Is the right full back position Phil Bardsley's to lose?
One of the more interesting sub-plots this preseason is just who will play at right-back?
We have a number of players that Football Manager would determine as a DRC - a player capable of player in the centre or on the right-hand-side of defence. As such, each are being considered as viable contenders to play right-back this coming season.
But just who should get the nod ahead of the opening league game against Arsenal?
Our only summer signing, Carlos Cuellar, is one of those players, and upon his arrival many expected him to slot in on the right, yet this week Martin O'Neill gave an insight into his defensive plans, revealing:
Carlos' best position is at centre-back. He has played at right-back for me, more times than either he or I would have wanted and did it finely.
Carlos has a number of limitations in that full-back position. I probably see John [O'Shea] as a centre-half too. He is more comfortable in that position.
Whilst O'Neill's quotes diminish the possibility of either featuring at full-back, it does not necessarily rule it out. Where that quite leaves Wes Brown, especially considering the manager's suggestion that Titus Bramble may yet have a future on Wearside, remains to be seen. He started at right-back in the first of the Peace Cup games against Seongnam, yet all 20 of his league outings last season came at the heart of the defence; indicating that he may have become an option of late, but by-and-large remains a central defender.
The only option available to O'Neill that would consider himself a right-back by trade is Phil Bardsley, whilst there is a fair argument to suggest that Craig Gardner's best form last season came in that position. Both are committed, hard-working players that - despite a handful of long-range strikes - do not provide enough going forward. Bardsley's inability to protect his central defenders by preventing crosses suggests he is not up to being the main full-back, especially when you consider his positional sense (I won't mention Blackburn away again). Gardner could quite easily emulate Kieran Richardson, who was reverted to left-back because he is not assured or creative enough to be the midfield player tasked with supplying the forward line, but has enough about him to become a secondary source of attack from deep.
The line about Cuellar having ‘a number of limitations in that full-back position' intrigues me; I must stress I am just thinking out loud here, but potentially it could be a position for which to integrate Louis Laing into the first team. Laing's comfort in possession is regularly exulted, but there are concerns about whether the 19-year-old is physically capable of performing as a centre-back in the Premier League at this stage of his development. So, introducing him to a new environment - through the less physical medium of full-back - could be an alternative. Given Laing's ability, it could also be the solution in time.Fellow teenage defender John Egan could even be a candidate through a similar line of thinking, and as a result the need to add to the options at right-back is relatively low unless a quality alternative became available.
But to answer the question of just who should be our regular right-back: I would have to say Cuellar. Despite recalling just how impressive at centre-half the Spaniard was in Rangers' UEFA Cup run - particularly both quarter and semi-final games where Rangers kept clean sheets against Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina respectively - the concerns about Brown and O'Shea's durability are just too apparent. Modern day full-backs require stamina, and all of the current options lack pace, emphasising the importance of Richardson on the opposite side of the pitch. Cuellar stood out in the goalless draw at Villa Park last season where he was up against James McClean, and O'Neill's inference that he is ‘better on the ball than I give him credit for' lends itself to a position where you touch the ball more than most. It goes without question that O'Neill's quotes this week ensures that the door remains open for the others, but Cuellar seems the best fit at this moment in time.