A week ago the right-back position was one of the most solid positions we had on the field.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a lock, and one of the best right-backs in the league. And even if he were to get injured Joel Ward is a competent back-up who has proven himself through years of service to the club.
But now, in a post-AWB Palace, the right-back spot is one of the tops spots to fill. AWB leaving didn’t suddenly make Ward a lesser player, but it created a massive deficiency in our defence. One of AWB’s biggest attributes was his speed. His quickness allowed him to take some risks or to make mistakes but still have the ability to get back to cover. And more importantly it meant that the opposing winger couldn’t rely on pure speed to get past him.
While Joel Ward has many attributes as a player and as a defender, speed isn’t one of them. This means that he has to play a little more conservatively to avoid being beat for speed. And it means that the center backs will have to be prepared for players who will be able to put on the afterburners and blow right by him.
Ward’s lack of speed is not only a detriment to his play, but it will affect the entire defensive stability of our back line. Kelly and Tompkins can play at the right-back position as well, but this does nothing to help with the lack of speed. With a stable of talented center-backs moving to three at the back could be an option, but not one that I could see Hodgson exploring.
The other teams in the league aren’t naive and will do their best to take advantage of Ward’s lack of pace. It’s incumbent on Hodgson to find an answer for this. Since only so much can be done tactically to address the problem, the solution seems to be a matter of personnel. We won’t get another AWB, and we don’t need one. Ward may be the right choice for some matches, but at other times he likely won’t be up to the task. Having that other option for Hodgson to utilize when needed has to be towards the top of his to-do list.
The dream answer to this problem would surely be to find another AWB waiting in the wings in the Palace U-23’s. Unfortunately there doesn’t look to be a ready made replacement available there at the moment. Then again, no one predicted AWB to be such a success either. With no current right-backs ready to take that step up it would likely again have to be someone converted to the position. Center Mid’s Giovanni McGregor and Luke Dreher would be the most natural choices with some natural defensive abilities and a decent amount of speed. Although, if speed is all we’re looking for then converting Jason Lokilo from a winger to a right-back could be our best chance at replicating another AWB, but the odds of striking gold like that twice are next to impossible.
It will, almost certainly need to be someone from outside the club to come in and fill that role. The current frontrunner seems to be Nathaniel Clyne. Having, himself, come through the Palace youth system, Clyne is familiar with the club and would be an easy sell to the fans. He has the speed to replace AWB on the defensive side, and could contribute a bit more on the offensive side that we saw from AWB. If Liverpool are happy with only recouping the £12.5 million they spent on him, he would be well worth the cost. But, unless he’s willing to take a massive cut in pay his large salary of around £80k/week would add a lot to Palace’s already bloated wage bill.
Another player that might be in Hodgson’s sights is Rangers right back James Tavernier. The young Englishman is a couple years younger than Clyne and has even more pace. He would likely cost around the same as Clyne but the Rangers’ Captain is on a salary around half of what the Liverpool right back is earning. Tav does have some defensive issues, and has been known to switch off a time or two. And, having Tav on one side and van Aanholt on the other could leave Palace fans with their hearts permanently planted in their throats. But, Tav has made up for his defensive errors by being a massive threat at the other end of the pitch. He had 17 goals and 14 assists in the 2018-19 season. The biggest attribute he could bring to the Palace side would be his dead ball delivery, something Palace have struggled with in recent years. And he’s an absolute sniper from the spot. He is 18 and 3 all-time from the spot, including penalties in Europe against Rapid Vienna and NK Maribor. Although he does have a lot of upside Palace should be cautious about his ability to make the step up from Scotland to the Premier League.
Until we hear something from the manager, all we can do though is to speculate to keep us from getting too upset about losing AWB. There’s no replacing him, but if Palace don’t find a subsitute we’ll be mourning his loss all season.