Craig Gardner is all smiles, but is he the winner of this week's Make Your Case? Only you can decide.
We started these over the summer, as you may remember, and we're hell-bent on continuing them through the season as and when required.
For those that don't know, it's a feature called "Make Your Case" - where two Roker Report writers go head-to-head on a subject of our choosing and leave it up to you the public to decide who put forward the best case and vote for a winner. You can even chip in with your own views in the comments section below too.
This week, we have Dan Williams and Karl Jones going head-to-head on the future of our right fullback position. Craig Gardner has played there recently, and very well. However Phil Bardsley is nearing a comeback and tends to be first choice when fit.
Who should be keeping the shirt as we move forward? The cases for each are made below...Karl Jones: Craig Gardner Should Stay At Right Back
It has been a problem position since returning to the Premier League; Greg Halford flopped, Phil Bardsley steadied the ship somewhat before Pascal Chimbonda was the supposed upgrade in pursuit of that the mythical ‘next level'. Yet it is Bardsley who remains, and has become our longest-serving player since the departure of Kieran Richardson - a fact highlighting the short-termism that both the club and, to some extent, modern football lives by. Annual rebuilds, in some part, were needed, others were the fanciful attempts to hide the shortcomings of Steve Bruce.
Despite that, it is a position where Sunderland is not short of options, if without an outstanding candidate. Yes, Bardsley is currently injured and his commitment is heralded by Martin O'Neill, but his defensive positioning is suspect and where full-backs are now involved in the game almost as much as central midfielders, Bardsley is the prime offender for aimless long balls that bring a relinquishing of possession and the invitation of pressure.
Bardsley's one redeeming feature - aside from his determination - is that he has recently proven that he can become a goal threat from outside the box, something Craig Gardner is capable of without being out-of-sync with his fellow defenders. Gardner, albeit at such an early stage in the season, averages 5.5 tackles per game (Sunderland's highest) with only the impressive Carlos Cuellar better at blocking shots and successful clearances.
Both full-back positions are currently occupied by midfielders ‘doing a job'; something that will be extended as Danny Rose's transition from left wing to left-back continues on Wearside. The irony is that Bardsley is the only ‘natural' full-back. His actions - and I continue to bring up Blackburn Rovers away last season - suggest otherwise, but he has some fooled. John O'Shea was criticised roundly last season when deployed at right-back for his distribution - a perception that is flawed by Bardsley's unsuccessful passes (390) and sheer number of long passes (193). Gardner has so far started in a similar vein, with 15 long balls in two games thus far, but both came in tough away matches. A clearer indication of Gardner's ability to regenerate possession for his side from full-back is still to come.
Despite it being a position Gardner would not consider his primary place to play, his best games for Sunderland have come away from central midfield. Whether that is a cautious approach to a role he is somewhat familiar with or O'Neill simplifying the role for him is irrelevant - he is currently playing well there, and as a result should stay there for the foreseeable future barring an injury crisis in midfield.
Dan Williams: Phil Bardsley Should Return To Right Back
For the past few years, we at Sunderland have enjoyed having a good old moan about 'square pegs in round holes'. It's something that almost each and every one of us has mentioned, and it's usually levelled at our full-back situation. We've moaned at Kieran Richardson's inclusion there, we moaned when John O'Shea was stuck in a right back, we've moaned that we're wasting Colback there. Christ, we've even discussed the merits of signing Steven Warnock and Nicky Shorey, just so that we can have a 'proper' left back.
So, with a former Player of the Year available to us in our right-back slot, we now find ourself with a tussle between him and an attacking midfielder playing in the same position.
Phil Bardsley isn't everyone's cup of tea, Roker Report's Phil Bardsley being top of the list of his critics, but he's a natural right back, and isn't half as bad as people enjoy making out. In fact, when we ran a poll on this very site to discover whether Bardsley has 'likeablility' or is a liability, he recieved a resounding 71% of the votes in his favour. Don't let Michael Graham influence you, people, Phil Bardsley genuinley isn't that bad.
I digress though, I'm here to discuss the merits of the Manc Scotsman over Craig Gardner in the team.
Although Gardner has looked relatively good in the position in our opening two games this season, O'Neill has already spoken about how much he enjoys Bardsley's tenacity in the team, and if you are looking for someone to give the proverbial 110%, then there are few players, with perhaps Lee Cattermole as an exception, that put more in to playing for Sunderland. As I have said about him in the past, Bardsley would run through a wall for SAFC, and has now become our longest-serving player, following Richardson's move to Fulham. Players don't stay at clubs for long in the modern game, and for 'Bardo' to show the commitment to Sunderland that he has for such a long time should be commended.
To look at the other side of the coin, we may also find that playing Gardner at right back means that he isn't at the club for too long, anyway. There have already been a lot of noises coming from his camp that he isn't necessarily happy at the Stadium of Light, and being moved from his preferred position in the middle of the park to right back can only mean that his happiness levels in the north East will take a huge hit sooner, rather than later.
Karl will probably argue that Bardsley enjoys a shot from distance, that generally ends with the ball in Row Z, and that Gardner actually has a better shot on him. While that may be the case from set-pieces (Wigan away), Bardsley has actually scored more goals for us than Gardner, and although I realise that he has played a fair few more games, all of his have been from the back, rather than in an advanced position, like his team-mate.
It's almost certain that Karl will also mention Bardsley's sometimes suspect positional play, and while this may be true*, there are also few players on the pitch that will chase the ball with all of their physical being to keep the ball from going in the net. Yes, he may get caught out of position on occasion, but watch Sunderland for a reasonable amount of time and you will realise that he also clears the ball from the line more than anyone else in the squad, as well as providing a great deal of our last-ditch tackles, and vital blocks.
He has also, seemingly, calmed down a bit since the beginning of last season. A couple of early red cards left him sitting in the stands, and I won't begin to defend him for the cards that he received, if memory serves correctly they were both fully deserved, but with a new-look Sunderland at the top of the Fair Play league, I imagine that Martin O'Neill will also keep his right back in check.
We have a player in Bardsley that won Player of the Year playing out of position. We should be looking now to get our staff playing where they would prefer to be, not having 'makeshift' options instead. For this reason, Phil Bardsley should be Sunderland's right back, and Craig Gardner should be keeping the bench warm.
Some interesting comments and analysis of the situation, but who gets your vote to fill the right back situation at the club? Did either of these sway your opinions one way or another? Vote in the poll below and/or leave a comment!
Who should get the nod at right back moving forward?
Craig Gardner (21 votes)
Phil Bardsley (49 votes)
70 total votes