WHILE Dougie Freedman berated a lack of options in many areas of his squad last season – centre-back appeared one of the less pressing priorities as he headed into the summer.
Even given Zat Knight’s departure on a free transfer, the Wanderers boss had at least three senior options in the middle of defence.
Matt Mills and David Wheater had finished the season as first choice, and while Tim Ream’s stint as an emergency left-back was admirable, it would be a surprise to see him picked there ahead of specialist Marc Tierney next term now that he is back to fitness.
Add to that Alex Baptiste, a centre-half converted to right-back, and promising youngster Cian Bolger coming into the frame after injury with some loan time at Southend United under his belt, and you can see why eyebrows were raised when news emerged that Charlton Athletic defender Dorian Dervite was on the radar.
The Frenchman, comfortable in possession and able to chip in with a goal or two, looks like a decent addition to the squad.
He will certainly be missed at the Valley, where regular followers of the Addicks admit he was one of their better performers in the second half of last term.
Dervite had not been a regular starter under Chris Powell as the Londoners struggled to climb out of the bottom three before January but when the Championship’s then longest-serving manager was given the chop, his Belgian successor found an instant rapport with the former Tottenham and Villarreal man.
There is more to Dervite’s arrival, however, than just scaling down costs and filling a slot vacated by Knight. The signing also gives a good hint to one of the gameplans that Freedman wants to use next year.
Over the last couple of months we witnessed signs in several games that the Whites boss was instructing his back five to build more carefully and deliberately from their own half. Adam Bogdan’s use of the ball has been one of the most visible changes, with the keeper much less likely to punt long into the opposition half than he had in the past.
There were still examples of Wanderers going direct, most notably when Freedman looked to utilise Jermaine Beckford’s pace up front, for example, the 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday.
But in the main, Freedman’s mantra of “controlling games” looks like it will be achieved by controlling possession at the back. And much as Wanderers fans may not want to hear it – that means the formation of choice will continue to be 4-2-3-1.
It was an approach that definitely brought the best out of Ream – the American was tailor-made for a system that requires the eye for a good pass and a sensible choice.
Ream finished the season with an above-average 73.4 per cent pass success rate.
Only four other players who made more than 30 appearances bettered that total – Jay Spearing (81.5), Neil Danns (80), Chung-Yong Lee (79.6) and Medo Kamara (76.4).
David Wheater’s 72.8 per cent success rate suggests that he should have no problems adapting to a more patient approach. Figures for Mills (65.5) and the departed Knight (60.2) were less favourable – but not dissimilar to Dervite’s at Charlton (62.5), albeit in a side who kept much less possession.
Freedman’s penchant for rotation means that no-one, save for perhaps Jay Spearing, can ever be thought of as a first choice. But the battle for the two centre-half spots looks like being even more fiercely contested than it was last season.
The Scot’s plan for control starts at the back – and these four men could hold the key.