Scanning Fabio Capello’s 30 man provisional England World Cup squad there is, buried under all the midfield talent, one major hole in a team filled with stars – there is no defensive force in the midfield. This is a significant flaw and is one that may prevent England from lifting the cup in South Africa.
The English love to talk about their gritty determination and work ethic on the football pitch, but the one position that most exemplifies those traits – the defensive midfielder or the “stopper” as it is often referred to on US soccer fields – the English are bare. The only player in the 30 man squad that is a true defensive midfielder is West Ham’s Scott Parker – a quality player for sure – but would is by no means world class. This weakness is not a new problem for England. In 06 Owen Hargreaves emerged as solid option, but this in itself is revealing, as Hargreaves is actually Canadian (he really is the Canadian Guiseppi Rossi) and he developed his game in Germany with Bayern Munich not in England. Sure, England produce some solid hardmen in the middle of the field, Birmingham’s Lee Boyer, comes to mind and perhaps there are a few up in comers, but in this vital position England have no one world class.
There is no doubt that England has a team full of world class creative midfielders: Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Gareth Barry, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone. The problem for England is that these are basically all the same type of player. Yes there are differences, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole can play wide and up top, while Carrick and Huddlestone like to play quarterback from deeper positions. But really all these players best position is as a creative midfielder playing alongside a ball-winning defensive midfielder. Huddlestone and Carrick can play that deep lying role, but neither is particularly quick and neither is a defensive force. Look all these players can make a tackle, but none of these players are defensive specialists.
This matters immensely for England’s chances to lift the trophy, as well as against the US. This position is a kin to the linebacker in football. They control the middle of the field, prevent opponents from breaking free and win the ball back in the middle of the field so the offense can continue to do its work. Look at all the top club teams in the world and you see standout defensive midfielders: Chelsea with Essien and Mikel, Liverpool with Maschereno, Arsenal with Song, Man City with De Jong and now Vieria, Real Madrid with Diarra, Barcelona with Keita, Bayern Munich with Van Bommel, Inter with Cambiasso, Spurs with Palacios. England simply don’t have that type of player.
Now this makes England very dangerous when they have the ball, but it makes them fairly frail when they don’t. The real question is who will pair with Frank Lampard, since he is practically guaranteed to start in one of the central midfield spots. Lampard throughout his career at Chelsea frequently played with two outstanding defensive midfielders and when Chelsea were on the backfoot, Lampard was frequently anonymous.
England looked did look set to use Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the central midfield, at least prior to Barry’s ankle injury. It is uncertain what Capello will do now – (my money would be on Huddlestone) but the same dilemmas apply. The problem with the Lampard – Barry midfielder is that neither is much of a tackler. Barry plays deeper, but at Manchester City always along the enforcer Nigel De Jong (he’s the guy who broke Stuart Holden’s leg). While Barry has immense vision and craft, he is also very slow.
Other options, such as Steven Gerrard and James Milner, while possessing more pace, pose the same problem. Gerrard can play deep, but he has essentially become a striker the last two seasons and Milner plays a more creative advanced role. There has long been a conflict over whether Gerrard and Lampard can play together in the central midfield, since both are very similar players. The view has been that instead of complementing each other they get in each others way and both are prone to get caught forward. I don’t see how this is any different with James Milner.
Huddelstone and Carrick have the same traits as Barry – they are on field quarterbacks that play deep but lack quickness and defensive solidity. At Spurs, Huddlestone at times played alongside the more frail Luka Modric and that is indeed the formation that Spurs used in their great run at the end of the season. Huddlestone is indeed a physical presence, but there is a reason why Spurs bought Wilson Palacios last year to shore up their “soft” midfield. While Spurs played went on a run at the end with Huddlestone and Modric, Spurs also didn’t dominate the central areas during that run. As for Michael Carrick, he has not been a regular and lost out to Darren Fletcher and the 35 year old Paul Scholes and has some drawbacks as Huddlestone.
This leaves Scott Parker. He would give England the most balance and could stay deep and protect the backline. While I think Parker will make the squad and will come on to shore up, the side itf England are protecting a lead, it is hard to imagine him starting.
Capello has some tough choices to make. By contrast, the area where the US has the most depth is at holding midfield. With the German based Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, as well as Maurice Edu at Rangers, US coach Bob Bradley has three solid options at this position. It’s even conceivable that if any of these three were English, they would be working themselves in to Capello’s plans.