Wednesday Apr 23, 2014  
     
 
  17/07/2012: Back to Complexities
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Almost every armchair critic has identified a key weakness in the Lazio squad and it has yet to be addressed in this mercato. The centre-back position is an area that has haunted us ever since Alessandro Nesta departed for Milan and each season, the fans plead with Claudio Lotito and Igli Tare to bring some fresh life to what is more often than not an ageing defence. We found a solution in January 2010 when the club were on the brink of relegation by signing Andre Dias from Sao Paolo and Giuseppe Biava from Genoa. Fast forward 30 months later and we are ironically trying to find replacements, or at the very least alternatives for that once dependable duo.

We may already have some candidates in the current squad. Mobido Diakite' played as much as any defender last season and was cool and composed when called upon but on occasion, his positional sense let him down. At 25, he has plenty of time to get it right but having spent six years at the club already, you do have to question whether his progress has been steep enough to warrant a future at Lazio. Guglielmo Stendardo is also worthy of consideration. He has experience under his belt and has nothing to prove having had a successful stint on loan at Atalanta last season. The problem with Stendardo is his temperament – Cagliari president Massimo Cellino once said that no club in Serie A would take the ex-Perugia player to their club. Both Lecce, Atalanta and even ourselves have made him eat a rather large slice of humble pie, but when you factor in that none of the aforementioned clubs have shown an interest in taking him permanently, you have to concede that there may be some degree of truth to Cellino's words.

At the moment, both Diakite' and Stendardo appear to be above Giuseppe Biava in Vladimir Petkovic's pecking order but that says more about the Bosnian's style of play than Biava's ability or lack of. All defenders have the capacity to be aggressive, but in deploying an aggression orientated philosophy to the game, Petkovic will know that the key is to limit the damage when the aggression fails. The manager has been very diplomatic in his press conferences thus far but I believe he was very genuine the other day when he said his first priority was to build a successful defence.

The harsh truth is that Petkovic cannot rely upon Biava. At 35, an aggression orientated game simply does not suit the veteran – once beaten by an opposition player, Biava has neither the speed or the strength to muscle his way back into the duel. Neither Diakite' or Stendardo would beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint if the Jamaican had his feet tied together and was hobbling backwards but at least they have the physique to shoulder their opponent off the ball.

We have yet to receive any indication as to what Stefan Radu's role will be in Petkovic's new Lazio but I would be fairly certain that he will continue at left-back. The Romanian considers centre-back to be his best position and he excelled there under Davide Ballardini and Edy Reja but that was mainly as a left-centre back in a back three where Stendardo often functioned like an old-fashioned libero and where Dias and Biava later provided additional security. I cannot see a future for him as a centre-back this season as I cannot see the coach changing his tactical plans at the start of the season just to accomodate him. His talent is unquestionable, but he just does not have the traits that I feel Petkovic is looking for.

So what is Petkovic looking for in a defender? If we use the mercato as a guideline, I think it becomes clear. Our main target for months, our main objective for defence, if not our sole objective was Breno. Aggression personified himself, he would have brought that injection of pace and that physicality that I feel we both need and crave. The reputed 'Plan B' in Sao Paolo's Xandao also offers that all-important aggressive characteristic. He is reminiscent of Lucio in his prime - comfortable on the ball and not afraid to take calculated risks by playing it out of defence. 

However there is one crucial characteristic that all the candidates for that berth at the back have – height. In my opinion, what we need more than anything else in the backline is height and Petkovic will undoubtedly be aware of its importance. Dias, Diakite' and Stendardo are all powerhouses in some sense of the word and so are Breno and Xandao who stand at 1.88m and 1.93m respectively. Both Radu and Konko are quite diminutive for modern day defenders and perhaps more importantly, as I touched on earlier, neither play in their optimal position. Radu's intelligence and wonderful left-foot allows him to play with ease at left-back while Konko's attitude to the game and blistering pace allows him to perform well at right-back and perhaps even at left-back as we saw towards the end of last season.

The problem with playing players out of position is that they tend to lack confidence in relation to their peers. The problem with playing players out of position in wide areas is that they tend not to commit to challenges for fear of the consequences. Konko is particularly hesitant to get his boots dirty, with good reason might I add as we all saw when he picked up a straight red in that bizarre encounter with Cesena. One way to address that particular weakness is to buy new wing-backs but if the aim of our game is to be aggressive, these situations are bound to arise anyway. It makes more sense to tackle the issue by fielding two towering centre-backs who are going to deal with the aerial danger that Radu and Konko's lack of commitment to the challenge will present us.

Therefore, what I believe Petkovic will strive to do is, as I said earlier, limit the damage we inflict upon ourselves when the inevitable mistakes occur. It could be a winning formula – aggressive centre-backs will meet the opposition further up the pitch and if successful, we will be in a better position to do something with the ball and create opportunities. When it backfires, Radu and Konko as well as Ledesma and/or Cana should be on hand to provide support and get the ball to safety. If Radu and Konko get breached, we have two giants at the back and/or Ledesma and Cana to let us off the hook. It all sounds so simple in theory – in practice, it is altogether different which is why Petkovic has experimented with a tall defensive pairing from day one of pre-season.

The above scenarios could change of course if the personnel of the squad is altered. What won't change is Petkovic's philosophy and in my opinion, even at this very early stage, it is quite clear what the intention is with our backline. Much of the upcoming season will depend on its implementation.

(Cathal Mullan)
 
 
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