England: thirsty for a water-carrier

by David Bevan

As Steven Gerrard looks forward, Frank Lampard is instructed to watch his back and vice versa. But, as David Bevan suggests, history is not on England’s side and Gareth Barry may not be the answer many are praying he is.

The absence of Owen

The question remains. How do England get the best out of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard? We certainly didn’t see it from them last night as Fabio Capello’s men laboured to a predictable 1-1 draw with the United States in their opening game of the World Cup.

Something that seems to have been waylaid somewhat in the buildup to this tournament is the solace that England fans took from their exit in Germany four years ago. Because it seemed as though Gerrard and Lampard had finally found their water-carrier.

In that quarter-final defeat to Portugal, the FIFA man of the match was, correctly, not Gerrard or Lampard but Owen Hargreaves. England fans delighted in the scampering midfielder’s energetic performance.

Winning with workhorses

Energy is the key word. In the World Cup, unfashionable workhorses are vital. How England could do with the industry of Park Ji-Sung or even Jonas Gutierrez.

Both Gerrard and Lampard looked tired on that disappointing day in Gelsenkirchen, while Hargreaves appeared capable of continuing for another ninety minutes. The 20-goal a season men both missed penalties in the shootout to confirm the departure of England from Germany and Sven-Goran Eriksson from England.

Fast-forward four years and Sven is back, albeit with the Elephants rather than the Three Lions. So are Gerrard and Lampard. England’s 2006 quarter-final man of the match, however, is not. And how Capello’s midfield could have done with Hargreaves last night.

The water-carrier

It was Eric Cantona who coined the derogatory phrase “water-carrier” to describe a player who exists solely to pass the ball to his more talented colleagues. Cantona was referring to Didier Deschamps, who had the last laugh by playing the role to perfection as the holding midfielder in France’s 1998 World Cup-winning side.

The water-carrier role has followed an interesting timeline in the twelve years since France ’98, becoming essential to the vogue formations of 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1.

When Deschamps retired after winning Euro 2000, his mantle in the international team was assumed by Claude Makelele. France have since failed to add to the two major international honours they won with Deschamps in the side but Makelele was to bring the role across the Channel to England where he helped to break Manchester United and Arsenal’s duopoly over the Premier League.

Chelsea thrived with Makelele playing in front of a back four. Under Jose Mourinho’s astute stewardship, Makelele was instructed to sit and allow his fellow midfielders to roam forward in search of goals.

When Makelele moved on to Paris Saint-Germain, with whom he signed a new one-year contract this weekend, his replacement was John Obi Mikel. Although a rough diamond in comparison with the polished Frenchman, Mikel has aided Chelsea’s return to the top of the tree this season from the same position that Deschamps and Makelele each occupied.

Security on Merseyside

In parallel, Rafa Benitez saw the merits of a holding midfielder or, for extra security, why not two? The Spaniard had employed David Albelda and Ruben Baraja in defensive midfield roles at Valencia and, although it took a while to come to fruition, Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 eventually arrived at Anfield as well.

Central to Benitez’s approach was Javier Mascherano, expert at breaking up play and passing the ball simply to more creative team-mates.

The cruel mistress of injury meant that Frank Lampard was unable to watch his club colleague Mikel in opposition to Gerrard’s midfield partner Mascherano as Argentina faced Nigeria ahead of England’s clash with the United States. It would have offered the perfect sigh of reflection after their own frustrating inability to keep possession in Rustenburg.

Gerrard scored early to calm fears he could not compete effectively against international opposition with just Lampard for company in the middle. But he was unable to dispossess Clint Dempsey in that space in front of the back four just prior to half time. Those same fears came rushing back as the Fulham man capitalised with a helping hand from a West Ham opponent.

Can Barry carry the water?

England’s safety net this time around, with Hargreaves recovering from injury far too late to merit inclusion in Capello’s squad, is seen to be Gareth Barry. Many will be clamouring for his inclusion as the insurance policy behind the marauding Gerrard and Lampard.

But, just at Stamford Bridge and Anfield, a manager has seen fit to buy from abroad to provide extra resilience in Manchester as well. In fact, not just one manager but two in the space of just a year. First, Mark Hughes signed Nigel de Jong from Hamburg and then Roberto Mancini drafted in Deschamps’ 1998 understudy Patrick Vieira. Both are defensively-minded and both provide a platform for Barry. Mancini’s thirst is still not quenched.

Fans of England and the Premier League love the headlines. Midfielders are heralded for scoring twenty goals per season. We are told that we cannot afford to exclude one of Gerrard or Lampard for this reason. But, given the lack of a water-carrier to aid their attacking instincts, the real expense of including both men will be a sense of deja vu.

Mourinho’s midfield

France are similarly bereft of their Deschamps or Makelele after injury robbed them of Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra. Whether Mourinho retains Diarra at the Bernabeu or not, the first name on his teamsheet will be that security in midfield.

For every Kaka, there’s a Diarra. For every Sneijder, there’s a Cambiasso. And for every Gerrard or Lampard, there needs to be a Mascherano or Mikel.

For Capello and England, the search continues.

1 Response

  1. 1limo says:

    England will still win the cup anyway!!

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