Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Revisiting right back

Atiba Hutchinson's role with the national team has been debated ad nauseam since his move to PSV, at least in the circle I roll in. The genesis of this debate was Atiba's move from FC Kobenhavn of the Danish Elite League to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.

PSV's best right back
Upon his arrival at Eindhoven Atiba, who until then had mostly played as an attacking wide player, deputized for a half season at right back for injured regular Stanislav Manolev. After the winter break he moved into midfield, where a hole had been created by the departure of FC Barcelona afterthought Ibrahim Afellay.

Atiba endured a disappointing fall campaign where injuries suffered while playing for Canada kept him out of all matches. Upon his return he slotted back into midfield to mostly poor reviews.

The whole club was earning poor reviews from the fans, and more importantly, from ownership. Coach Fred Rutten was shown the door just last week and has been replaced by PSV and Oranje legend Philip Cocu.

It's still early days, but the team has enjoyed success under Cocu. A big league win at the weekend, and a comfortable 3-1 victory today in the semifinals of the KNVB Beker have provided stability to a campaign that looked to be going off the rails. The team is within shouting distances of table-toppers AZ in the Eredivisie, and will likely meet the same opposition in the final of the Beker.

The biggest changes Cocu has instituted in the squad? Swapping keeper Tyton for Anders Isaksson, and inserting Hutchinson at right back for a lacklustre Manolev.

Unlike his recent stint in midfield, Atiba's play at right back has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Here's some twitteraction from today:

Translation: "Hutchinson played like a boss, Assaidi (the opponent on his side) was hardly dangerous."

Translation: Hutchinson is 1000x better than little Manolev.

I'd offer some negative reaction as a counterbalance, but after 15 minutes of reading tweets, there was none to be found.

The consensus is that Manolev may have lost his job to Hutchinson, so if Atiba is getting playing time the remainder of this season it will be at right back. PSV prefers men of vision and precision in midfield, qualities of which Hutchinson does not have a surplus. It is hard to imagine Hutchinson getting regular minutes at any other position for Eindhoven in the short- to medium-term.

As a Canadian fan, and a big fan of Atiba (or any Canadian doing well in the Eredivisie, the league I follow most closely) I'm thrilled. But what does this mean for Canada?

The best Canadian right back
It's not the first time the idea has been floated, nor is it even the first time I've proposed the idea, but it's becoming abundantly clear that Atiba Hutchinson ought to be considered as a prime candidate for the right back role for Canada.

The usual reaction to this suggestion is that the damage to the midfield's effectiveness in the absence of Atiba outweighs any contribution he'd make to the backline and right flank. I'm beginning to doubt that's the case.

First, let me emphasize what a disaster the right back spot has been for Canada has been in the last two years. Here are the starters at the position from Canada's last 10 matches, beginning with the most recent: Adam Straith, Nik Ledgerwood, Adam Straith, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood, David Edgar, Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood, Nik Ledgerwood.

With all due respect to these 4 gentlemen, those names hardly inspire confidence. If you're scoring at home, you have 9 starts by players who toil in the German 3rd tier, all of whom are not regular right backs with their club (Bourgault and Ledgerwood are defensive midfielders while Straith patrols the centre of defense). You've also got an improving Edgar, again playing out of position.

In fact, of all the players called up in the last two years by Canada, the only man other than Hutchinson that has been getting minutes at right back with his club has been Andre Hainault, who Stephen Hart insists on playing in the middle.

If you've got an argument that Atiba Hutchinson is not the most talented Canadian at the right back position, I'd like to hear it. If there were two Atibas, putting one of them at right back makes Canada undeniably better than they have been.

Is Canada better with it's best right back playing right back?
Which brings us to the crucial question: How much would it hurt Canada to lose Hutchinson as an attacking force in the midfield?

If I seem to rely heavily upon tweets and forum posts from Dutch fans of PSV Eindhoven, forgive me. The news outlets are less prolific in their praise and criticism of individual players.

That said, the common refrain regarding Atiba as a midfielder is that he's a hard worker and athletic, but "kan niet echt voetballen". That expression means that he lacks the ability to pass, control, and move off the ball in a typically Dutch, totalvoetbal kind of way. He breaks up attacks and makes the easy pass, but is not one for creativity or midfield derring-do.

Canadian fans of Hutchinson are fond of remembering his goal against Ukraine, his disallowed goal against the USA in 2007, and a few other brief moments of inspiration when they imagine him as some sort of attacking impresario.

What they all too infrequently ignore is that Hutchinson has never played in the typical #10 role with any club. With Kobenhavn he played mostly on the wing, and when he played centrally it was as a deep-lying midfielder. His overall competence sometimes comes off as something approaching offensive genius in comparison with some of the lesser lights (I'm looking at you, Dunfield) that occasionally patrol the middle for Canada.

There's something to be said, too, for playing a player where he is most comfortable. Given that 75% of his minutes over the last two years have been played on the right side of defense, and that for nearly all of 2012 up until the USA friendly and qualifiers against Cuba and Honduras he will have been thinking as a right back, am I wrong to suggest that some of Atiba's midfield instincts will have been dulled?

I'm also not convinced that midfield is such a weakness for Canada that the loss of Atiba in that position would be so catastrophic. Surely in road matches against Panama and Honduras, when Canada will be massive underdogs, keeping things tight at the back is more important than being settled in the attacking third.

Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the strengths of Atiba Hutchinson as a midfielder overlap significantly with Julian de Guzman's strongest suits, and having both in midfield is at times redundant. De Guzman is no longer at Hutchinson's level, but with both men in the middle of the park you have an excess of defensive positioning and a deficit of true attacking flair.

I am less and less a fan of manager Stephen Hart, but I still believe he's intelligent enough to at least have considered the possibility of putting the team's best player in the position that is currently weakest.

Allow me to summarize
1. Atiba Hutchinson is in a good run of form right now and is widely credited as one of the keys to PSV's recent turnaround. He appears to have won the full-time job at right back.
2. I'm frankly tired of trotting out the 3.Bundesliga all-stars in a critical position on the field and pretending it won't be a problem.
3. Atiba Hutchinson's attacking gifts have been overstated by many Canadian fans, though he is undeniably a class apart from most of Canada's other midfield options.
4. I think Canada is a better team, particularly against a stronger opponent, with a top flight right back, rather than an above-average midfielder.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Doesn't matter if he's at RB. We're not getting past Honduras or Panama in the next round, anyways. De Guzman's looking over the hill (regardless of his overrated performance in Cyprus a month back) and De Ro can't deliver at the international level. We're working towards 2016 with the likes of the guys who beat the USA today at the Olympic qualifying.

We need to build for that, with those guys, not the underachievers that Hart continually selects.

J said...

I think you're being a bit harsh on our current NT players. Whether or not they get past Honduras or Panama, they do have a chance, and probably a better chance than we are likely to be drawn into next time around.

And as we saw last night, the younger players are not yet ready for prime time. I have a hard time imagining any of the U23 crop bossing the midfield or filling the nets or stopping up central defense at the full international in four years' time. It's a half chance at 2014, no chance at 2018, and we'll see about 2022, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

No, we're not getting through. Granted, it will probably go down to the final matchday six but needing something like a win in Honduras to do it, so yes there is a chance, but not a good one.

Not going to happen.