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Sports Features of Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Source: nii ayitey tetteh

Why Essien must be shifted to Centre Back

“What’s the fun in watching 22 grown men chase after one little ball?”… no, you don’t have to answer that really… but I can bet, that like me, you may have gotten that line, accompanied with the usual shrug of shoulder from non-football enthusiasts, a couple of times. Sometimes you attempt to enlighten, sometimes you just leave them to wallow in their ignorance. Today I will attempt neither; rather, I will engage you, my fellow “footballians” to mentally strategize how Ghana’s Black Stars can maximize the talent of one its biggest stars. Hopefully, while we are at it, “non footballians” will get schooled and appreciate the bigger picture; which is that football is more than running around in circles; it is about strategy, it is about mind games. In football, as with a chess game, the movement of the pieces do matter, but not as much as the strategy behind the movement which could decide either victory or loss. As the Black Stars head to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the technical team is faced with how to address the team’s defensive frailties and make that unit solid. One of the options to fix that problem is to move a big knight to the central defense. Who could that knight be? Well, I am thinking a certain Michael Essien and here are my reasons.

State of the defense

The whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts, hasn’t it? Ghana on the other hand has been busy summing up the parts while ignoring the whole. Those parts; Samuel Inkoom and Jonathan Mensah, both with World Cup experience form 2010 in South Africa; Jeffrey Schlupp, Harrison Afful, Daniel Opare, John Boye, Jerry Akaminko and Rashid Sumaila; all had decent outings with their clubs in the just ended season. Clearly, it’s not a question of talent. So what’s the problem? Well, it’s almost becoming like a broken record pointing out the lack of coordination and leadership within Ghana’s defensive unit, since ex captain, John Mensah faded. Game after game, from last year’s Africa Nations Cup to the World Cup qualifiers, we witnessed the defense all over the place, more reactionary than responsive. Granted that individually, these defenders have dug in to save sticky situations, but the level of opposition at the World Cup, is going to go several notches way up.

At that level, the absence of a leader to whip the defense back in line when they get overly excited, leave their lines and disturb the shape of the team, will come to hurt the team; the absence of an organizer to ensure the back line is in sync when defending high up the pitch or setting an offside trap will leave the defense vulnerable. The need for an experienced centre back to read and anticipate opposition moves, alert his unit to track runners and close up the channels cannot be overemphasized. Such attributes, which require physical and mental strength, as well as emotional intelligence, are either innate or learned over time. Unfortunately, though the current set up is blessed with such physical attributes, they are short on the other crucial attributes. This is where Michael Essien comes in, with his experience to fine tune those parts into one wholesome defensive unit! Now, that’s a move worth making. Shall we?

What Essien brings

It wasn’t too long ago when defenders could get by, being tough-as-nails, no nonsense tacklers, ball hoofers, (we call that ‘agor’ in the local parlance) and just being plain mean and intimidating. The game has evolved and while those attributes are still required of the modern day defender, coaches and managers have realized that a defender, who is more perspective, spatially aware, one who can play the ball calmly out of defense and most importantly, one who is able to imbibe team strategy is crucial to having a water tight defense.

Now for the uninitiated, why send Michael Essien, a later day midfielder back into central defense? Well, am sure you didn’t miss the qualification of his position as ‘later day’ because he started his career as a central defender before he was eventually converted to a defensive midfielder when he joined French Club, FC Bastia from Dansoman based Liberty Professionals. That Essien knows the art of defending is unquestionable; it is why several top coaches, especially Jose Mourinho have deployed him in different defensive positions across the entire backline. If he is pushed back to Ghana’s central defense, he will certainly not be disoriented. Yes, the knee surgeries have made him a tad slower, he is less bullish than he used to be, but here is my question, would you rather have him in Ghana’s midfield where there are others in better physical condition or you will rather have him fill in at centre back where his football brain will be more useful and less physically demanding. It will interest you to know that statistically, defenders run 7 kilometers on the average as compared to 10 kilometers by midfielders. I say slot Essien at centre back, where he will be like a pivot around which the more physically endowed younger players feed off his higher sense or organization and coordination, while making up for his loss of pace and brawn, it will be the perfect fusion to solve Ghana’s seeming defensive frailty. That’s my move, now you make yours.

The fun has just began!

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