The order of this era in Necastle United history will be built primarily upon the success of the young players. Fortunately for the Toon, the tremendous talent identification powers of Graham Carr have touched this position. At the time, as Davide Santon moved to Tyneside just under the transfer window wire last August, it was a bit of a head scratcher as the summer had been spent on eying slightly older LBs such as Erik Pieters. It is easy to forget that Santon made 40 senior appearances for Inter Milan (and a further 11 for Cessena while on loan)... before the age of 20. Acquired so close to the deadline and nursing a knee injury to boot, it seemed like a massive gamble at a reported fee of £5m.
We were all there as Ryan Taylor and Jonas Gutierrez spent the first part of the season melding into the player that I dubbed Jonas Raylor. It's hard to argue with the results of this arrangement as they were in place for the early season run that essentially set us up for our ultimate league position. You felt, however, that "good enough" was not going to be ideal. Fair play to Ryan, he performed admirably as a right midfielder being asked to play left back. Love him or leave him, Davide Santon became that "better" in the second half of the season and paved the way to the ultimate shift to the 4-3-3 formation that pulled the club from its mid-season dip in form and pushed us on into Europe.
As I'm sitting down to write this overview of the left back position, rumors are flying that we have had a fee agreed for Ajax's versatile CDM come LB come RB Vurnon Anita. Add to the fact that Cheik Tiote picked up a calf injury in the match v. Cardiff yesterday and just where Anita slots in initially becomes a little murky. That discussion is a different story, however. During his time at Ajax, his most positive reviews have been in the middle of the pitch while the old adage "just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD" seems to sneak in a bit. (Note: This is purely anecdotal based on reading I did when Anita first came into the Newcastle Rumor Mill)
Back to Davide Santon and the left back position: At times last season, it was easy to get frustrated with Davide as in his poor matches, he was generally very poor. When he was playing very well, on the other hand, it became very easy to see what Graham Carr saw in the player to command such a fee for a young player who had fallen out of favor at Inter. Here's the thing: I think we only got a very small glimpse of where this player can go. It was said of Brazilian International Roberto Carlos that he used the LB position as a mailing address. His propensity to jump into the attack was matched, perhaps, by his same propensity to at times abandon his LB post. Picture Davide with the same attacking end potential (maybe not quite the same free kick potential, mind), but with the potential and drive to continue to cover at LB. If he can stay healthy, Davide is about as certain to come up trumps for Newcastle this season as any other player.
The Depth at LB
Ryan Taylor is a year on in his position switch to left back, and it has to be assumed that tactically he will be stronger this year than last year. I am not entirely certain, however, that I would have confidence in him to play at left back in the 4-3-3 (if that is indeed where we stay as preferred formation). Jonas' ability and willingness to play a much more withdrawn role on the left of midfield were the perfect training wheels for Raylor, and will be something I would be still looking for until I see him looking capable of performing alone. If we are using Jonas Raylor on the left for any matches, watch Jonas' average position on the pitch. If it slides up the pitch and ends up at midfield or forward, it will tell us everything we need to know.
Shane Ferguson is probably the next player in line behind Ryan if you're looking to avoid a major rewrite of the preferred XI back line. Shane is a player that has caused a measure of excitement amongst those who have been watching the academy and reserves ranks in recent times. Like Jonas, he is a player that is comfortable touch line to touch line on the left side of the pitch. The official club site, though, reveals a little bit of conflict as to exactly what Shane will be expected to do this season. A view of the roster by position shows Shane as a defender, and yet when you click in, he is listed as a midfielder (much the same as Ryan Taylor on most sites last year). 6 months younger than Davide Santon, it seems that long-term he is much more likely to be a replacement for Jonas when the time comes, but at this point, his flexibility is going to put him on the depth chart here as well as in the midfield.
Danny Simpson got some looks at left back in the preseason and looked solid if unspectacular (perhaps result as much as the matches in which he played left as his ability) and would get the call at LB perhaps even before Shane Ferguson. All of this, of course, is contingent upon the ultimate resolution of the Mathieu Debuchy deal. It shouldn't be forgotten, of course, that Jonas has been given some run at left back this preseason as well as in an emergency role last season- This is something I would not like to see occur as a matter of course, however. Jonas has looked largely uncomfortable as a pure left back, much preferring to cover from the midfield position, it seems.
Beyond this point:
Paul Dummet is the real next-best-option after Shane Ferguson as another of the few that survived the Great Purge of 2012, so the club clearly view him as a player who may eventually have an impact on the first team, but I'm going to be surprised if we see him much beyond the reserves this season.