When we prepared to take on League One’s Charlton Athletic in the second round of the League Cup central defensive mainstay Issa Diop unexpectedly tested positive for Covid-19 along with now former midfielder Josh Cullen and manager David Moyes.
The mandatory period of self isolation left us with something of a conundrum in the shape of who should replace the young Frenchman at the heart of the defence for not only the aforementioned London derby but for following few games at least.
We were in the midst of their widely publicised search for a new centre back even before the loss of Diop, but surprise, surprise despite many rumors no new addition had appeared.
This meant the obvious replacement came in the form of the vastly experienced Paraguayan international Fabian Balbuena.
Balbuena, known as the General, is in his third season in east London but has been very much considered to be back-up for quite some time.
He was brought to the club in 2018 by then manager Manuel Peligrini for an undisclosed fee which was reported to be on the very low side of the market.
Despite his low value Balbuena had a good first season in English football making 23 Premier League appearances.
During his second season, however, Balbuena’s individual form mirrored that of his teammates as it dipped leading to him featuring in just 17 league fixtures.
As a result of this, I think many thought that the days of Balbuena appearing in the starting lineup on a regular basis were over.
But football is very much about taking one’s opportunities, and it appeared that Diop’s misfortune coupled with our failure to recruit was much to Balbuena’s gain as now it’s his starting place to lose.
Since coming in for the Charlton game, Balbuena has been solid and part of a team that has put in some very good performances, picking up some unexpected points and showing a real togetherness.
I certainly feel that David Moyes’ decision to revert to playing three centre backs has certainly been helpful to Balbuena, the extra security around makes up for his lack of pace and sometimes rashness or decision making.
Balbuena is certainly an asset from set pieces in an offensive sense and scored the first goal in our unforgettable comeback from three goals down at Spurs.
This alongside his steady performances in victories over Wolves and Leicester and while gaining a rare point at home to Manchester City along with an unlucky narrow defeat at champions Liverpool have meant that despite being long since back from his period of isolation Diop must be content for a place amongst the substitutes.
Some things can be considered to be a blessing in disguise and perhaps the absence of the young Frenchman which has led to the reemergence of Balbuena which may prove vital given the congested schedule between now and the end of the season. In addition to this we openly talked about needing to strengthen in this area but only managed to add the uninspiring loan signing of Craig Dawson from Watford, so it is good to know we can still rely on those already within the ranks.