Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Whom to drop?

Mark Hughes has a big decision to make. For all our appearance of a settled side in recent months, various injuries, suspensions and regulations have combined to save the manager from dropping a front line player. We are yet to have a match when all of these players have been available: Bridge, Dunne, Onuoha, Richards, Zabaleta, de Jong, Kompany, Ireland, Robinho and SWP. I've not included Given or the strikers, because their positions are self-contained - there's only slot in the team, they can't play anywhere else in our current system, and no-one else can play there.

I know this sounds unlikely but it's true. To move backwards in time since :

Sunderland - Bridge and Ireland injured.
AaB (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Chelsea - Kompany and de Jong injured.
AaB (h) - de Jong ineligible, Kompany injured.
Aston Villa - Richards, Robinho injured.
West Ham - SWP suspended.
København (h) - de Jong ineligible.
Liverpool - SWP suspended.
København (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Portsmouth - Richards injured, SWP suspended, Dunne suspended.
Boro - Dunne suspended.
Stoke - Dunne suspended.
Newcastle - Dunne suspended.

So as you can see, one key absentee in each of the last thirteen games has allowed Hughes to rotate the players (principally by moving Zabaleta and Kompany between midfield and defence as appropriate) without dropping a big name. But for the Arsenal game on Saturday, we may well be in the position of having all of those ten players available. And providing that we stick with Bellamy or Bozhinov alone up front, we can only pick nine of them. So who will it be? Here are the options. (I've used Bellamy rather than Bozhinov up front, but naturally you could switch Boji in and everything else would still hold):

1) To drop Richards

Maybe harsh on Richards, who has played well. But Zabaleta is probably a better right back than he is. And this allows us play three specialist central midfielders.

2) To drop Kompany

He's had a fantastic first season in England, but has noticeably struggled for form and fitness recently. Zabaleta, Ireland and de Jong are all in better nick at the moment. But leaving him out gives us a midfield lacking height though - it's the middle three from the Fratton Park defeat.

3) To drop Onuoha

This is probably quite unlikely. Onuoha is having his best ever sequence of games at the moment, at centre back alongside Dunne. The only reason to do this would be if Hughes fancied Kompany ahead of Onuoha at centre back, which is questionable on current form.

4) To drop Zabaleta

Moving Zabaleta into midfield was done, amongst other reasons, to help get the best out of Richards. And it may be that Richards has done so well that he can't be dropped. And if Kompany and de Jong are preferred to Zabba in central midfield, he may well find himself on the bench.

5) To drop de Jong

This is the UEFA Cup team. But it would be stupid to miss the chance to rest some of our UEFA Cup-eligible players in the league when we have an £18million Dutch international on the bench.

6) To drop Robinho

Heavily rumoured in the press, but generally in conjunction with 'Petrov to return' stories. But how about doing it without Martin Petrov? It's the team from Anfield but with SWP in for Robinho. Could be an option at the Emirates?

As you can tell, none of these options are much better than the others. They all involve leaving out a player who deserves to play, while maintaining a similar quality and balance to the side. It's for this reason that I don't think Hughes will reach any long term decision to this question. There will be games when certain options are better than others, players who will need a rest, and all that. It's called rotation: Sir Alex Ferguson does it quite a lot, and he seems to know what he's doing. For the Emirates on Saturday, I suppose it depends on the fitness of SWP, Kompany and Robinho - all away on international duty. But should every one come back 100% fit, I imagine I'd go for option 2, and give Vincent Kompany a rest. He's looked tired for some time, and we really need him fresh for his return to the HSH Nordbank Arena next Thursday. And Arsenal are not a side against which a big physical presence in midfield is a must to compete. But for Fulham the following Sunday? Who knows.


JPB said...

NB And this doesn't even take into account the returns of Martin Petrov and Michael Johnson, or the chance of uniting Bellamy and Bozhinov in 4-4-2, or any other contingencies. What would we do then?

Gary Nolan said...

