As we inch closer to confirming our Premier League status for the 2021/22 campaign, attention will switch to transfer plans.
Steve Bruce has already stated that Joe Willock will be our main target following an impressive loan spell. However, we do need further reinforcements to ensure we have a more comfortable season and this writer believes we should focus in defence.
During Rafa Benitez’s time in charge, it was generally agreed that centre back was our strongest position. He built a good group of Jamaal Lascelles, Fabian Schar, Ciaran Clark, Florian Lejeune and Federico Fernandez, while the Spaniard slowly transitioned Paul Dummett to play on the left of a back three.
The best combination seemed to be Lascelles flanked by the ball-playing centre-backs Schar and Lejeune. For a period, they were the playmakers of the team, with Benitez preferring the industry of Mo Diame and Isaac Hayden in central midfield. Paul Dummett ended the season as the left centre-back in the same role as he is being used in now.
The issue is that Steve Bruce hasn’t signed a centre-back since taking charge, but he has overseen the signing of three left-backs. As it was generally believed that centre-back is a strong position, the club have focused their resources elsewhere and it is now beginning to stagnate.
This season, only three sides have conceded more goals than us and our centre backs have looked very one paced. In the current formation, their weaknesses can be hidden somewhat, but if we do plan to transition to a back four, we need to bring in more pace into the back line.
Lascelles is our only defender that has some pace and his injury record means that we can’t rely on him. The captain has started just 19 Premier League matches this season and it is unlikely he will feature again. Considering he is our most important defender, it is worrying that he is likely to start just half of our league matches in a season.
In addition to being the quickest, Lascelles is also the youngest centre back we have at the age of 27. Schar, Lejeune and Dummett are all 29, while Clark and Fernandez are over 30. It is a position where we need a younger, more dynamic option to allow us to play higher up the pitch.
At the moment, we are reliant on defending deep and we try to block shots, rather than being aggressive in our defensive play.
Another recent issue has been Clark’s limitations as the central defender in a back three. He has looked uncertain of his positioning and he has regularly coughed up possession in dangerous areas. The Irishman is a solid squad option, but he has played more minutes than the rest of our centre backs. In future seasons, we should look to use him in a squad role, rather than a starter.
Fernandez and Schar are both approaching the end of their contracts, although the latter has an option for a further year. I’d like to see the club keep Schar for another season, as he is very good on the ball and showed improvements prior to his injury.
However, it is probably the right time to move Fernandez on. We have a lot of ‘similar’ centre backs and this is the chance to regenerate in that position. The Argentine is also the oldest at 32.
Lejeune is an interesting case. I’d like to see him brought back and given another opportunity following an impressive loan spell, but there may be some value in selling him to boost the transfer budget. If he was brought back, I’d like to see Bruce try a back three of Lejeune, Schar and Lascelles, as it may allow him to drop Jonjo Shelvey. The two ball-playing centre-backs would take over the playmaking duties.
If we do try to move to a back four, we definitely need to sign a more dynamic centre-back. That should be on the agenda of the recruitment team.
When Benitez left, centre-back was our strongest position. Now it is quickly emerging as an issue and it must be resolved.