

As alluded to in my match report on the City game, I am concerned about our defensive abilities and thought I’d look at the reasons I feel we’ve been unable to keep a clean sheet so far this season. I'm not trying to be negative as, having got over my initial disappointment, I have found I've had a warm fuzzy feeling about the football so far and cannot wait to see what happens next.

Poor Chris Baird has taken a bit of hammering and whilst I don’t want to have a go for the sake of it I do want to look at his performances this season. My first glimpse of Baird in the flesh was against Bolton. I thought he did really well, managing to hold the high line and cope with any attack down the flank. In fact he made a number of decent challenges in that game, and for me outshone Konchesky. The ‘Boro game has been consigned to my darkest memory archive so nothing springs to mind but I don’t remember having any great concerns so assume he played more or less as well as the Bolton match. The first warning signs came in the away match at Villa. Here, Baird had to cope with an Ashley Young who had pace to burn and was playing at the very top of his game. Having conceded a very early yellow card he was always going to be on the back foot thereon, and having clearly struggled it was not that surprising to see him receive a second and get sent off. He was back for the Spurs game and again had a torrid time from another young pacey winger, this time Gareth Bale.

During the City match I was probably paying more attention to his performance, though this wasn’t hard as so much of City’s good work came from Petrov on the left wing. Baird has a habit of backing off an attacking player, which in itself is not a problem as long as you are in some way making it difficult for the attacker to use the ball. City’s first goal came as Baird allowed Petrov all the way into our penalty area before attempting any sort of challenge, and when he did it was mistimed and ineffective. I think when backing off in such a way the defender should be making some effort to slow down the forward progress of the attacker or force him into an area where he is not so dangerous. Baird made no attempt to push Petrov wide, probably because he was concerned that in doing so the Bulgarian could get around him and provide a decent cross. However, Baird also failed to impede Petrov’s progress in any way, and by the time Petrov cut inside, Baird was too far ahead of him to make a meaningful challenge. I don’t think our defensive frailty can be blamed solely on one man though and City’s second goal came as the entire team switched off. Having just re-taken the lead a good through ball left everyone flat footed as Petrov glided through and had his shot saved by Niemi. Baird could have been closer to the rebound but was always going to find it hard to recover. The third goal also came down that right side, but this time Baird was left with no chance as Petrov burst through. Again the ball that did the damage came from the middle of the field. I think this might be a clue to our lack of resilience.

As a team I think we look a little lightweight. Against City we were too slow to react, and too slow to close City down when they had the ball. Bouazza and Davies are neat going forward but limited in the protection they can provide the full backs. Smertin & Davis can play some lovely football in the middle but neither of them is going to put in a big challenge or even just kick someone for the sake of it. I think every team needs an enforcer and this is what we might be missing. Michael Brown played that role until his sale to Wigan, constantly on the move snapping at people’s heals and yes, occasionally kicking someone just to let them know he was there. It’s not always pretty but I do think most teams need someone like that, Blackburn have Savage, Ch*ls** have Essien, Liverpool have Mascherano, Man United have Hargreaves maybe only Arsenal survive without that sort of player. Another player we’ve sold is Papa Bouba Diop and whilst not as busy as Brown he was also capable of “putting it about” as his Man of the Match performance for Portsmouth against Liverpool emphasised. Looking through our squad I’m not sure we’ve got anyone capable of playing that role now (except possibly Moritz Volz) so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sanchez deals with the problem. Whatever the truth there’s no doubt we have to keep a few clean sheets if we’re going to survive this season.

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