Nature vs Nuture: The Blades' Jack O'Connell Is A Born Overlapping Centre-Back

The 25-year-old has been relentless for Sheffield United since joining in 2016
13:00, 18 Jan 2020

Some are born an overlapping centre-back, some achieve overlapping centre-backness and some have overlapping centre-backness thrust upon them. Perhaps, anyway. If Chris Wilder’s inimitable tactics have been among the trends and the talking points of the Premier League season, the sense was that the Sheffield United manager had arrowed in on a new idea.

Players were reimagined, reinvented, repurposed: part stopper, part runner, part winger. Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell are deployed to stop strikers and engineer overloads. Basham’s background is in part in midfield, O’Connell’s in defence, but both were largely in the lower leagues.

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And yet, as Sheffield United prepare to face Arsenal and Manchester City in the space of four days, it is with a better defensive record than either. Only Liverpool have conceded fewer goals. Sheffield United are fifth in the actual table but joint second in the defensive standings. The old maxim is that attack is the best form of defence. At Bramall Lane, perhaps attacking defenders are. 

If there is a sense they have been made, initially as an answer to obdurate opponents in League One, there is the question of nature or nurture. For all Wilder’s willingness to think outside the box and the coaching prowess of his second in command, Alan Knill, perhaps O’Connell emerged as an overlapping centre-back entirely naturally. 

Brian Barry-Murphy is the Rochdale manager who has earned draws against Manchester United and Newcastle this season. He was both a senior player and first-team coach when O’Connell arrived at Spotland from Blackburn. He came with a rather different interpretation of the duties at the heart of the defence. 

“We just couldn’t hold him back,” Barry-Murphy tells The Sportsman. “He was just going beyond what a normal centre-half would do.” Potential was soon identified at Rochdale, a club who tend to unearth talent and see players outgrow Spotland’s homely surroundings. Craig Dawson had gravitated to the top flight with West Bromwich Albion and would go on to excel at the more prosaic demands of Pulisball. O’Connell was different.

“The only thing I thought was: ‘When he gets to the Premier League level, they won’t know how good he is,’” added Barry-Murphy. “We had Craig Dawson get to the Premier League level and then he was the next one after Craig. I wouldn’t like to say he was better but Jack was a different animal completely and he was willing to push the boundaries of what was a normal centre-back.”

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It was very different to the stereotype of the lower-league stopper. Part of the difference now is that Sheffield United are configured so the centre-backs do go forward, at times exchanging positions with the wing-backs. Another manager who encountered them early in the experimental days in League One recalled telling his players the Blades’ centre-backs went forward. They duly nodded, until he explained they went all the way forward.

When United in effect secured promotion by beating Ipswich in April, O’Connell arrived in the penalty box in open play to supply the low cross for Scott Hogan’s opener. 

It is very different, and yet Barry-Murphy said: “You talk about the different styles evolving and he was just a fearless defender who was willing to do what he thought was normal. What he does at Sheffield United was stuff we saw in the very early days when he was here on loan from Blackburn. I always thought it was a matter of time before he played for England.”

If that is a question for Gareth Southgate, O’Connell will be playing Arsenal and Manchester City in a week. And if Alexandre Lacazette and Sergio Aguero are surprised to see a centre-back surging 30 or 40 yards upfield, imagine what League Two strikers felt when O’Connell went on his forays forward for Rochdale.