Gareth Barry has until Tuesday to prove his fitness to Fabio Capello and secure a place in the England squad for the World Cup. Meanwhile, his teammates have been doing their best to state Barry’s case for selection even while his ankle injury continues to put his participation in the group stage in doubt. England might have won their final two warm-up games for South Africa, but Barry’s absence has been keenly felt in both. The midfield imbalance that plagued the national side during the years prior to Capello’s appointment has been granted an unwelcome return.
Those who have played in Barry’s stead have not acquitted themselves well. Michael Carrick and James Milner failed to impress against Mexico in the middle of the pitch. The former was let down by his passing, while the anonymity of the latter’s performance was denoted by the fact possession was very rarely his to give away. Tom Huddlestone started alongside Frank Lampard in Graz, against Japan. England benefitted from two late own goals to secure a 2-1 victory, but Huddlestone was off the pitch by then. Another possible Barry understudy, West Ham’s Scott Parker, did not play at all in either game.
As is commonly acknowledged, the blossoming of Barry as an international midfielder under Capello has benefitted Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard too. With Barry the withdrawn midfielder, Gerrard and Lampard are free to get forward. The Liverpool captain starts on the left wing when Barry and Lampard occupy the central berths in a midfield four, but again this benefits the balance of the side. Gerrard’s natural instinct is to move infield from the left, permitting Ashley Cole to overlap from full back.
In the Mexico game, when Ashley Cole and Barry were both absent, we saw Leighton Baines move forward into the space vacated by the roaming Gerrard. However, Barry’s defensive awareness was missed, with Carrick and Milner at fault, and the away side overwhelmed England’s back four in the first half. As if affronted by the way England were being overrun in midfield, Gerrard swapped positions with Milner and took up a central role instead.
England looked better with Joe Cole supporting Wayne Rooney in the second half against Japan, but prior to Sunday’s match there was already a groundswell of opinion in favour of England altering their midfield system in anticipation of Barry’s unavailability. Both David Moyes and Terry Butcher advocated change in the weekend’s papers, with the former plumping for 4-3-3 in the Sunday Times and the latter suggesting 4-1-4-1 in his column in the Mirror. These systems can actually be quite similar, given that the shape of both depends on how far the wingers push up. Nonetheless, the eagerness for an extra man in midfield, accommodated by doing without a strike partner for Rooney, has come about because of Barry’s absence. Without him, England suddenly look insecure in midfield. Safety in numbers could be an essential tactic for the knockout stages of the World Cup.
When David Beckham’s metatarsal became the world’s most famous broken bone in 2002, the Sun converted its front page into a prayer mat. It urged worried fans to call upon a higher power, to will the England captain back to fitness for the World Cup. A crass ploy, of course, but an understandable one within the context of tabloid journalism. There is little likelihood of the Sun reviving their tactic of 2002 this summer in a bid to help Barry’s ankle get better, but the Manchester City midfielder is arguably as important to England’s chances in South Africa as Beckham was in the Far East eight years ago.