Who can be England’s destroyer?
There have been quite a few ‘problem positions’ for England over the past few years. The obvious one is at left wing; England fans watched on in envy as other countries churned out talented left footer after tricky left winger, whilst England’s left wing position saw a revolving door of hopefuls come and go. Stewart Downing was tried and dropped, Joe Cole looked to have made it his own until a grievous injury. In England’s World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign, the problem again looked to have been solved, with Steven Gerrard playing in a tucked-in role, linking with Wayne Rooney peeling off into space and allowing Ashley Cole down the outside. However, despite his relatively bright tournament, it is widely accepted that this role both restricts him and also provides a very obvious way of restricting his influence. If Cole is prevented from making his runs forward and stretching the pitch, the opposition can defend narrower and Gerrard runs into traffic. With the new breed of England wingers in Ashley Young and the newly recalled Stewart Downing making big strides in the team, perhaps the left wing dilemma has been solved.
This brings us neatly onto what has been a growing problem for England in recent years. As England shakily make the first baby steps of weaning themselves off a 4-4-2, the need for an aggressive ball-winner in midfield, a ‘destroyer’, becomes more and more apparent. Over the two World Cups before the shockingly bad 2010, even in England’s 4-4-2 system the destroyer had been one of the most influential players on the pitch. In 2002, the oft-underrated Nicky Butt did surprisingly well there, and in 2006 Owen Hargreaves put in the most assured performance of any England player. In 2010, however, England struggled without a midfield enforcer. Hargreaves, as per usual, had a long-term injury and was never going to make it, whereas Butt had retired. The one player Capello picked in his final squad that could realistically wear the tag of destroyer at all (albeit uncomfortably) was Gareth Barry. He started the tournament injured, and after a decent but unconvincing midfield display by Gerrard and Lampard in the centre against the USA, he returned to offer good performances against Algeria and Slovenia. Of course, this then fell apart in spectacular fashion against Germany, as their new star Mesut Oezil played high up the pitch between the lines and systematically ripped apart Barry’s poor positioning and lack of pace, aided by a pacey frontline and an extra man in midfield. Barry became one of a few individuals scapegoated, and it seems England are back at square one.
Recently, however, the man many people wanted to see in the World Cup squad, Scott Parker, recently excelled in a destroying role for England in the friendly against Wales. On top of a superb domestic season for West Ham, the Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year looked entirely at ease in the England midfield, controlling the play and breaking up attacks with elan. The difference in performance between Arsenal’s talented young midfield duo of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, playing against each other for the first time internationally, was stark. Ramsey, marked out of the game by Parker, dropped deeper and deeper in his frustration, whereas Wilshere completely outclassed his marker, Crofts, and put in an assured and impressive performance. This rather goes to show the importance of a pure ball-winner and their quality in football today.
So, this brings us back to the pressing question: who do England go with as their destroyer?
Pros: Some would argue England’s incumbent, Parker proved impressive in the meeting with Wales, and looked utterly at home playing internationally. A popular choice, Parker is also tactically flexible and is a much more complete midfielder than some of the others on this list. This is illustrated by his stats; although playing fairly deep, he has scored 7 goals (his team’s fourth highest scorer and only behind three strikers) as well as making the most blocks of any player in the Premier League with 30.
Cons: His age. Parker turns 31 in October, and some would prefer a young alternative to build for the future in a role that age does not look kindly upon.
However, every squad needs its grizzled veterans, and Parker will be only 31 for the upcoming Euros in 2012. Barring something major, he will still be in the running at least. Another accusation levelled against him is that, due to playing a much more all-action role for his club, he may not be disciplined enough to play the pure destroyer role for England, no matter how naturally suited he is to it.
However, whilst the graph to the right do indeed show the passes and positioning of an all-action box-to-box midfielder, it would be harsh on Parker to suggest he can only play like that. Good players can adapt their game to fit the system of the team, and Parker looked like he had done just that against Wales. He sat, recycled the ball and rarely looked to break forward, leaving the runs to be made by the more offensively-minded Wilshere and Frank Lampard. Whether he can keep this up for more internationals remains to be seen, of course, but it would be cruel to deny him the chance to prove the criticisms wrong.
Pros: Experienced campaigner with England. On top of that, he is versatile and a pretty complete midfielder.
