There is no doubt that James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho is one of the best Centre Back pairings our club has ever had.
Mama, without doubt, has his moments. When he is afforded too much time on the ball to think, he can at times get himself into a spot of bother by needlessly over playing the ball and then losing it. However, as his current injury absence shows, he is far more valuable to us, than he is a liability(as I have heard some call him). When the backs are against the wall, there are few better than the ‘soldier’. He puts his body on the line, with last ditch tackles galore to save us. He is also one of our key outlets. Those crazy moments aside, Mama is the one we start our play through. The ball is worked to him, and then his left foot on the left side of the pitch gets us moving forward. He even loves the occasional burst forward himself. It has been very noticeable that in his absence, our use of the ball from the back has dropped off massively. Then there is Tomkins. When we signed him for around £10-12million, it looked a good deal. His first few months however were shaky. On the rare times he wasn’t injured, he looked anything but solid. Once he had settled however, and then gained a settled partner alongside him, the real Tomkins appeared. Suddenly, his price seemed like an absolute bargain, and he has, in my eyes, firmly established himself as our best Centre Back(a tough feat given the presence of Sakho).
Now, as I write this, I do so before Hodgson’s press conference, and before an injury update regarding James Tomkins. The injury to Tomkins sustained at Newcastle last week did not sound very positive. In fact, the impression I got was that it could be season ending, which is a massive blow given that we are likely without Sakho for the rest of the season already. With six games to go, the question is, what do we do next? Scott Dann came on to replace Tomkins last weekend, seeing us end the game with a Kelly/Dann partnership. Given the fact that Dann has had starts recently, I fully expect that Kelly/Dann will be our pairing for the remainder of the season. It is the safest route for Roy, and therefore the option I expect him to take. There is a good argument for it too. For a start, while we are basically safe from relegation, it is not mathematically so. Given our previous history(Oldham anyone?), you couldn’t blame Roy and fans alike for wanting mathematical safety before survival is celebrated, and squad risks taken. On top of that, we could still have one of our best finishes, with 15 points left to get. Man City and Arsenal you can likely write off, but a Palace team that is safe, playing with freedom, is more than capable of getting the full nine points from Everton and Bournemouth at home, as well as Cardiff away. On top of that, every place is worth around £1.5-£2million, which is money the club would very much welcome. However, while I understand all of these, there is part of me that feels we need to take a different route. If Tomkins is indeed out, then this is the chance to look to the future, something that probably doesn’t happen enough at the club.
For me, I would not play Scott Dann. Now, I am well aware of the amount of people calling me a fool right now, but just hear me out a moment. Here is the thing. When we first signed Scott, he was immense. He was a rock in our defence, and for a time I was one of those claiming him to be one of the best English centre backs who deserved an England call up. However, that Scott Dann, is not the Dann we have today. I think time and injury have caught up with Scott, while our team, despite what people think, has advanced to the next level, especially in defence. I have heard people say that Scott needs time, especially due to his injury. The thing is, being honest, Dann was losing it before his injury. In that first half a season with Tomkins, he went from being Mr Reliable, a total rock at the back, to error prone and a weak link. There is a reason he ended up finding it hard to get in the team when fit. Without doubt, the injury will have taken its toll as well, which can’t be helped. When I watched the Grimsby cup match, Dann was targeted, and caught out more than once in the first half. This I put down to ‘ring rust’, and when I heard positives of his performance away to Burnley, I
hoped I was totally wrong. However, against Brighton, he struggled. The pace just isn’t there, and unlike Mama, Dann just doesn’t work well trying to use the ball, he is more an old blood and guts defender, more than a baller. It made us slower at the back, both with pace against us, and when it came to using the ball ourselves. This did not improve against Huddersfield at home. In fact, some of Huddersfield’s best play came from them playing the ball beyond Dann, who then could not get back. He has been a great servant for this club, but at 32, he is not getting any younger. I find it hard to even see him being here next year, or if he is, he will be very much down the pecking order. For me, Kelly has already established himself as our third best Centre Back, and I don’t see Dann recovering that.
So what do I suggest? Well, I have seen Jairo Riedewald suggested, as Palace’s forgotten man. For me, this is a big no. I am still haunted by his awful performance at Centre Back in that opening game against Huddersfield last season. It was a performance that likely ended his chances of ever being a Centre Back for us! Roy has since moved Jairo to central midfield, a move that has made sense and seems to play to his strengths better. However, I have to question his mind set. We tried to send him to Swansea last summer in exchange for Ayew, and he refused. He didn’t want to play in the Championship, and you could argue that it was admirable he wanted to stay and fight for his place. He played for the U-23s during the season, a game in which the likes of Sorloth and Ward played too. From what I heard, everyone played well, except, Jairo, who looked totally uninterested. Then, come January, supposedly a loan move to one Spanish team was lined up, only he decided to go for a second Spanish team instead. That fell through however, when he wasn’t guaranteed to start. It meant all options fell through, and now he just continues to rot on our bench, when he makes it. Given that he doesn’t play, you have to question why he would stay here, instead of having the chance to play elsewhere. It makes no sense, other than laziness. Jairo would not be my choice.
What I would like to see, is young Sam Woods get his chance. I have heard nothing but good things said about Woods. As far as I am aware, he went on the pre-season Scandinavian Tour, and was around the first team for all of preseason. He has been on the bench a couple of times this season in the league, all of which is good experience for him, and shows that he is well thought of. He made his senior debut against Middlesbrough away in the League Cup, and on a night where our performance totally stank, Woods was the only player I saw coming out with good reviews. At 20 years of age, there are plenty of positives surrounding the young player, now he just needs to prove himself, and the only way to do that is on the pitch.
Just over a year ago, an injury crisis in defence saw Aaron Wan-Bissaka given a chance at right back, in a run against the top teams in the league. Aaron shone from the start, and now a year later he is statistically the best right back in England, and statistically one of the best in Europe. Now, I am not saying the exact same thing will happen with Woods, but what I am saying, is give the lad a chance. The arrival on the scene of Aaron turned a bleak season last year into a positive, because we love to see players with roots in our club, come through and shine. Woods would be another of those players. A Palace fan himself, there would be no question of him lacking the passion to pull on the red and blue. With the Newcastle win all but assuring safety, it would also give him a run of games with far less pressure on him, enabling him to just focus on learning and improving his game.
This, for me, could come with long term benefits. It is rare these days that we see our youth products break into the first team. This has a financial knock on, because instead of saving some money by blooding youth, and seeing a return on our academy investment, we instead have to keep going out and spending. As it stands, this will have to happen again this summer. In an imbalanced squad that already needs improving, the likelihood is that Dann will need replacing. Currently, that means having to buy someone. However a run of five games could show that Sam is more than capable of holding his own, and that next season he could become a valuable member of the first team squad. Sure, this is a long shot. AWB is our current golden egg, and the chances of having that success with two players in the space of just over a year, is remote. However, the fact remains that you don’t know, unless you try.
So, in closing, while I fully expect Dann to play, I would very much like to see Sam Woods get a run of games to end our season. If we want to continue to grow, while remaining financially sustainable, then our academy is going to need to play a bigger part. It has started with AWB, could Woods be the next step? We shall see.