The Centre-Back Dilemma
One of the biggest questions looming over Stoke during the transfer window is how do we fix the defence that has not kept a clean sheet since the 2nd of March. Many fans have looked towards the centre back position and suggested that this is the area that is most in need of improvement. However this is an argument that I cannot find myself agreeing with, as I believe our resources would be much valued elsewhere, due to our strength and depth in this role.
First look at the current selection of centre backs we have, with our dear sweet prince Teixeira leaving (well we think he’s leaving, he was spotted at the Burton game?) we have 5 centre backs. 4 of whom are full internationals with 73 caps between them and the other a former member of the Spanish under 21’s. This of course is Muni who played a role in the Spanish youth side who were crowned Euro under 21 champions in 2013, conceding only 5 goals in 14 games in the qualification process and finals tournament. At only 24 the ex Barca player is yet to reach the age where a defender comes into his prime and time, along with game time, will see the Spanish defender flourish.
Next we have Geoff Cameron who has made nearly 50 appearances at the centre of defence for the USA and has been pivotal to their success in the last World Cup and this summer’s Copa America. The American spent his time last season split between defensive midfielder, right back and his preferred position at centre back. His energy and athletic ability are a great addition to the side, combine this with his versatility and Cameron is an essential squad player. Unlike Geoff, Marc Wilson is a bit part player who spent the majority of last season injured. Despite his 12 international caps Wilson is probably the weakest link in the defence and I would not be saddened nor surprised to see him move on.
Finally the two who seem to be our current first choice pairing, captain fantastic and the graceful German. Wollscheid has 3 caps for Germany which is no easy task, and at 27 he is of an age where a defender should be coming into his peak. Promising performances this season have been marked with poor ones, but with time on his side and a strong partner next to him Wollscheid could truly flourish this season. Shawcross carries the one solitary cap for England, which is regarded as a travesty to Stoke fans and the rest of the nation is beginning to agree. Hopefully with Big Sam’s appointment we may yet see Shawcross return to the national set up. If the official line from the club can be believed Shawcross is truly over the injury to his back, and will reassume his role as our heroic captain.
Secondly look at the centre backs that we have been linked with none are of the category Hughes is attempting to sign, those who will be key members of the side. Michael Keane is young, 23, and has only 10 Premier League appearances to his name. And the 15 million plus figure being quoted is even enough to scare away the current Premier League champions, with home grown talent coming at such an inflated cost the board is much wiser spending elsewhere. Especially when it appears we are prepaid to outlay around 40 million on only 3 players (Allen 13, Berahino 20, Sobhi 5).
Despite having played a key role in Dortmund’s Champions League final run in 2013, Subotic is another large risk for the board to take. Nothing better displays this than our attempts at signing him on loan with an option to buy, a move Dortmund did not prefer to give the go ahead due to their understanding of his injury problem. This has been proven in his failed move to Middlesbrough, as it has been discovered that he requires surgery on his rib cage that is expected to keep him out until next season. Injuries have seen the Serbian kept out of his national set up for many years, and drop down the pecking order at Dortmund. Thankfully this can be viewed as a bullet dodged as injury problems have plagued our defence this past season, and we certainly did not wish to add to that with an injury prone signing
Finally the most convincing point, for myself anyway, is that last season we were simply unlucky with injury. Shawcross’ back problem combined with other long term injuries to Johnson, Muniesa and Butland meant that no consistency was maintained in the defence. This is proven clearly in the statistics. In the 20 matches where Stoke played the same back 5 as the previous fixture only 19 goals were conceded, keeping 9 clean sheets*. Whereas in the 20 matches where we did not field the same back 5 as the previous fixture 35 goals were conceded and only 2 clean sheets were kept. These figures clearly indicate that it was the inconsistency in selection that caused our defensive woes, clearly shown in our end of season run where only the Crystal Palace match, was the only game in 9 that saw no change to the back 5.
Looking at sides such as Leicester and Spurs, two of the strongest defences in the league, the requirement for continuity in defensive selection is clearly apparent. Spurs kept their defence as similar as they could throughout the season, only rotating full backs due to their intense work load. Due to this they managed to forge the most successful defence in the league, despite their attacking style of play. Leicester meanwhile struggled to maintain any consistency at the beginning of the season, leading to Ranieri promising his team pizza if they successfully managed to keep a clean sheet. But as Leicester romped to league victory they went a run of 6 wins without conceding a goal, doing so with a never changing back 5 of Schmeichal, Simpson, Huth, Morgan and Fuchs , indicating the importance of consistency.
So, there it is, my reasons as to why we are not in need of another centre back. We simply need to have less defenders visiting the physio room, allowing us to play the same back 5 as much as possible. Do you agree Stokies? Is Shawcross’ back problem never going away? Should we stump up the cash required for Keane? Are we already doomed to relegation?
*Cup matches not included due to large rotation, although the league cup semi-finals are included
Written by Tom Thrower
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