There were a few things I wanted to cover this month, and wrote about 4 articles, scrapping each one along the way! The one that I’ve finally completed was cemented on Saturday evening reading teletext.
In his last three starts, a certain Argentine has hit the net and scored what has turned out to be the winner on each occassion. Could it be Hernan Crespo, the former Parma, Lazio & Inter striker, who was signed by Chelski in a £16.8million pound deal earlier this season? Erm, no. Has Batistuta signed for a Premiership club, and lived up to his “Batigol” nick-name? No, again. Surely some high-profile Argentinian World Cup striker? Wrong again. It’s our own Julio Arca.
A 1-0 win home-win against Hartlepool in the FA Cup started the ball rolling on January 3rd. Arca then followed that up by scoring the only goal in the game against Forest on the 10th. Suspension ruled him out of the Millwall defeat in the capital, before he bagged the second and, ultimately, the winner at Portman Road on Saturday. Not a bad start to the New Year for a left-back! His other goals this season have come away at Bradford, late in August and about a month later, at home to Reading, and in front of a watching Sky Sports audience.
The fact that Arca has scored in his last three games as a left-sided midfielder left me questioning both his and McCarthy’s claims that the lad is actually better as a full-back. The creativity Arca gives the team is unparalleled. The balance we have in midfield with the young star on the left is severly lacking when he is absent. When we have a natural and talented left sided midfielder, we seem to play very well. Stuart Downing’s loan spell was a great success where he, too, scored three goals from this position inside a month. Obviously, McCarthy felt the signing of Kevin Cooper from Wolves would restore the balance on the left, after the low impact trials with Butler, Oster & Smith out wide. In reality, though, it is the emergence of two unlikely ‘stars’ that have allowed Arca to revert to a midfield role and weigh in with these crucial goals.
When Gary Breen was injured, many feared for the defence. Young George McCartney had been a revelation alongside the former West Ham defender, yet his partnership with the covering Joachim Bjorklund was somewhat less inspiring. Sunderland had just lost at Upton Park, after being 2-0 up, and were set to entertain Wimbledon at home. Ironically, it was down to Arca that the manager was forced into changing his back-four. As Julio was suspended, Ringo moved to left-back and McCarthy brought in Phil Babb for his first start since the opening day of the season. Most fans gasped at the site of Phil Babb at the heart of defence. Yet 7 games on, the stats show their own story. 4 clean sheets in 6 wins shows how the tide has turned for two players deemed surplus to requirements last summer. Following a roasting from the manager for their perfomances at the New Den last week, I had half expected to see Babb dropped and Arca restored to left-back. Maybe it was Cooper’s cup-tied situation or maybe it was a second chance for the centre-halves, but either way Arca came back in as a midfielder and the defence remained unchanged. The result was a return to winning ways, as we all now know.
For three players who had a very poor season last year, it is quite a turnaround. For Bjorklund, he performed as an average replacement for Breen, and many questioned whether young Ben Clark would not be a better choice. But with McCartney alongside him, his defensive partner had to have a degree of experience. However, since Babb came into the side, Jocky has looked more and more confident. Which leads us to Phil Babb. Derided by many before he had even arrived from Sporting Lisbon, Babb has never had an easy time. His performances on the field started well, initially, then dramatically slipped. The fact that he was everyone’s first name on the list of players to go following our relagation was hardly suprising. Coupled to the fact that he looked past it as a centre-half of any quality, his reported wage must have been a concern to all at that time. Yet, credit to him, he has arrived back into the side and certainly made it hard for McCarthy to drop him.
And finally back to where we began. Julio. Unlike Bjorklund and Babb, Arca has been a fans’ favourite since Peter Reid brought him to the club for £3.5million in the summer of 2000. His superb touch and ability to play in either defence or midfield makes you wonder why he only started 7 Premiership games last season. The previous year, he made the starting line-up twenty times in the league, scoring one goal in the campaign. Maybe it was down to the ever-changing name plaque on the manager’s door, but Arca was perhaps the best player at the club who was never really considered last season. This year, after 24 starts and 5 goals, his quality is once again being valued. His talismatic presence in the FA Cup has seen us through two potentially tricky ties and his midfield role has won us a few league games of late. Whether he eventually reverts back to his left-back role or not, as long as Arca is playing we seem to have that bit extra. That’s not to say we should ignore the contribution of the other 10 players out there, for there are many fine perfomances to note – McAteer’s goal-scoring return to the side, Poom’s ‘keeping throughout the season, Oster’s rise to prominence this season, Kevin Kyle’s goals – but what would McCarthy give for an Arca at left-back, another out wide, and yet another up-front?!