At the heart of most great sides of the last years has been a tough tackling defensively minded midfielder, sadly with Owen Hargreaves blighted by a knee injury in recent years, the English national side seems to lack one.
There was a time when England had an abundance of holding men, Dennis Wise would break things up and lay off the ball to his technically better teammates, David Batty too was effective in this position and so too was Paul Ince as he got older and became less able to bomb forward, and in the 2002 World Cup Nicky Butt was probably our most consistent performer. Even in 1966, the national side and Bobby Charlton in particular relied on club team mate Nobby Stiles to do all of his donkey work, which he did brilliantly it has to be said.
It does all make you wonder then, other than Hargreaves, why is there nobody sniping away at his heels so to speak for the role of English midfield enforcer?
Owen Hargreaves is an excellent exponent of this position and he carried out this role to great effect during his latter days at German giants Bayern Munich before his knees became knackered at Utd.
The national side are simply crying out for a player with a bit of bite in the tackle and that’s why Hargreaves’ absence is being so sorely and keenly felt. In my humble opinion at least, Hargreaves is a player whose reputation has skyrocketed in his absence rather than anything he’s done on the pitch, but a fit and on form one would still comfortably walk into the England and Man Utd side, which does in itself show how rare a player of his calibre in his position is.
England’s central midfield options ahead of the World Cup look to be Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry with Michael Carrick, Steven Gerrard and James Milner all able deputies in the position. The Gerrard of old was a tenacious and spirited tackler but the way he ambles about the pitch now, barely breaking a sweat unless his side have the ball shows how far he’s developed his game and how far he’s been pushed forward in recent years, to the extent that he rarely backtracks behind the halfway line.
Lampard for all his dynamic and excellently timed runs into the box cannot tackle for love nor money and whilst Barry is there to shield the defence going from side to side, he’s a competent tackler at best but is still a tad too slow to ‘get up em’. Carrick continues to frustrate with his best Ray Wilkins impression and ponderous play and Milner’s all action style does mean he gets in the thick of it but lacks the tenacity to crunch someone.
Its sods law really, for years we’ve argued that we’ve been hindered by being technically inept compared to our continental counterparts, all whilst still being full of spirit and bite, but for once, we actually have a midfield capable of playing the ball around nicely on the deck, and here I am moaning about our lack of bite. You can’t win them all it would seem.
Look across all the great club sides in the world and they’re success is based on someone in this position. Makelele at Chelsea, who contrary to popular belief was not the first to coin this role, former Barca manager Frank Rijkaard did it brilliantly at Milan, Fernando Redondo and Flavio Concecaio at Real Madrid along with Makelele, Roy Keane at Utd in their dominant 90s side, and on the international stage who could forget ‘the water carrier’ Didier Deschamps and current Brazil coach Dunga. These are just a few examples, but you get the gist.
The only alternatives I can really see available in the Premiership are Lee Cattermole and Scott Parker, and perhaps at a push Tom Huddlestone. Cattermole is injury prone but is a pit-bull waiting to be let off the leash and would provide a nice option off the bench, if in form, to help close games off and put the opposition under pressure. Parker would be my favourite for the role with his tenacity and ability to play the ball a key component of his West Ham side, alongside the equally combative Mark Noble and I’d love to see him make a late play for the squad despite it being an outside shot at best.
Tom Huddlestone lest we forget forged his reputation at Derby county as a youngster as an able centre half and right back, so he’s obviously got it in his locker. He too is a great passer of the ball with a hammer of a shot, but his lack of mobility is what hampers him most and unless someone is in his five meter radius, chances are that they’ll glide past him with consummate ease.
Look around the favourites for the World Cup and they all have someone capable of fulfilling the role. Spain have Senna and Busquets, Brazil have Melo, Gilberto Silva, Ramires and don’t laugh, Lucas. Italy have Gattuso, De Rossi and Palombo, France have the two Diarra’s, Mavuba, Vieira and Moussa Sissoko .Germany have got Ballack, Trasch and Khedira in their ranks and Argentina have the talents of Mascherano and Fernando Gago to fall back on, so it’s clear that from our main rivals for the trophy, every other national manager is thinking the same thing. Unfortunately for Capello, he looks like being the first English manager in a long time that won’t be able to call on the most English of midfielders, the battler.
Will we miss Hargreaves against the best sides in the World Cup? Should Capello take one of the players mentioned above as an option for the bench?