Will ex-Rangers stopper Dominic Ball be Aberdeen's answer at centre-back?
Aberdeen were third in total possession in the Scottish Premiership last season, behind Celtic and Rangers, and having stocked up on attacking options following the departures of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn, it’s safe to say they’ll be looking to dominate play against most teams in the league once again this term.
With such a gameplan comes added responsibility for the defenders. They have to be competent in possession. Not only do they see more of the ball with the opposing side sagging off, there’s little to no protection behind the back-line should a square pass go astray or an unfortunate slip befall one of the their central defenders.
Ball should be fine in this aspect of the game at Aberdeen. An attacking midfielder during his days in Watford’s youth academy, he is more than comfortable playing the ball out from the back. It’s whether he’s an improvement defensively on those already at the club which will determine whether he’s back in Scotland merely as a squad player, or as an important member of the starting XI.
Looking at where both players plied their trade prior to signing for Aberdeen, it’s easy to draw parallels between Ball and Anthony O’Connor. The latter was a squad player on Burton Albion’s promotion clinching 2015-16 side; Ball was a six-time starter for Peterborough last term before a falling out with his manager saw the loan deal cut short. Each were League One clubs.
Ball also chalked up 15 appearances in the English Championship for Rotherham. Although, it’s unclear how much we can read into that. He played only five times for the club after the manager who recruited him, Alan Stubbs, was given the boot with the team deep in relegation trouble. Stubbs’ replacement Paul Warne was quick to ship Ball out, and unwilling to play him after his deal at Peterborough ended prematurely.
Whether we like it or not, there is precedent for players coming straight from League One and hitting the ground running in the Scottish Premiership, especially at Aberdeen. Adam Rooney, Shay Logan, Barry Robson and Ash Taylor were all recruited direct from England’s third tier, and while fans will have higher hopes for Ball than the last player on that particular list - don’t look at me, I rated Taylor and his dominating aerial presence - they should be hopeful of getting solid production from Ball during his time at Pittodrie.
For all of the 2015/16 season, Ball was Rangers’ third choice centre-back behind Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan. That sentence alone should have warning signs going off in the minds of Aberdeen fans. After all, had McInnes recruited either of those two to reinforce his backline, it’s safe to say the Pittodrie faithful would not have been overly impressed.
Of course, just because Ball was the third-choice centre-back it doesn’t mean he was necessarily the third best. Warburton might have preferred Wilson and Kiernan for tactical reasons, such as their contract situation - both were permanent signings while Ball was there on loan - or he might just have got it wrong. But while Ball largely got his break at Rangers in the centre of the park, there wasn’t much in his displays at the heart of the defence when he did fill in to suggest he was definitely a better option than either of the aforementioned duo.
Fans have been demanding a physically robust midfielder ever since youngster Craig Storrie disappeared from the first-team picture. The signing of Greg Tansey appeared to quench such a thirst, but many remain unconvinced, seeing the ex-Inverness CT as a deep-lying playmaker trapped in a centre-back’s body.
It’s doubtful whether Ball would unseat Tansey or take up permanent residence in the central role. The reason why Derek McInnes had tended to prefer lighter players in that area, such as Ryan Jack or Graeme Shinnie, is their ability to take the ball from the centre-backs, while facing their own goal, and turn quickly. It’s probably why Anthony O’Connor hasn’t been seen in the position since his initial introduction to the first team, despite putting in performances which were looked upon favourably by the Dons support. Though lighter on his feet, Ball would perform the role in a similar manner to O’Connor, and would likely be used there only in special situations.