Michael Carrick demonstrates why he could be crucial to England’s World Cup hopes

March 3, 2010

It’s difficult to make the case for Michael Carrick being in the England side without coming across as a pretentious, know-it-all bore. Comments like “He does the quiet things well”, “He keeps things simple”, and “He brings the best out of his team-mates” are all classic ‘underrated player’ arguments. But like it or not, they’re all true in Carrick’s case, so it’s pretentious, know-it all bore time.

Carrick is not the most spectacular footballer England have, and if England had a dedicated ‘ball-winner’ in the form of a Claude Makelele or even a Nigel de Jong, there might not be a case for Carrick’s inclusion. But England only have one really top-notch holding midfielder (placing Carrick to one side), and that man is Owen Hargreaves. Hargreaves would be a regular if he was anywhere near fit, but he simply isn’t going to make the squad.

Amidst the fact that England currently have a left-back crisis, a captain who can’t play consecutive games, a right-back who hasn’t played right-back all season, a lack of goalscorers and a mock headless chicken on the right-hand side, it seems to have been forgotten that perhaps England’s most pressing problem is a complete lack of anyone to play the holding midfield role. The aforementioned problems can all be realistically solved in three months’ time with a good run of form from certain players, but unless Hargreaves makes a miraculous recovery, the issue of a lack of a deep-lying midfielder will not go away.

In qualification, this role was filled by Gareth Barry – by all accounts, a very good footballer who deserves his place in the England side. But the difference between playing the sides England faced in qualification (Andorra, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and a surprisingly poor Croatia side) and the sides England will play at the World Cup, is that the role requires completely different characteristics. Against those lesser sides, perhaps 80% of the role involves passing ability, only 20% concerns defensive duties. When England play sides that can actually pass the ball, as they did tonight, then they will suffer if they continue to rely on Barry as the deepest midfield player, because they won’t be good enough defensively. The role shifts to roughly 50-50. Indeed, in the first half tonight, England had less than 50% of possession. Gareth Barry is not – and has never been – a ‘defensive’ midfielder. Even when he plays deep, he is primarily a passer. For Manchester City this season he has played alongside at least one, sometimes two, holding midfielders who do the dirty work whilst he plays slightly more offensively.

Of course, this is pretty much the same description of Michael Carrick. Play Carrick in a midfield alongside Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Theo Walcott and you’ll be faced with the exact same problem when you don’t have the ball. And that’s why there is surely a need to play both Barry and Carrick together in the centre of midfield. Carrick is not a tough tackler, but he is excellent positionally. It’s no coincidence that as soon as Carrick replaced Lampard, Barry had the freedom to storm forward – and got into the box to pass for Crouch for England’s opening goal, in a superb move that was started from a Carrick forward pass. If England don’t have a midfield general who can play the holding role alone, there is the need to compensate for this by playing an extra midfielder in that zone.

If this means a switch to a 4-3-3, with Lampard at the head of the midfield triangle, Gerrard in a wide forward role, and Rooney upfront alone (with one other player on the right), then so be it. Frankly, this would bring the best out of Lampard (who clearly favours this role) and Rooney (who has proved at the Emirates and at the San Siro that he is superb as a lone striker against top opposition). Gerrard would be out of position, but no more so than in the narrow left-sided role he currently plays in, and he would be closer to Rooney, who he links up with very well. The right-sided role is up for grabs – Aaron Lennon looks favourite. With Lennon and Gerrard defensively poor, you’d rather play them wide in a 4-3-3 than wide in a 4-4-2, considering you’d have an extra deep midfielder. Another deep midfielder would also give Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson slightly more license to get forward, which is where both are at their best.

In fact, all signs seem to point to a 4-3-3 for England in the summer, but whether Capello will switch a shape so successful in qualifying remains doubtful. The “Don’t change a winning system” brigade will point to Heskey’s role in qualifying as proof that England need a ‘big man’ upfront, but Capello’s use of Jermain Defoe surely indicates he is thinking beyond what worked well against minnows in qualification.

It is doubtful any other ‘contender’ for the World Cup will line up with only two central midfielders. That is not to say you can’t be successful with only two, but they need to function better than the Barry-Lampard combination did yesterday. England’s best players in 2002 and 2006 were ’surprise’ holding midfielders – Nicky Butt and Owen Hargreaves. Don’t be surprised if Michael Carrick continues the trend this summer.

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