City in centre back ‘purgatory’ and this position, most of all, awaits a major summer overhaulTue 7 Feb 17 by Andy Head
There’s a phrase used in American Football – quarterback purgatory.
It refers to a situation where an NFL team has a quarterback that will never be good enough to get them to the Super Bowl, but is competent enough to win games against the lesser teams.
The downside of this is that in the NFL the teams with the worst records get the first pick of the new college players, and that is where teams can draft a quarterback that has the potential to get them to a Super Bowl. So when you’re in quarterback purgatory you’ll never truly bottom out and be awful, but at the same time, you’ll never get to where you want to be.
As we entered January I felt that City were in centre-back purgatory.
In terms of results we were not good enough to keep clean sheets against good teams but not so bad that we got battered by just anyone.
And in terms of recruitment we had players that were good enough that they couldn’t be replaced cheaply (in terms of either fee or wages) and already had a sizeable chunk of the wage budget invested in the position, but on the flip side we had (and still have) players that are too expensive to shift on.
Big contracts, big reputations, but with recent bodies of work that won’t encourage anyone to take an expensive chance on them. To borrow another metaphor, our squad is in negative equity.
Centre-back, like striker, is a position I never expected us to invest in during January. In a month where we were told we had to move players out to move them in it was highly unlikely we were going to shift anyone in these positions in the first place.
Unfortunately this stagnation is at the root of many of our current problems. And the centre of defence has been the definition of stagnant for years.
At the start of January we had five senior centre backs in Klose, Martin, Bassong, Bennett and Turner. Of those, only Klose has been here for less than four-and-a-half seasons, or to put it another way, nine transfer windows.
In fact, with the brief exception of Ignasi Miquel, Klose is the only centre-back we’ve bought in nine transfer windows. The other four have combined to make 601 appearances for the club.
Add in four-and-a-half years and 99 games for Steven Whittaker and three-and-a-half years and 129 games of Martin Olsson, and you had a defensive front that should have been as well-drilled and in tune as any unit in the country.
Yet all too often they appeared like new signings hastily thrust together, not understanding how to play with the other. Whilst Klose and Pinto have freshened things up at the back, and Dijk will hopefully continue to do so, the defensive squad remains clogged with players who have been there, done that, been dropped for it, and then been recalled because their replacements have been equally hapless.
And the cycle has continued year in, year out, although perhaps this is harsh, especially on Russell Martin who at seven years of service and approaching 300 games is in bona fide legend territory.
Individually they’ve all had plenty of good moments, but the maddening inconsistency of obviously gifted players is the reason that centre-back has been a revolving door position for what feels like forever.
This summer however represents a watershed moment for the entire defence. Whittaker, Turner, Bassong and Bennett are all out of contract (further year options not withstanding) whilst at left-back, Dijk is highlighting every one of his social media posts with a very big “four months” caveat, which serves to remind that left-back is far from settled as a position.
And whilst Klose and Pinto seem to be happy in their adopted Norfolk home, if City fail to somehow make it through the play-off jungle as the last men standing, admirers in higher leagues are unlikely to be in short supply.
Olsson’s departure felt like the beginning of the end for this group, and whomever is installed as CEO is going to earn his wages in June and July as a long overdue overhaul to our defensive ranks cranks up in earnest.
Whether the players that line up in defence for us come August come in from the rarefied echelons of European football or the upper half of League One is entirely dependent upon how well this group can hold the line in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
Which in itself creates some individual dilemmas. Stay down and your time in Norfolk on big money is over. Go up and you may be rewarded with another contract, or you may impress other clubs enough to get yourself a Bosman cash cow contract.
But equally the manager may recall how much you struggled at Premier Level before and choose to take the opportunity to replace you while they can. Perhaps centre-back purgatory works both ways. Either way, we live in interesting times.
Whilst I am as pleased as anyone with the signings of Yanic Wildschut and Mitchell Dijks, I’m not with those who declared themselves happy with City’s transfer window business.
For me there are two glaring holes in the current squad that have been ignored. We have one left-back in Dijks and one fit central midfielder that can move the ball in Jonny Howson. We are effectively a couple of Achilles’ tendon injuries away from having half a season of Steven Whittaker at left-back and Alex Tettey and Youssef Mulumbu trying to switch the ball from defence to attack.
That’s a hell of a lot of reliance on good luck with injuries, and on Dijks fitting in immediately and playing well. I hope I’m wrong but I can see this failure to add back-up options biting us sharply on the backside at some point and costing us dearly.