Left-back central to Championship success
When considering which individual position is most important in determining how well a team plays, the left-back berth would probably not be foremost in the minds of many. There are, however, two Championship teams who may have been preparing for the new Premier League campaign instead had their most effective left-backs been available for the entirety of last season.
Both made it to the play-off semi-finals but neither made it any further. Crucially, although the left-backs playing for Nottingham Forest and Leicester City in their post-season efforts could not be blamed for the failure of the two East Midlands rivals, both would certainly have garnered far more points before their respective May showdowns if they had not been forced to resort to plan B in that particular position.
The vital importance of the humble left-back to at least half of the Championship’s top six last season is faintly baffling. The majority of the team-of-the-year lineups understandably awarded the left-back spot to Newcastle United’s Jose Enrique.
However, Leicester’s Bruno Berner can consider himself unlucky to miss out and Forest loanee Nicky Shorey would have run the Spaniard even closer had he been at the City Ground for more than two months.
Before Shorey’s arrival at Forest, Billy Davies’s team had followed up five straight wins with four consecutive draws. While unbeaten, the Reds were forced to play the admittedly versatile but primarily midfield man Chris Cohen at left-back until persuading Aston Villa boss Martin O’Neill to part temporarily with Shorey.
The one-time England international managed to give Forest a huge boost, with Shorey making his debut in a thumping 4-1 home win over play-off chasing Doncaster Rovers. He and his team-mates followed that up with an even more impressive performance and scored even more goals in a 5-1 humbling of rivals Leicester.
In fact, Leicester loanee Martyn Waghorn’s consolation strike from the penalty spot on 5th December was the only goal Forest conceded in the entire month. Sheffield United, Swansea City, Preston North End, Watford and Coventry City all failed to find a way past the Reds rearguard.
In total, Forest conceded just four goals during the nine games in which Shorey played, the last of these coming minutes after his spell on the banks of the River Trent ended on a low note with a red card against his former club Reading.
After Shorey’s return to Villa, he was subsequently loaned out to Fulham but is now back in Birmingham again and Forest are rumoured to be spending £2.5million on bringing him to the City Ground on a permanent basis.
It is easy to see why. Following Shorey’s departure, Forest’s form nose-dived but only, curiously, away from home. Davies’s men drew two and lost ten of their final twelve away games, the last of which was a 2-1 reverse at Blackpool in the play-off semi final first leg.
City miss the Swiss
One of the teams able to stick the knife in during this period was Leicester. Nigel Pearson’s side gained a modicum of revenge for their heavy December defeat with a hard-earned 3-0 win over Forest at the Walkers Stadium in February.
The first scorer that day was Bruno Berner, another left-back crucial to a successful Championship team last season. Berner played large parts of Leicester’s previous campaign in the centre of midfield but found himself effectively the sole player in his position when Joe Mattock moved to West Bromwich Albion on the eve of the new season.
Leicester did have the ageing player-coach Chris Powell to call upon but, although the veteran did not let them down in his few performances, he could not be asked to play every week. Instead, Pearson recruited Manchester City youngster Ryan McGivern to play second fiddle to Berner.
Unfortunately, McGivern looked far too raw for Championship action despite coming highly recommended from his wealthy employers and already having tasted international action with Northern Ireland.
The statistics are damning. Leicester lost six league games with Berner in the team and also lost six without him, but he played 33 times and was missing on just 13 occasions. Whenever Berner was unavailable due to injury, opposing teams consistently targeted McGivern and reaped the rewards.
One of those defeats came at the Liberty Stadium in January, when Swansea used right-winger Nathan Dyer as their main weapon. Time after time, the lightning-quick Dyer outstripped rookie defender McGivern out wide and it came as no surprise when the only goal of the game arrived from that source, Dyer getting to the byline and finding Gorka Pintado to net the winner.
Both Nottingham Forest and Leicester City will know the importance of every position as they bid to repeat their top six finishes this season. Forest may well begin the new campaign with Shorey safely restored to their line-up, while Leicester have brought in promising left-back Tom Kennedy from Rochdale to play second fiddle to Berner.
In such a competitive division, an increasing number of managers are seeking any possible advantage to defeat their opponents. Some bosses may have sought to “hide” players in the full-back positions over the years but this is no longer an option for those trying to achieve in the Championship. If you want to finish in the top six, you need a top number three.