Cons: Very slow, both physically and in terms of footballing reaction time. Whilst a good passer, he has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long, and it would be a fair argument to say that the ball-winning role is not his best one. Physically lacks speed and a little strength compared to the premier destroyers in world football.
Pros: In the 2006 World Cup he was arguably England’s best player. Strong, quick, versatile, with a good delivery and powerful shot, Hargreaves’ tireless running and tackling shielded his back four exceptionally well. Aged 30, he should now be entering his prime.
Cons: Injuries. He has made four appearances in the past three seasons combined, and a succession of long-term injuries have put paid to numerous comeback attempts. Whilst he (and England fans) remain hopeful of a return to football, the desperately unlucky Hargreaves may never play again. The tragic demise of Hargreaves’ playing career is a bitter blow considering his quality and perfect fit for this role.
Pros: Superb passer. Boasts good reading of the game, with excellent positioning. In his last four games alone he has made six interceptions, and has a 87% pass success rate compared to United’s average of 81%. (figures courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards and WhoScored)
Cons: Lacks the physique and tackling skill to be a pure destroyer. Also a little short on pace and work rate. There is little doubt that being a ball-winning midfielder is not his most effective role, but he has played alongside Paul Scholes (who, for all of his wonderful skills, is most definitely not a ball-winning midfielder) successfully this season, which may indicate there is more to him than meets the eye.
Pros: Perfectly suited for the task at hand, Cattermole is a tenacious and tireless midfield ball-winner. He is also young; at 23, he could be an England staple for the next decade.
Cons: A little too tenacious for some people’s liking. Cattermole’s disciplinary record is far from perfect, and he has developed a reputation for being sent off. Usually, his tackling is good, but on occasion the red mist seems to descend in the heat of battle and Cattermole has no qualms about leaving a mark.
Pros: Like Carrick, an excellent short and long-range passer. Unlike Carrick, he has the physique to play as a pure ball-winner, being both tall and strong. Also possesses a powerful long-range shot, and good tactical discipline, as well as being young at 24.
Cons: Possibly even slower than Barry, hence why Harry Redknapp has often paired him with a more mobile ball-winner such as Sandro or Wilson Palacios, and utilised him as a deep-lying playmaker instead. His tackling is also occasionally suspect.
Pros: One of England’s brightest young talents, Wilshere has broken into the Arsenal first team at the tender age of 19. Time is therefore definitely on his side, and he is a brilliant footballer. Used to a deep role alongside Alex Song in Arsenal’s midfield.
Cons: Not a ball-winner. He doesn’t have the physique or tackling skill to ever be a pure destroyer, and frankly his talent would be wasted just sitting in front of the defence anyway. He will almost certainly have a role to play in the England setup regardless.
Pros: Almost everything. He has the physical ability and the technical skills required, as well as being a versatile and fairly complete player. Aged just 20, he is another who could be a stalwart for over ten years.
Cons: There aren’t many, but it could be argued that he is a better centre-back than midfielder.
Pros: Undoubtedly a fairly talented player, Barton has had an excellent season with Newcastle. Has also adapted well to a new position out on the right flank, where he has displayed discipline and excellent crossing ability.
Cons: A truly horrendous disciplinary record, partially on but mostly off the pitch. Barton’s name has become a byword for a thuggish, vicious player, and it is doubtful that his presence would improve the dressing room.
Pros: A leftfield choice indeed. Reo-Coker is experienced yet young enough to warrant building for the future at 27. Mobile, aggressive, and with experience of leading both his club and country at U21 level, he is also a very good tackler, has a tremendous work rate and is quick around the field. Reo-Coker also has a good footballing brain, as well as being able to time late runs extremely well. Had a good season with Aston Villa after coming back into the fold under Gerard Houllier.
Cons: Hardly a star name, not that that matters, but his passing does leave something to be desired. However, he has learnt recently to be more disciplined and realise his weaknesses, and now rarely tries ambitious passes, leaving that job to the designated playmakers.
So, those are the likely candidates, though it remains to be seen who Capello will pick or indeed if he will play with a pure destroyer. There are other options, such as Fabrice Muamba or the talented young Blackburn utility player Phil Jones, but the list above represents the most likely picks. Parker looks the safest bet: he offers stability and an experienced head alongside Wilshere in England’s newly formed midfield, as well as being the most well-rounded of all the candidates.