There are some roles in football that never change. The striker at the tip of the triangle is there to score goals just as much as the goalkeeper down at the bottom is there to prevent them. Yet full-backs are a completely different animal.
From being the sturdy and reliable engine to track back and forth at the back, they now require the sort of qualities the number nine up-front can’t even master in training. However, in a season where defensive errors have often been our downfall, one player has caused us more grief than joy – and isn’t it time we put an end to this misery?
Bennett is obviously the culprit here. It’s a telling sign of his ability that this piece was written before his error against Norwich and not after, as he has a mistake waiting in him for almost every game. If it wasn’t for Gabriel Agbonlahor’s goals we would have dropped two valuable points. It could have even been enough to see us drop down a league as a consequence.
But it wasn’t just against Norwich that he let us down.
He has made a collection of mistakes time and time again. Lambert’s philosophy has required full-backs with a burning ambition to attack, particularly given our lack of an orthodox out-and-out winger. Yet, and forgive me for sounding old fashioned here, when I see four defenders in the back-line the first thing I want them to do is defend – and Gordon Bennett, he simply does not know the meaning of the word!
You could point to full-backs all around the top European leagues and argue that the traditional number threes are a dying breed – Marcelo, Phillip Lahm and Ashley Cole being prime examples of what a modern-day full-back can bring to the table.
Take it down a notch and Matt Lowton’s performances this season have nailed almost every desire you could want from a full-back down to a tee. Bennett could go a long way in learning from his style. But then again an attacking full-back is only a bonus if they can defend in the first place. If they can’t do the latter then you have to raise questions on their inclusion in the squad. Unfortunately for Bennett, he falls into this category.
He can be infuriating at times. “Kick him! Punch him! Stand up…do something!” the crowd collectively screams as he offers the opposing winger enough time on the ball to stop and tie his shoe-laces twice over. For all his bright play surging forward, his demeanour is so fragile in defence you can almost feel him flaking away at the very sight of a quick pair of feet – or even a slow pair for that matter.
Lowton’s stature isn’t much greater, but his aggression and commitment to a challenge – not to mention his positional sense and decision making – already places him far further in the pecking order, despite coming from relatively similar backgrounds. He now has a real chance to build on this season and establish himself as an England international.
Bennett is a talented player when given freedom on the ball and you can’t help but want him to succeed at the club. But as a full-back? It’ll never work. In a defence that has conceded the third highest number of goals in the league this season, defensive reinforcements are surely a priority for us in the summer and the left-back position should be high on our list. He is simply not good enough and that is not a difficult assumption to make.
You could give him the benefit of the doubt and say at 23 he still has time to develop, but if a defender struggles to master the art of defending now then what hope does he have in the future? I can’t help but feel he would be better off shaping his role towards becoming a wide-midfielder. With his sweet left-foot, direct runs and pin-point crossing ability he could easily emulate his fellow Middlesbrough graduate, Stewart Downing. Oh wait, Stewart who? Forget you heard that name!