How the experience of young Darnell Furlong shows the importance of partnerships on the pitch and not existing in isolation
You’ll have to trust me when I say that this is not one of those “your opinion only counts if you go and watch games of football live” pieces. Although in saying that I do think it helps sometimes, not to mention being quite fun of course… but it’s often when you are at a game, your eyes being able to take in the full picture and what’s going on ‘off camera’, that you can sometimes pick up on the little things which might not always be as obvious.
As I was excitingly taking in the first half of Crystal Palace’s rather comprehensive victory over fellow South Londoners Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, admiring the pace, trickery and vibrant unpredictability of the home teams wide men Wilfried Zaha, and in particular Yannick Bolasie, my heart did go out to the rather unfortunate young full back Darnell Furlong, son of the former Chelsea striker Paul. Making only his third appearance in the Rangers first team he was cruelly beaten, time after time by the Crystal Palace number seven, being sent this way and that, legs tied into a pretzel. Both the first two Palace goals came from the position he was defending, and twice they came from him being bamboozled by the acceleration and skills of Bolasie. Such was the havoc being wreaked upon the youngster Furlong looked lost when even being asked to perform those simple full back staples of booting it down the line and taking the throws.
After the youngsters chastening first half it was hard to know whether it was cruel or kind to take him off at half time. While it was clear Furlong was not having a particularly good game - although quite who in a blue and white hooped shirt was - and subsequent reorganisation with the more experienced Nedhum Onuoha moving across to right back did stop the bleeding, it seemed that the young fullback’s removal painted him as something of a scapegoat, particularly in the light of what was, or rather what wasn’t, going on in front of him.
This leads me onto my point that when you are at a game, your eye can sometimes pick up on things which may have not been as evident on TV or which may not get picked out in post-game post-mortems. Bolasie’s terrorising of young Furlong was right in front of me but when the eye wandered up the line to see how the play was unfolding, it became clear that the rather diminutive form of Shaun Wright-Phillips, playing in front of Furlong, was just as much, if not more of the problem. There he was, if not quite hands on hips, apparently happy enough to let his young struggling compatriot shoulder 100% of the defensive responsibility.
The erstwhile Chelsea, Manchester City, and of course England winger, has never been one noted for his tracking back and defending, and given this was his first Premier League appearance in over 700 days, it seemed evident he was not going to be offering the best of protection to an untried fullback. Thus his presence on the pitch was even stranger than it might have been at the best of times, but SWP’s performance or indeed lack thereof, showed just how important to a fullback’s game the assistance of the player in front of him is.
This point was hammered home 24 hours later during the first half of Manchester United’s game against Tottenham. Time and again in the first 25 minutes, Tottenham’s right flank was being ripped apart with the right back, Kyle Walker, clearly struggling to live with the pace of Ashley Young and erm, Marouane Fellaini. In this game it wasn’t the defender that was hauled off however it was the man in front of him, with Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino far from impressed with the lack of cover and support that the attacker, Andros Townsend was giving to the man playing behind him. In both these cases it is not about the apportioning of blame – in both games, it could be argued, all four players performed very badly and were complicit in their teams downfall, however what it shows is how important partnerships on the pitch are, and how much the success of someone playing in one position is reliant on someone playing in front, behind or beside them.
The same is equally true when the roles are reversed somewhat and the fullback is required to play their part in allowing the attacking player ahead of them to thrive. From someone that has watched most of Palace’s games this season the struggles at times of Zaha or Jason Puncheon on the left when compared with the success of Bolasie on the right has come because of the lack of a natural left back. With either a right footed Joel Ward constantly trying to come onto his stronger right foot – although the irony of him scoring with his left on Saturday is not lost – or the ultra-defensive Martin Kelly, not confident going forward, stationed at left fullback, whoever has been playing left wing has struggled to get into the game due to the lack of an effective partner to operate with.
Football is all about these partnerships on the pitch, central defenders, strike partners, how within a greater framework, these little pairings make the team operate successfully. When these break down, the team breaks down. It’s a cliché but true; football is a team game. While it can be won on individual moments of genius, it can more than not be lost at the point when the collective falls apart.