Roberge Must Shape Up Or Ship Out

David Lee Wheatley
SB Nation

Valentin Roberge suffered yet another opening day from hell following his shock inclusion in the side to face West Bromwich Albion last weekend. With time running out before the transfer window closes, the defender faces a crunch period in an effort to save his Sunderland career.

French central defender Valentin Roberge was surprisingly chosen as part of Gus Poyet's starting line-up to face West Brom at The Hawthorns last Saturday to seemingly complete a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for a player who struggled to gain a foothold in the side last term.

A host of new signings joined the Montreuil-born star in the squad twelve months ago as the 2013/14 season got underway at the Stadium of Light last August.

Things began badly as Roberge got easily outmuscled in the air by Pajtim Kasami for Fulham's smash-and-grab winning goal on that ill-fated opening day, thus exposing his lack of preparedness for what the Premier League entailed. However, he'd performed satisfactorily otherwise and he was new to England, so most were willing to give him a chance to adapt.

The former Paris Saint-Germain reserve had been plying his trade in countries where defenders are afforded oceans of space to run into and plenty of time on the ball. Roberge wasn't ready for the physicality of the Premier League and it showed.

His senior career truly took off when leaving behind PSG's 'B' team for Greek side Aris, before moving on to Maritimo in the Portuguese Liga. In both cases he encountered forward lines that generally weren't encouraged to put pressure upon defenders, while facing individual strikers who didn't appear to be interested in pushing up at all.

Another issue for the Frenchman to come to terms with was the brutal nature of the Premier League, with every single mistake pounced on and punished with the utmost severity. Clinical goalscorers galore reside throughout the entire league and that, with the greatest of respect, just isn't the case in Greece or Portugal.

Unfortunately, the 27-year-old managed only nine appearances in total last season whilst playing second fiddle to the first-choice pairing of Wes Brown and John O'Shea. He seemed to be way down the pecking order as the close-season commenced and appeared certain to leave.

Then, a decent pre-season this summer allowed Roberge to regain some confidence and stake his claim for a place in the starting eleven. Head coach Poyet then selected him in his team to face the Baggies with Billy Jones and Santiago Vergini missing, therefore offering the centre-back a huge opportunity to impress.

All of the stopper's best attributes were showcased early in the game such as his comfort in possession, willingness to get into the box for attacking set-pieces and an ability to pick out a pass. However, he was harshly adjudged to have fouled powerful striker Victor Anichebe late on in the first-half which resulted in a cheap penalty award. Once Berahino converted the spot-kick, the Frenchman completely lost his head.

Time and again, he panicked when put under the cosh by the opposition in his own half of the pitch. If he wasn't caught in possession, then he was attempting rash back-heels and passes across his own area, which left his defensive colleagues chasing after the ball towards their own goal. Roberge lost all focus and subsequently forgot all about his marking duties.

I don't especially enjoy 'going after' a particular player and certainly don't wish to suggest that he was the only man to blame for the uglier facets of Saturday's performance, but it's about time Valentin stepped up his game after a year spent in the English top-flight. He got a fair crack of the whip in pre-season and was handed a platform on which to prove himself at West Brom last weekend, but ultimately failed miserably to do so.

Under two weeks remain before the latest transfer window shuts until January and options aren't exactly plentiful in the central defensive positions. Santi Vergini looked like a fish out of water in that role earlier this year before revitalising his campaign at right-back with a series of excellent displays, while Brown and O'Shea will undoubtedly require rest on occasion.

If Roberge isn't up to the required standard for the best league in the world, then he must consider his future quickly to avoid warming the bench for the next nine months. Equally, the club must make a ruthless decision on whether he is part of their long-term plans in light of his most recent showing and if not, a commanding centre-half must ascend directly to the top of their shopping list.

It's high-time for him to finally get up to speed with the pace and power of the Premier League, otherwise he must be forced to step aside for another defender to come in who possesses the capability to succeed at this level.