Thursday, February 21, 2008

Canadian depth chart: Defensive midfielders

Last summer, I embarked upon a rather ambitious project of ranking Canada's talent pool at the various positions. It turns out that it might have been too ambitious a goal, as I never finished.

Part of the problem is that when it comes to the midfield, naming the positions themselves can be a bit muddy. A second issue is that we still don't know what kind of formation Dale Mitchell prefers. If I work from the assumption that Mitchell adopts Hart's 4-5-1 that was successful at the Gold Cup, life will be a lot easier. So that's what I'll do.

But before you get ahead of yourself and start trusting my judgment, read my thoughts on goalkeepers, central defenders, fullbacks, and forwards, to make sure I'm not off my rocker.

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Let me be clear about something from the start: the "defensive midfielder" doesn't refer simply to a midfielder with the ability to mark an opponent. This has been a very specific, and very useful, position for Canada. The defensive midfielder plays in front of the back 4 and has the role of blunting attacks and linking the back line and the midfield. I can't be sure about those matches that I haven't seen, but in the Gold Cup, this role was mostly filled by Martin Nash or Chris Pozniak.

Several of our players play this position for their clubs, so there are options. These include:

Daniel Imhof (VfL Bochum, Germany)
30 years old / 34 caps / 0 goals

One could argue that after Julian de Guzman, the next best professional credentials in Canada's squad belong to Imhof. He is playing in a big 4 league (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, though not necessarily in that order), plays 90 minutes almost every week, and unlike De Guzman's Deportivo squad, Bochum look a good bet to avoid the drop this season. He's not extremely athletic, but he is disciplined, and plays smart. He's not one for flashiness or dramatics, although this cracker of a goal from earlier in the season presents some evidence to the contrary. His only appearance for Dale Mitchell so far was as an emergency centre back against Iceland, but hopefully he'll get his chance to impress in his natural position in March against Estonia.

Patrice Bernier (FC Kaiserslautern, Germany)
28 years old / 27 caps / 0 goals


With his club, Bernier plays a similar role to Imhof. But FCK are a division down, in the 2. Bundesliga, and have some work to do to stay there at the end of the season. At the Gold Cup, Bernier was used more often in an advanced role on the wing, but with Mitchell at the helm, Bernier has been the man. Against Iceland, Costa Rica and South Africa, Bernier held the fort for 90 minutes in this role. Unlike Imhof, Bernier is a quick and skillful player, but is probably not as tactically savvy.

Adrian Serioux (FC Dallas, MLS)
28 years old / 11 caps / 0 goals

After Imhof and Bernier, there is a big step down to the next tier of players. Serioux is a solid vet, and MLS is likely the kind of league where he belongs. Reviews of his play last season for Dallas were generally good. He's known for his long throw-ins, which certainly are a weapon, but also for a bit of a nasty (or at least undisciplined) side. For that reason I prefer him at the defensive midfield position, rather than at centre back where he can also play. He follows in footsteps of Jason Bent as Canada's dreadlocked midfielder.

Martin Nash (Vancouver Whitecaps, USL)
32 years old / 38 caps / 2 goals


You might think we're scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit here, given that Nash is a USL player, and he's getting a little long in the tooth, but like his more famous brother, Martin is still a productive player. His presence at the Martinique friendly indicates to me that he is still in the picture, at least as a depth player, and his performance at this summer's Gold Cup showed that he still has something to offer. He's sharp at delivering set pieces and is a good passer overall. His speed, though, is lacking, which could be a problem against technical and speedy Central American opponents.

Chris Pozniak (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS)
27 years old / 21 caps / 0 goals


I'm not sure what to say here. Pozniak is a valuable player for Canada, but not as a starter. His versatility and ability to play almost everywhere on the field masks the fact that he doesn't excel at any of them. His professional resume (USL teams, lower division Scandinavian sides, utility man in MLS) are indicative of his overall talent, which is not significant enough for him to be a starter for Canada.



Others

Jim Brennan could probably play this position. So might someone like Paul Stalteri, although both of these are more effective elsewhere. Kevin Harmse can a little bit as well, though he's a walking red card at this point. Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson have both played here for Canada, but I feel like their talents are best deployed further forward. This is an aging group overall, and there don't seem to be a great many promising young players at this position, so I'd imagine one of these 5 will be in the starting lineup in each of Canada's games this year.

If I were ranking them myself (which is kind of the point), it would look like this:

1. Daniel Imhof
2. Patrice Bernier
3. Martin Nash
4. Adrian Serioux
5. Chris Pozniak
6. "The field" (everyone else)

Correct me on any omissions or oversights in the comments.

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