Joe Cole’s move to Liverpool was one of the more exciting summer transfers. Initially expected to join a club offering Champions League football he opted for a side he depicted as ‘the biggest in the country.’ His arrival was a timely boost for the fans, team-mates and the manager. Roy Hodgson certainly has faith in the England international, handing him a four year deal and the coveted No10 shirt. He wore the same jersey at Chelsea but it has renewed symbolism for the West Ham academy graduate. Traditionally it is the shirt adopted by a team’s central playmaker, the creator who can unlock defences and support strikers and wide men through incisive passing. It remains his favoured position but will he flourish in this crucial role?
It is not a sentiment shared by Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti who upon signing former Liverpool player Yossi Benayoun said, “Tactically Yossi is better. He understands what I tell him.” Fellow Italian Fabio Capello additionally had little fiath in deploying Cole as a playmaker or second striker at the World Cup. It is, however, an ambiguous position with a contested definition. The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson has attempted to explain the background of this position and believes it has returned to prominence because of the widely used 4-2-3-1 system employed in South Africa. Mesut Ozil, Xavi and Wesley Sneijder all played in this role, acting as a creator in a line of three behind a main striker. In recent times it has been a position cultivated by the likes of Riquelme, Maradona, Gullit, Zidane, Mancini and Zola.
It is agreed that the No10 provides the link between defence and attack. A player embued with this sizeable task must have specific characteristics. Contributing with goals is welcome but it is pivotal to use skill, dribbling and inventive passing when supplying the forwards and wingers. The creative hub of the team cannot merely rely on skill and technique as spatial awareness, the ability to keep possession and wait before supplying that surprise pass, is essential. It is a role associated with flair and artistry and is often viewed as a luxury which many clubs cannot afford. Yet it is the job envisaged for Cole and one endorsed by Steven Gerrard who has shifted to a deeper midfield role to accommodate him.
The Liverpool and England captain has no doubts over Cole’s creative abilities comparing him to Lionel Messi. At Chelsea he was invariably played on the wing where he could exhibit his skills but was not the quickest. But how has he fared in his preferred position? Most pundits are united in the view that that he could not have got off to a worse start at Anfield. He was sent off on his league debut after a reckless lunge on Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny. It was a clumsy challenge typical of a player eager to impress and assert his authority on the game. Whilst on the pitch his movement behind David N’Gog was too static against a high Arsenal defensive line. He failed to unsettle their defence or find space to receive the ball and then locate a forward pass.
Against Trabzonspor in the Europa League last week the No10 missed a penalty, the first he had taken in his professional career. Away from the spot he was periodically frustrated, dropping ever deeper to receive the ball from Lucas Lavier and Christian Poulsen thereby stretching the midfield and forward lines. There were glimpses of his creative, attacking play as he spun away from the defence and assisted Ryan Babel with a beautifully weighted ball which the Dutchman calmly dispatched. The focus will be on Cole again for the away leg tonight in the absence of Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Milan Jovanovic. The anxiety to impress has suppressed Cole at Liverpool so far. It may take time to relearn this difficult position before he can prove Ancelotti wrong.
Follow this writer on Twitter