COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Chelsea's victory at the weekend against Brighton was neither as much of a slog as the 2-1 scoreline suggested, nor was it the stroll that the disparity in their league positions and profiles might have hinted at beforehand.
It marked, however, a third league start this season for Leon Balogun, and his second on the bounce as Shane Duffy serves a three-game suspension for a headbutt against Crystal Palace.
All things considered, it was not his brightest outing: Balogun looked curiously unable to remain in step with some of the movements around him, and seemed to, more than once, arrive the scene of incident late.
His defensive numbers bear this out quite starkly: no Brighton outfield player attempted or won fewer duels (one out of three), and he attempted no tackles at all (again, a low for the entire outfield team). A give-away to Willian, leading to Chelsea's second, sort of capped it all off.
It has been a difficult start to life in the Premier League for the 30-year-old, signed on a free transfer in the summer as relief for the regular defensive pair of Duffy and Lewis Dunk. It seemed a no-brainer of a deal, a full Nigeria international with World Cup experience acquired at the end of his contract to provide cover in a critical area.
Instead, so far, it has served to emphasize just how difficult it can be to sign back-up players.
It is a role that demands calm and constant focus, as well as physical intensity at all times. Essentially, Balogun needs to be ready at the drop of a hat, a tightly coiled spring, even in the knowledge that he might not be required. There is a paradoxical quality to what is required of him.
So far, it has not looked like an inspired choice, even allowing for his fine volleyed goal after coming on against Crystal Palace. That he then proceeded to give away a penalty tainted, but did not ultimately ruin, the perception of that performance.
It did, however, foreshadow what was to come.
There have been no further penalties conceded, but incidents like against Chelsea cannot have helped his cause, if indeed there was one. Such lapses in concentration, especially in terms of his usually impeccable distribution, will only serve to emphasize his place within the squad as a third wheel.
It raises the question: is there a self-fulfilling element here, even maybe subconsciously?
Piece on Leon Balogun's inactivity at Brightonhttps://t.co/tnlIUIbNMj— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) November 1, 2018
Is the knowledge that, however well he does, there is no scope for rising above that station, dampening his level of performance?
After all, at 30, he is pretty much smack in a defender's prime years. Arguably, this is the time when he requires more football, not less; when rust becomes more evident with the waning of vitality.
The rigours of a Premier League season should mean that there will be plenty of minutes to go around, but the mental and emotional tariff exacted in waiting is a weighty one.
Performance levels are not controlled by the flick of a switch, and often a player will need a run of games to get fully up to speed.
Balogun has had to bed in, despite coming from a less intense league physically, despite not being the quickest over distance and still contribute from the off.
Cruelly enough, Duffy's ban grants him just about enough game time to begin to get himself familiar with the team's rhythm, before the clock strikes midnight and he has to scamper back to the bench, glass slipper and all.
What's worse: there seems to be little that can be done to alter the situation.
He is too strategically valuable to be loaned out, and Brighton do not favour a back three (incidentally, the circumstance that got compatriot Kenneth Omeruo into the starting lineup at Leganes).
At 30, Balogun has arguably one of the most difficult jobs in the Premier League.