There’s plenty of life in Stoke’s American Hero yet, and Jason Martin looks at Geoff’s future for the Potters…
Of all the players I’d expected to be writing about as “One To Watch” for the coming season, I never expected it to be this one. We’ve invested £31m in the midfield over the last two years, picking up two further free agents on the way to amass a varied array of talent ready to progress Mark Hughes’ side up the table.
It feels strange, then, to be mentioning Geoff Cameron – a Tony Pulis signing who has featured 165 times for the Potters in a spell spanning half a decade – as one of the key men for the season. Especially when you consider that he was out for many months last season with injury, in a farce that involved back and forth trips to the USA to finally resolve his injury woes that led to him having his lowest game time tally under Mark Hughes’ tenure.
Back With A Bang
Yet, here we are. Geoff Cameron was deemed WhoScored’s player of the season for the Stoke City side with an average rating of 7.11 – a figure which means nothing to you. The figure itself is largely irrelevant though – you’ve all seen the impact that he had on the side this season.
Geoff Cameron is a very good player, and his impact in the side to basically perform as a Lidl brand N’Zonzi helped us at a very turbulent time in the season. Whilst he didn’t singlehandedly rescue it (some of his better performances came in our defeats), he provided something which we were sorely missing in midfield – athleticism.
He can run, he can tackle, he can win headers and he can give even the biggest of players a torrid time – none of us have forgotten his masterclass against Fellaini at home to Man United in 2015.
Operating in a midfield which has been stuck on a “Stop the Rot” setting since December, his stats per 90 mins this season show him in a remarkable light amongst the other midfield contingent.
He excels in tackles, blocks, clearances and aerial duels by some margins. Indeed, he’s only bettered for interceptions by the “everywhere and anywhere” Allen and in the total duels (which includes defensive and offensive 50/50’s) by Imbula (not now, Giannelli).
Where Geoff struggles sadly is what do when he’s won the ball, which is rather frequent during the game.
Of the “ready and able” midfielders for the coming season – Afellay is out long term, although we know he’s the archetypal pass completionist – Cameron has the worst pass completion at 75% – for every 4 passes he makes, one goes astray. He’s only saved by Charlie Adam having arguably his worst season in a Stoke shirt, whilst the other mainstays had a ceiling of 85% (not now, Giannelli).
It may be harsh to single out his passing as such a significant weakness. After all, he could win the ball and play the easy pass to his midfield partner to progress the attack…right?
Not exactly. It’s sadly a case of can’t pass – won’t pass amongst the midfield. Cameron has been set up alongside Joe Allen and Glen Whelan for the majority of his gametime this campaign.
Whelan, a veteran of the role who can keep the ball ticking over from deep but rarely takes risks on the ball – aside from a few glorious passes to Ramadan Sobhi this season at home to Swansea and Crystal Palace. Allen, the all action midfielder who prefers to charge through midfielders to hassle and harry the opposition, albeit in a rather graceless manner.
Therefore Cameron has two options in the heart of midfield. He can opt to hit the moving target of Joe Allen, of which the ball frequently bounces off whilst in full flight, or the calmer Glen Whelan, who will recycle the ball until the full-time whistle blows.
The ball is essentially vacuumed into a Bermuda Triangle in the centre of the park, where a battle of possession ensues for the majority of the match. The ball, and the fans, are only granted momentary respite for a pass back for one of the centre halves propel a customary 60 yarder in the direction of a forlorn Saido Berahino.
It’s not pretty, it’s not effective and it can’t go on for much longer…can it?
(Nearly) Four More Years
The 31 year old has extended his existing contract up until 2020, which will see him in the red and white of Stoke until he nears 35.
Yet five years on I feel obliged to ask where he fits in to the side for the coming season.
Darren Fletcher’s arrival could well spell the end of Glen Whelan, but it’s a signing that will complicate Cameron’s starter role even further. Despite being on a free transfer, the former West Brom captain and 2016 Player of the Season hasn’t moved here to warm the bench.
Bojan’s imminent return may also complicate matters. Will Mr Hughes throw the little magician an olive branch for the upcoming campaign and revert to a 4231 once again? Most of the fanbase would hope so. Yet this would mean Joe Allen, one of the ever-present players in the side last season, dropping back deeper into the heart of midfield to accommodate him. The equally little Welshman has drawn plaudits from all corners of the nation for his first season at Stoke, so there’s fat chance of him being sidelined with a £13m fee barely gathering dust over his head.
There is also the possibility of any further signings in midfield. Any departures – such as Giannelli Imbula or Charlie Adam – may free up squad places and funds for a younger player to be brought in. The return of Ibrahim Afellay (hell, even Stephen Ireland) would only complicate matters further.
Suppose the opportunities in midfield are limited, what next for Geoff? Well his versatility is well documented. The American plied his trade at right back for his earlier years at Stoke, before moving to centre half and centre midfield for the previous two campaigns. He’s performed in each of the respective positions but you rarely felt as if he “belonged” there – there was always that nagging feeling that no matter how well he did, he was only filling in for someone else.
Indeed he’ll find little room at right back for the coming season. Mame Diouf was deployed as an unorthodox right wing back for numerous games last season, whilst both Phil Bardsley and Glen Johnson have renewed their deals for the coming campaign. Somewhere in the wilderness a young England U19’s full back and two time U18 player of the season is threatening to break through – although Mr Edwards may have to wait a while longer.
This leaves the centre half role, one which Cameron performed admirably during the 2015/2016 season during the numerous long-term absences of captain Ryan Shawcross.
The more you assess the squad depth, the more this role probably makes sense for Geoff ahead of the upcoming season. Mark Hughes did stress that he would spend on defensive targets this summer having focused on funding the midfield and attack in previous windows.
Bruno Martins Indi has yet to be confirmed as a Stoke player for the coming campaign, although it looks likely, whilst neither Wollscheid or Muniesa appear to be in favour for a starting berth alongside Shawcross. There is the option for Ryan Sweeney to step up following a promising first season on loan to Bristol Rovers, but it’s likely come too soon for this season.
Yet Cameron would be the simple solution, allowing all other roles to slot in to place and to create quite a formidable XI ahead of the 2017/2018 season. He is a proven centre half in a back four both at Stoke and internationally, with his defensive ability and athleticism allowing him to make life hell for all manner of forwards.
Hughes’ willingness to attempt 343 also allows scope for three centre halves. This could accommodate Shawcross, Martins Indi (subject to arrival) and Cameron – providing a mix of strength and mobility at the back. It didn’t quite work away to Southampton, where Sparky’s tactical shift to a back four saw Cameron set up the winner from the right, but there’s certainly method in the madness.
It’s an interesting saga, then. A complex one with guaranteed heartache for someone, but an interesting one nonetheless. For what it’s worth I think he’ll start alongside Fletcher and Allen in midfield next season, but the above shows there is a genuine possibility for him to return for centre half should he be ousted from midfield.
Whatever happens, Cameron is one of our most underrated players and best value signings since his arrival from Houston Dynamo in 2012. Each season he has provided consistent showings of youth and athletic mobility whilst the side began to wither around him. Now more than ever we need his style of play to ensure we don’t struggle against the new age of football that is in serious danger of passing us by.
There will always be room for a Geoff Cameron in the modern game – he’s years ahead of our midfield in terms of how to deal with the demands of the Premier League. The only question is… where?
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