Magnificent Morro?

Scott Heavey

An assessment of rising star Sean Morrison which includes the reasons why we shouldn't get too carried away about how good he is quite yet.

After seeing Sean Morrison break into the team last season in wake of the Alex Pearce contract debacle, and then score against Wigan and Manchester United in close succession, like most Reading fans, I got very excited about this star that we seemed to have uncovered. Morro had definitely made good of finally being given chance to show why he was signed from Swindon in January 2011 and his tall, broad and strong figure, coupled with his impressive aerial ability in both attack and defence made him seem exactly the type of central defender we needed to bolster our survival challenge and Brian McDermott appeared to think the same, playing him throughout November and December until he was injured at Southampton.

Nigel Adkins also definitely seems to like Morrison, having used him in all but one of his 8 games in charge last season and making him stand-in Captain for this season. And for the vast majority of Reading fans, the hype around Morrison has continued right into the start of this season. As I walked away from the Mad Stad on Saturday I heard a whole host of people say things like "Morrison played really well", "Morrison was solid" and "Morrison looks good". Whilst I agree that he had a decent game, after watching Morro’s 16 appearances last year, and his performance on Saturday, I have become a little wary of whether he is as good as we all think. In my heart of hearts I know I am in a drastic minority in my opinion on Morro and will come in for a wrath of criticism for the thoughts I discuss in this article, but I feel there a number of things that many fans may miss when praising Morrison to the heights that they do.

First and foremost, I have nothing but acclaim for Morrison’s presence and power all over the pitch. The sheer size of him makes him run riot when attacking our corners and free kicks and I don’t think I have ever seen a more effective Reading defender in the air. When he has to defend the ball with his head he is incredibly impressive, rising well above all players he comes up against and never being pushed off the ball. It is also very evident that he is liked by the squad, along with the supporters, as well as possessing pure determination, sizeable confidence in his ability, and appearing a natural commander, making it understandable why he has been selected as captain.

For all these areas that Morro excels, I cannot help but notice other aspects of his play that are well below par, like how frequently he is caught out of position. Last season, many of the goals we conceded were due to poor marking at the back. Obviously, not all of these can be attributed to Morrison, but if you look back at the clips, he was repeatedly half a yard further away from the attacker he was marking than his defensive partner Adrian Mariappa and we often conceded as a result. Furthermore, it is staggering how often Morrison ventures over the half way line and gets sucked out of position, leaving the defence hopelessly exposed. And this can’t be put down to the change in style of play and the want to pass the ball under Adkins because Morro was doing this during McDermott’s tenure as well. Again, most of the time this went unpunished, but there were also moments where it did not. Take the pitiful home performance against Wigan for example, where Morro was drafted back into the team. Around a minute after conceding the first goal, he picked up the ball and charged into the attack before trying to beat a Wigan player 10 yards into our half. This is not the area you want your central defender to be striding into, and especially not the area where you want him to lose the ball. Wigan promptly nicked it from our marauding centre-back and three passes later had played through our remaining defender to Arouna Kone, who gobbled up time and space before converting his chance to put us 2-0 down before half time. A simple pass out to the wing by Morrison, or an even simpler turn and pass to Mariappa behind him would never have put the team under any pressure, and going into the dressing room 1-0 down instead of 2-0 down in a must-win game could have made a telling difference.

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(Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

To an extent, I think this is mostly due to a lack of experience. Morrison is only 22, and before last season the highest level he had played at was League 1. In time, although I am scathing of him now, I honestly believe he will master the art of positioning - how to mark effectively, when to attack and when to hold his ground. For now however, I think it is imperative to highlight how positionally inept he is in comparison to Alex Pearce, Adrian Mariappa and even Kaspars Gorkss, who has proven he is good enough to be a very respectable defender at Championship level. If you watch closely, each of these defenders are far, far more disciplined in their positioning and do a much more thorough job of marking.

Even on Saturday against Ipswich, Morrison went up field and moved out of position to help provide options from throw-ins, leaving a hole to be covered. This isn’t an immediate problem, as Pearce and Gunter are left back there to cover, but Morro’s stride up field meant he had to chase back, and in doing so he was on the wrong side of attackers on the break. To be fair to him, he realised this and recovered, but I don’t think our other defenders would get caught in the first place. Again, this can come down to experience and also trying to learn the best way to play the passing game under Adkins without jeopardising his defending. More worryingly though, Morrison went on another a ‘Wigan-esque’ wander in Saturday’s second half. After winning the ball back he tried to shimmy past an Ipswich player 5 yards into our half instead of laying a simple pass to a midfielder. Nothing came of the resulting Ipswich move, but Morro could have dealt with the situation he found himself in much better. This is where the example of Jem Karacan is to be admired – he started picking up appearances under Steve Coppell in 2008 and looked very eager to charge forward and break into the box in support of Kevin Doyle and Noel Hunt, and often gave the ball away trying adventurous passes. He has since solidified his position as being a holder in the middle of the park, and four more seasons of experience seem to have taught him that he is there to break up play. For me, it is more evident now than ever that Karacan is at his best when he hassles the opposition, wins the ball back and distributes it to a teammate safely. No fuss, no hassle, just a simple pass. On Saturday, it was plain for all to see that Karacan was ‘the connector’ - if he won the ball, he immediately looked for Guthrie who has the ability to see a pass and make it, and even though this meant him passing the ball sideways or backwards, we maintained possession and could mount an attack. The way Karacan’s play has become more controlled is what I think Morro’s game needs, and I hope in time he will learn and improve. If he does, I think all of the praise he receives will then be justified.

