Tom Jenkins examines centre-back partnerships and how a bad change could spell disaster…
Up until the injury to Nouha Dicko recently today`s opposition Wolves were touted as real promotion favourites for one main reason: a deadly strike partnership. Given the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 formation in today`s game the use of two strikers is a rarity, especially amongst the top sides. However, the prospect of facing both Dicko and ex Bolton flop Benik Afobe would have been terrifying for most Championship sides given the 27 goals scored between them last year (Afobe contributing 13 in half a season). Even with Dicko out former Wanderers favourite, Adam Le Fondre, will surely come in to make the Wolves attack just as intimidating. The comfort for Bolton fans is that our start to the season, while obviously not great, has at least demonstrated that we have a resolute backline which has been dominated by consistent performances from the centre back pairing of Dorian Dervite and Prince-Desir Gouano. With Dervite out the solid partnership has been broken and while it seems that new boy Derik (an impressive looking player) will come in, I am not sure this new pairing is one for the long term.
Centre-back partnerships can turn average defenders into great ones but can also ruin a team if got wrong. Bolton fans have seen cases of the former in N`Gotty/Bergsson, Meité/Faye and even (perhaps controversially) Knight/Cahill. While the first partnership I mentioned was made from two class defenders the next was not and yet Bolton still had success with the pair at the back, qualifying for Europe in 2006/07. Meité and Faye weren`t the fastest or the most elegant of defenders but together they worked very well and provided the solid base a Sam Allardyce team has to have. Dervite and Prince worked together because they complemented each other by covering their respective weaknesses: Dervite is good in the air while Prince is quick. Rather oddly, this is what happened with Knight and Cahill but not in the way you would imagine. It was often Cahill who marked the tall strikers (i.e. Peter Crouch) and not the 6ft 7 Knight, who`s best defending was done on the deck. A good partnership should comprise of two defenders combing to make one perfect centre-back, or the team is doomed to concede goals.
A classic case of a broken partnership causing problems occurred with Birmingham City who won promotion in 2008/09 to finish 9th in the Premier League the following year. What was their secret? Scott Dann and Roger Johnson. The two were both touted for England honours after helping City finish in the top half while only scoring, on average, a goal a game. Then, upon their relegation in 2010/11 (a season where the pair again performed well), they went their separate ways. Johnson wound up at Wolves and Dann moved to Blackburn. While Dann has managed to recover at Palace recently (his time with the Chicken Farmers was hardly fruitful as they were relegated), Johnson simply lost his way. His performances were awful, he turned up to training drunk and has been labelled a relegation specialist. The two, for a time, were nothing without the other.
Obviously Prince isn`t going to suddenly become shocking without his French colleague beside him but given Neil Lennon`s pre-match comment that Derik “isn`t fantastic in the air” you have to wonder if they will fit together. Maybe I will be proved wrong and class will out but the need for a good partner is the key to defensive stability at any level. I would give Chelsea`s recent results a look if you want some proof of this.