HEARD the one about which position Nicky Shorey plays? Left-back – left back in the dressing room, that is...
The Aston Villa defender could be forgiven for thinking he has walked into one of football’s oldest – and lamest – jokes in the past few weeks.
Signed on the eve of this season to avert Villa’s left-back crisis, Shorey has recently found himself replaced by Luke Young, the right-footed full-back who joined at a similar time.
Since Wilfred Bouma suffered an horrific, severely dislocated ankle at the end of July, Villa manager Martin O’Neill has used a variety of players in the traditional No.3 role.
Shorey was the specialist, purchased from Championship club Reading for £3.5million, and having played in that position for England.
A less than auspicious start to his claret and blue career was exacerbated by an amateurish error which led to the opening goal in the home defeat to Middlesbrough on November 9. Since then the diminutive Londoner has not seen any first-team action and has been on the substitutes bench after being dropped from the squad.
Instead, O’Neill, who had already experimented with versatile midfielder Gareth Barry at left-back for October’s home draw with Portsmouth, has tended to favour Young in Shorey’s place.
To his credit Young, despite being predominantly right-sided, has switched seamlessly to patrolling the opposite flank, a transition confirmed by Villa’s three consecutive clean sheets.
The knock-on effect has been, however, that with their specialist right-back filling it at left-back O’Neill’s team have also had to make do with makeshift solutions along the right side of defence.
Already this season, central defender Carlos Cuellar and midfielders Nigel Reo-Coker and
Craig Gardner have been used to solve a problem that Young’s £6?million arrival from Middlesbrough was supposed to have ended.
O’Neill, of course, can point to three successive shut-outs - against Arsenal, Manchester United and Fulham - as evidence that his fall-back full-backs have strengthened Villa’s defensive department.
That Young at left-back and Reo-Coker at right-back coped with the threats of Theo Walcott and Cristiano Ronaldo added weight to the manager’s argument that he knows precisely what he is doing with the bookends of his back-four.
However, two former Villa favourites are not convinced that O’Neill’s square pegs in round holes full-back philosophy will continue to serve them quite so effectively.
Ian Taylor, a darling of the Holte End during his 1heyday as a goal-scoring midfielder from 1994 to 2003, believes players should only be employed out of position in the event of a selection crisis.
“Why exactly does Martin O’Neill continue to fiddle with his full-backs?” Taylor said “This summer he spent around £10?million on two England internationals, Luke Young and Nicky Shorey, but one can’t get in the team and the other is covering for him.
“Already this season Gareth Barry, Carlos Cuellar, Nigel Reo-Coker and Craig Gardner have filled in on either side and I can’t say I’m a fan of it. Surely you have to play your right-back at right-back, your left-back at left-back and midfielders in midfield. If there’s a crisis then fair enough but more often than not these are not decisions of necessity.”
Former European Cup winner Colin Gibson, left-back and in midfield for Villa in the late 1970s and early 1980s, has faith in O’Neill finding a successful formula. However, he believes it will take the return to fitness of Bouma in the new year to give Villa adequate competition and cover in both wide defensive positions.
Gibson said: “I’ve felt at times that when Villa have been under the cosh a little bit they’ve missed Bouma because he played particularly well last year. I can’t wait until he comes back fit because that’ll give Villa competition for places and that’s what they need.
“It seems Martin’s not sure what to do with it at the moment but he’s not frightened of making decisions and changing things around, so he’ll have a look at it and do what’s best.”