One of the other main talking points following our draw with Villa was Martin Jol’s decision to play Aaron Hughes at right back. We can’t be sure whether he choose to play the Northern Ireland international at full back to accommodate Phillipe Senderos in the centre or to quell the threat posed by Charles N’Zogbia. Whilst the end result was a solid defensive performance and another clean sheet, it got me wondering about the future of our back line under Jol.
You couldn’t really quibble with Senderos on Saturday. He was strong and determined in the face of a real examination from Darren Bent and his only lapses in concentration came when he let Emile Heskey drift in behind him dangerously. Arsenal fans often wondered what the Swiss defender might produce if he was fully fit or given a long run in the side. Indeed, you can’t fault his performances for Fulham so far and his height makes him a formidable companion for Brede Hangeland.
Permanently breaking up the Hughes-Hangeland partnership, however, would be a brave move from Jol. Firstly, Hughes and Hangeland have developed an almost telepathic understanding and must be one of the best pairings outside the top three at centre back. A large deal of the credit for our defensive – and overall – success over the past two seasons must go to those two. Whilst Senderos adds a greater physical dimension to the central defence, Hughes’ positioning and reading of the game is a real asset alongside Hangeland. Secondly, it creates a real selection conundrum at right back.
Playing Hughes at full-back is something that Mark Hughes tried towards the end of last season. He’s not the first manager to do it. Hughes has been deployed there during his spells at Aston Villa and Newcastle, but he’s primarily a centre back by trade. This means we lose an attacking dimension from our right back by playing Hughes there and, when he does try to get forward, his crossing and distribution aren’t always accurate. It also means displacing Chris Baird, one of last season’s best performers.
Baird isn’t a natural right back either, but he gradually made that position his own after John Pantsil’s mishaps created an opportunity last term. Like Hughes, Baird reads the game exceptionally well and is strong in the tackle. Perhaps the most underestimated facet of his game, however, is his distribution. He has a wide range of passing, which was showcased during his spell as a midfielder a couple of years ago, and his vision from right back often released Bobby Zamora into dangerous positions. Baird also gets further forward than Hughes from full back, as this Guardian heatmap of comparable performances shows:
Losing Baird from the side would be a blow, but he is the victim of his own versatility. Thanks to the form of Hughes and Hangeland, he’s never really had a run at centre back (although he has turned in some fine performances there as an emergency replacement, see Tottenham away in 2008/09 for example). He popped up with a couple of goals at Stoke from left back, where he replaced Carlos Salcido for a while and did well, and we’ve already mentioned his spell in midfield, which included bossing Juventus at the Cottage on that unforgettable night.
It’s clear that Jol doesn’t rate Stephen Kelly – although the Irish international was bafflingly included as one of three defenders on the bench on Saturday – and there’s plenty of talk about a new right back arriving before too long. Fulham have been linked with the Lens youngster Serge Aurier and Luke Young over the weekend. A new right back will certainly make the squad stronger and perhaps full the void left by the departure of John Pantsil, a regular under Roy Hodgson, but it would also give Jol a headache as he contemplates who should partner Hangeland.
Perhaps the competition for places, particularly in defence – arguably the strongest part of this Fulham side – is proof that the Whites are now much better equipped to compete for a place in the Premier League’s top half.