It also surprised me that BBC Radio Berkshire’s Tim Dellor described Morrison as "our first choice defender this year" in the pre-match build-up. This to me is just too far fetched. How can a someone who has only played 16 times previously for Reading, and is largely unproven, especially when you factor in the number of Championship appearances earned by either Pearce, Mariappa or Gorkss, be your first choice defender? If Morrison had come into the team last year and been a world-beater, who was throwing challenges in left, right and centre, stopping clear-cut chances and possessing an unbelievable ability to read the game, I might say, yeah, Morrison is our first choice defender, but for now I don’t think he is any better than our other three centre backs.

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(Paul Thomas/Getty Images)

Along with the "Morrison played really well", "Morrison was solid" and "Morrison looks good" remarks I picked up on coming out of the ground on Saturday, another favourite comment people pitch to me about Morrison is that he is more comfortable than Pearce playing this so-called passing game under Adkins. I say "so-called" for a reason. In the first half against Ipswich, it was almost like watching a Brian McDermott team. When Morrison or Pearce received up the ball, they continually hoofed it long. It happened time after time again, and I feel it is wrong to attribute any greater passing ability to Morrison in comparison to Pearce when they both whack it up-field just as much as each other. Besides, if you look at the wider picture, how many top centre-backs in the world have the vision and ability to play a good pass? A handful, maybe? Its unrealistic to attribute so much acclaim for Morrison based on his passing ability, because if it exists, it is only slightly better than Pearce’s and regardless of this, passing isn’t really what a centre-back is needed for. Admittedly, if you find a good centre-back who can also play the ball, it’s a huge bonus and a huge rarity, and we wouldn’t be able to hold onto such luxury at Reading for too long. Also on this point, I can’t say I have noticed Morrison ‘showing’ for the ball, which Adkins seems to be trying to instil throughout the team, any more considerably than our other defenders. Additionally, Morrison is only marginally paceier than Pearce, so this can’t be too dominant a reason for deeming him "first choice defender" either.

As a final note, I think it is important to address that I am not against having Morrison in the team; I just think its wrong to consider him quite as highly as most Reading fans do. If we assume Mariappa is on his way to pastures new, we’re left with Morrison, Pearce and Gorkss as centre-backs. Personally, I think Alex Pearce is our best central defender. Throughout last season when the contract fiasco was happening and he was dropped, it was astounding how many fans were angry that contract issues were getting in the way of the team’s interests, and the majority of us wanted Pearce back in sooner rather than later. Add to this the fact that Pearce was our player of the season just a year ago, and it seems dubious to say Morrison is better than him. So that leaves Morrison and Gorkss to choose from for the remaining centre-back spot. We all saw two years ago how good Gorkss was at this level and I would welcome having him back in the starting 11. BUT, with that said, we also all saw how Gorkss could not cope with the pace of the Premier League, and for that reason I have no complaints about Morrison being given the nod. Its logical to have Gorkss as back-up as we know he can come in and do a job, whilst giving Morro game time this season to build-up his experience and develop, so that if we get promoted again, he’ll be a better all-round player for the Premier League.

This article hasn’t intended to subject Morro to a stinging rebuke or try to suggest that his selection is unwarranted, I simply feel it is important to highlight some of the areas where his play isn’t up to scratch yet to try and bring all of our feet back down to the floor over him. For reaping havoc in the box when we’re attacking a set-play, or for having someone to win an aerial challenge, and even to be a general stopper at the back, Morrison cannot be faulted. For now though, our praise for him should be limited to being a good stopper and a head-on-a-stick, albeit a quality head-on-a-stick. The more subtle elements of defending are very our faith in him should waver. His positioning needs work, and if his tendency to wander away from defence continues we will get caught at crucial points of the season. It goes without saying that all players make mistakes and of course Morrison is no different. He is still learning, and he has frequently admitted that in the press. And that’s the underlying point I want people to take from this, Morrison is by no means the finished article. He looks very, very good at some things, but at others he is some way off the level he needs to be at. I assure you, if you watch him more closely over the next few games, you will notice some of things I have documented here. I hope, and I do believe that he will win me over in the next couple of seasons, but for now lets not exaggerate how magnificent Sean Morrison is.

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