Throughout its history, Blackburn has been known for a diverse range of industries, which includes engineering, aerospace and textiles.
It’s largely a working class town whose residents go about their business with minimal fuss, and that’s exactly what Sunderland Women invested in when they signed Natasha Fenton from Blackburn Rovers in the summer.
Without question, Fenton has been a key addition and a player who’s given Sunderland the ability to function like a well-oiled machine.
In addition, she’s provided the Lasses’ midfield with some much-needed steadiness and humility, whilst allowing players such as Jenna Dear, Katie Kitching, Mollie Rouse and Mary McAteer to express themselves freely without having to worry about what’s going on behind them.
Despite hers being one of the less ‘glamorous’ roles, Fenton’s isn’t one that should be easily disregarded. On the contrary, it’s the most significant, because she’s a player who drives Sunderland forward and is key to keeping the squad running smoothly.
Fenton is a natural central midfielder who can also play as a number six or as a central defender when necessary.
She’s already added great value because of this quality, which helps her to better comprehend the choices that must be made in her role. Her positional intelligence, which helps her to pass and defend from a deeper position, is one of her main strengths.
Fenton’s ability on the ball is sensational and even when she’s not in control of the ball, her movement and positioning are impeccable.
She’s in charge of covering the back four as well as building up and releasing pressure when opponents try to press Sunderland high. This is due to her intelligence as well as having the foresight to position herself at the base of midfield.
Fenton is capable of moving into advanced positions when the chance arises because of her understanding of space. That said, she usually prioritises defence over attack, particularly due to having an understanding of both her and fellow midfielder Jenna Dear’s roles.
It’s critical that she comprehends the structure utilised at Sunderland and her place within it.
The team seldom uses different formations, with Fenton playing as part of the ‘double pivot’ in the 4-2-3-1 system. Two central midfielders are deployed as a ‘pendulum’ to provide balance, but they also rely on their advantage in possession to keep the opposition as far away from their goal as possible.
Fenton is usually partnered with Dear, who’s considered to be the best in her position, and they’re the perfect foil for each other.
Although Dear is the more ‘aggressive’ of the two, Fenton will position herself near her teammate in order to provide cover and support in both attacking and defensive situations at all times.
Fenton is responsible for the defensive assuredness of the team and the two of them bridge the gap between each position, dictating the play, the style, and the tempo of a match.
Dear and Fenton give each other balance by acting as a pendulum. As one advances, the other retreats for protection, and they both have complete security in the middle since they’re positioned so close to one another.
This is what makes them such an effective partnership; Dear is allowed to play her natural game as a result of having confidence in Fenton’s ability to back her up and not worry about leaving gaps as she moves forward.
Fenton has only been at Sunderland since the summer, but her defensive influence has been illustrated on a weekly basis.
Playing the defensive midfield position requires a certain level of vision, mobility and positional sense, especially within Sunderland’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and Fenton’s positional awareness is her main asset and the reason the Lasses remain so reliable in defence.
Her job doesn’t vary much depending on the opposition- it simply dictates how far forward she plays.
Fenton will naturally be closer to the attackers but more careful against the counter attack when up against teams who are likely to sit deep and counter. Conversely, against teams who look to press and attack Sunderland to a greater degree, she’ll become the deepest lying midfielder.
Because of her perfect positioning, she can read the game intelligently and knows when to move out in order to charge or block an opponent’s counter attack.
Her choice of defensive manoeuvre can be made quickly, and this allows her the time and space to decide on the best course of action.
Given the nature of her role, she must maintain her composure when determining whether to tackle or make an interception in order to prevent conceding unnecessary free kicks or possibly giving the opposition the chance to win back possession.
Sunderland’s attacking and build up play are also influenced by Fenton’s positioning and movement off the ball.
When the other two centre backs split, she’ll either drop in to fill in as a third centre back or remain in her midfield position. She provides cover for the backline, allowing the full backs to press forward when she steps in as a third central defender.
To adhere to the team’s overall tactical philosophy, the midfielder must be just as good on the ball as she is off it.
The Lasses make use of a high defensive line and although Fenton’s main duty is to safeguard the back four, she frequently ventures forward to provide the more attack-minded players with a recyclable passing option or to play penetrative passes from deep.
She even has the ability to try the spectacular on occasions, with her free kick attempt against Charlton a great example!
Because of the focus on her main role within the team, Fenton’s forward passing is another attribute that’s sometimes overlooked.
When it comes to carrying the ball progressively, she’s capable of holding her own alongside Dear and Kitching, who are important creators.
Fenton’s position allows her to see openings further up the pitch, which is especially useful whenever Sunderland are presented with a counter attacking opportunity
She also has the vision and ability to see and play crucial passes that penetrate defences, as well as the poise and knowledge to choose longer passes in order to avoid incoming attackers and capitalise on Sunderland’s speed, particularly in the wide areas.
Fenton is a silent operator who reminds me of N’Golo Kanté or Didier Deschamps- someone who gets the job done with minimal fuss.
Her physical strength combined with a relatively low centre of gravity gives her excellent balance on the ball in tight spaces, and her tenacity, awareness, consistency and strong mentality are just some of the reasons behind the club’s decision to sign her during the summer.
The Lasses have been incredibly astute with some of our recent signings and Fenton’s short but exceptional stint in red and white has been nothing short of remarkable; a beacon of stability in a side that’s seen a lot of change recently.
A manager’s dream, Fenton is the engine that enables this team to run smoothly and to keep their fantastic form going.