If all those players are going to be fit at the same time and soon, I would think Kompany might make way, only to recover from injury though and then you have the problem all over again.

Gary Nolan said...

Just to clarify I said if they are all fit and then said Kompany might miss out to recover form injury, contradicts itself. I meant recover properly without having injections to play.

Philip said...

Does Elano not get a look-in in any of these permutations?

I know he has a love-hate relationship with MH, but surely there has to be some possibility that he would figure in the starting XI. My impression is that Hughes actually rates Elano (and he has said so too), albeit with reservations.

With the players you list, plus Elano, Johnno, and Petrov (when fit) we will have lots of midfield options. If only we had a target man, there would be very little left by way of weakness.

JPB said...

I just don't think Elano is in Hughes' plans. If you look at his recent appearances, they've all been replacing someone unavailable.

Against Sunderland he was in for injured Ireland, against Chelsea we were without Kompany and de Jong in midfield, same away at Aalborg, against Villa there was no Robinho. He two appearances before that were off the bench. He's a good player but I just don't think he's in Hughes' first eleven plans.

Gary Nolan said...

Has Elano impressed us enough this season to get a look in?

Philip said...

Interesting. I disagree. I think he is in Hughes' plans, albeit not as an automatic choice. He was very good against Sunderland, and (in my view) one of the better midfielders against Chelsea. The thing is, no-one is immune from being dropped, and that's a good thing. There's every chance he'll get some starts at the expense of any of the other midfielders, including Robinho, Ireland or SWP, if they're not up to scratch.

JPB said...

Philip - I think the one thing in Elano's favour for the rest of the season is that we have four easy home league games remaining. Against WBA, Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn it's not always necessary to play two holding players so I imagine MH could end up using Elano to try to unpick their 9-1 formations. But we'll see. I'd be shocked if he's here next season though (providing Mark Hughes is).

Gary Nolan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary Nolan said...

I agree about his performance at Chelsea Phillip, although some people didn't agree. I think he could get a look in, but is by no means going to be the first name on the team sheet. He just doesn't look interested at times, maybe he has got above himself and developed a poor attitude and thats why.

Philip said...

I've no illusions as to the downside of Elano, but if you look at the stats he's actually started a fair few games this season. Ok, you could say that's partly down to injuries. I agree, of course. But injuries are an inevitable presence in football.

The man has too much ability to just throw him on the scrap heap, and I think that Hughes is arrogant enough (in a good way) to believe that he can manage him and get the best out of him. There's been a notable softening in Hughes' rhetoric towards Elano recently (including at the fans' forum) - and vice versa.

These factors lead me to believe he's going to stay. He's not a player to etch in stone on the starting line up, but in a big club - which we wish to be - he's more than good enough to get a lot of starts.

I must say it's nice to have somewhere to have proper debates without being insulted (unlike Bluemoon...). Keep it up.

Gary Nolan said...

I don't believe he should be put on the scrap heap either. Only time will tell I guess.

Oggie said...

Its good to see valid opinions reasonably put. I would look at it long term. If we want to eat at the top table, we need two up top and I dont believe that either are top class, yet. That would leave a 4 man midfield where everyone would have to pull their weight and Im not sure Elano could do it week in week out. I love watching the bloke, but I cant see it.

Jonathan said...

Elano isn't a very Hughes type of player for me. However, he is a great option from the bench, someone who perhaps could just create some magic. I'd go along with JPB's options for the post-it note formation board. I'd also go along with the resting of Kompany. Its going to be really tough to win the UEFA but we are in a better position than we have been for a long, long time.

clevblue said...

i suppose to Hughes' mind, if you are playing well, and you fit the bill against the particular opposition that week, you are selected. If you do well, you will be selected again. We only really have a small squad.

It's obvious Petrov will get a shot when ready, as we have missed that left sided influence, he can draw out defenders and get past them. Boj has a chance to show what he can do, and is doing, Elano is very talented and playing well, so it all adds to the mix - I don't think it gives the manager headaches, he'll pick what he sees as his strongest team for the job in hand.
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