The season in review: the defence

A Chris Wilder squad is like Crash Mountain on Total Wipeout. It continually spins forebodingly. Some make it to the relative calm and stability of the centre, but most end up being thrown in the water.

In such a dynamic environment, it is somewhat ironic then that in a season in which we struggled to keep clean sheets and ended with a negative goal difference that the back five were the most stable component of the first team.

In a sense it’s telling, worrying really, that Ryan Clarke is my player of the season. When goalkeepers are noticeably the best player in team there’s usually something wrong that’s leading to all his champagne moments. But credit where it’s due, the odd flap aside, Clarke’s shot stopping has been of a quality of a much higher level.

Damien Batt’s inclusion in the team is a question of tactical philosophy. He may not be the best defender in the world, but to replace him would sacrifice something going forward. Nobody has his dynamism and impetus. For many years we’ve seen wingers toiling as they try to carve out a cross without any support. Batt’s willingness to get forward is something to be celebrated.

On the other side Anthony Tonkin has perhaps struggled a touch. Neither rock hard defender nor rampant wing back; he’s often caught between those two stools. It’s telling that a lot of goals have been conceded from crosses, and a lot from the left hand side. Tonkin doesn’t impose his game on opponents like Batt does. His place is perhaps most under threat.

For me, Harry Worley ran Clarke close for player of the season. He’s a modern defender in the sense that he mixes both athleticism and ability with the classic willingness to put his head where others won’t. If he’s missing something it’s the ability to organise, which will come with experience. Jake Wright clearly has the respect of his team, but of the two was probably more prone to individual mistakes during the season. If you’re going to tighten up the defence you’d expect to see some focus being put on the centre. Wright’s had a decent season, but may not be as prominent during 2011/12 has he has been.

Wee Stevie Kinniburgh looked a bit out of depth. He may be lacking match sharpness, but Chris Wilder isn’t the kind of man to give that kind of excuse any sympathy. It was not a surprise when it was announced he was free to go. Ben Purkiss is a bit more of a surprise as he is both versatile and dependable. He’s not likely to see an extended run in the team over, say, Batt, but when he was needed he did his job well.

Many other defenders wallowed in the water of Chris Wilder’s Crash Mountain pool – Lee Franks, Ben Futcher and Mark Creighton – joining them will be Eastwood, Hanson and Sangare, who enjoyed an odd but fleeting cult status, but none will be missed come next season.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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