There was real cause for concern last night as England attempted to get to grips with a fluid and malevolent Mexican side. In the first half, the Mexican’s strode through England without consequence, interchanged with incredible efficiency and at times used space so effectively they almost gave the impression that an extra North American had taken to the Wembley pitch. It was unnerving at times. If Mexico had been blessed with slightly more technically gifted players it could have been a resounding embarrassment.
Well, as is commonplace in the aftermath of a worrisome England performance, a scapegoat is required to be found and marched to the stockade. Today, it’s Michael Carrick. Granted, the Manchester United midfielder didn’t have a good game, in fact, he hasn’t had a good season by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a bigger fault at work that undermined his own performance. The fact is, Fabio Capello got it pretty wrong in the first half.
The Italian positioned James Milner in the centre and Steven Gerrard. Gerrard, unsurprisingly, instinctively cut in-field, forcing Wayne Rooney to cover the left wing. Mexico, in response, were then able push a central defender into midfield to tip the balance their way. By flooding the midfield and maintaining a high defensive line Mexico were able to dominate England in terms of possession.
When England did manage to launch an attack, the defender that had stepped up simply slotted back into the back four. England were comparatively naïve and frustratingly inflexible. Had the Mexican’s fitness not deteriorated the quality and frequency of their interchanges in the second half; had they not been so futilely useless at marking from set-pieces; and had Capello not righted his error before notable damage was done, England could have had real problems.
Carrick’s performance then shouldn’t be seen in isolation. