Full marks to the Mirror for their headline, "Zola says Lucas Neill is worth every penny of his fat contract" because that captures perfectly the oxymoron that is our skipless Skippy. In recent weeks, Lucas has looked like a defender reborn, maintaining excellent positional discipline and treating the ball with respect when we are in possession. Clarke has clearly been working on him, demanding that he cut out the stupid stuff - including diving in on the half way line and passing across his own box to an opposition forward. But one big problem remains, Lucas is slow, too slow in my opinion to be a right back.
Look at the West Brom game, what did we offer going forward on the right? From memory, we got the ball into the box on the right hand side just once in the whole game. Why? Because Noble kept drifting inside and Neill did not dare overlap because he knows that he lacks to pace to recover his defensive position. And this lack of pace has been a real problem to us as an offensive unit all season. Parker and Behrami have been superb all season but both have done 70% of their work as part of a defensive six. Parker anchors in front of the back four and Behrami played as an auxillary right back, pushing forward when he could but always aware that his main job was to protect Neill from being exposed one on one with anybody with pace. The result is that we are very tight defensively but we offer very little going forward, despite all the delicious passing.
Reflect on the Wigan game. Without the shield of Beharami, Neill was forced to give away two free kicks on the edge of our box and "reverted to type" with that leg break tackle on Cattermole just inside our half. Never mind the argument that he could have seen straight red for the Cattermole tackle, had Attwell flashed yellow for either of the shirt tugs that gave away the free kicks (and they were professional fouls and so merited a booking more than Cole's high foot), then Neill would certainly have gone for a second yellow for that wincer of a challenge. Against West Brom, Neill was our best player defensively but what did he have do? Very little, yet he still could have conceded a penalty for what was, indisputably, a shirt pull in the box.
The brutal truth is that, for all his leadership qualities, Neill lacks pace and does make stupid decisions when a forward looks like getting the better of him. If I was a referee, I would watch him very closely at corners and free kicks and would feel within my rights to give a penalty at every set piece. Lucas seems to think that holding an opponent is a legitimate defensive ploy. It isn't and, sooner or later, the referee will spot what the TV camera exposes virtually every game.
So is he worth his fat contract? No. He is getting older and will get slower. He may well have a couple of years in those legs as a centre back but his days as a right back are almost over - unless we accept that we need a defensive six in every game to cover for Lucas's frailties. The contract is up for renewal and I would slash his salary by at least 33% to reflect his reduced effectiveness. The fact is, with Collins, Upson, Tomkins and Gabbidon (if ever fit), we do not need another centre back so why pay top dollar for Neill? On the other hand, to push on to the next level, we need a Herita Ilunga at right back, a good defender with the ability and pace to get forward. Only then will we start scoring more goals.