Damian Batt and Liam Davis have become two of the first names on the teamsheet this season, Davis appearing in 39 league matches and Batt in 37. Whilst their contribution has been mostly positive, over the course of the season their role has gradually diminished. Is now the time to replace our two attacking full-backs with more solid defensive full-backs?
During Chris Wilder's tenure as manager, we've become accustomed to seeing his Oxford sides organised in a 4-3-3 formation. A particular feature of Wilder's 4-3-3 has been the attacking role of the full-backs, and with the introduction of Liam Davis on the left this season he and Batt have had a particularly important role in turning defence into attack. This was especially effective earlier in the season, with George Dugdale noting in his assessment of the 4-3-3 that when Batt and Davis advance high up the pitch they can “pen opposition wingers deep in their own half, limiting their threat to the Oxford goal”. The good form of Davis drew particular attention from this website earlier in the season as well, praising him as “one of the few players in our side brave or good enough to run at opposing defenders and with the ability to deliver a final ball”.
Another feature of this side we became particularly accustomed to was a physically weak midfield which often lost the battle in the middle of the park. However, with the combative Andy Whing now occupying a regular slot in midfield and in great form (which surely deserves an article of its own at some point), this has become much less of an issue in the second half of the season. This has allowed us to play through the middle far more often and when the ball is spread wide it is more often from a central midfield position rather than from a defensive position as it more frequently was in the first half of the season. This, combined with the more active attacking role played by wingers such as Montano, Morgan and Oli Johnson, has reduced the attacking burden placed on our full-backs, but has also weakened their role in the team as a result.
Increasingly in the second half of this season, our full-backs have been required to contribute more in defence than in attack and this has upset the form of the more attack-minded Batt and Davis. In correcting some of the problems that have afflicted us elsewhere on the pitch we have inadvertently created a (far less serious) problem elsewhere on the pitch. We have become more vulnerable down the flanks since making these changes, and without conventional midfield wide players for support, Batt and Davis are being outnumbered against marauding opposition wingers. They were effective earlier in the season when they were expected to bomb forward and attack, but now that their role has become more defensive they have been found wanting.
Batt has always had a tendency to lunge recklessly into a challenge, but this has become more apparent as he has come under increased pressure to defend. Davis, whose mazy runs up the left wing were a common sight in the first half of the season, appears to have become less prominent in recent weeks and is now a shadow of the Liam Davis of a few months ago. This being the case, perhaps we need to replace our attacking full-backs with a pair of solid defenders. Anthony Tonkin is a more conservative defender and has done well when deputising this season, but if the current trend is to continue into next season, then we may need to bring in high quality defensive-minded full-backs in the summer, regardless of what league we're playing in.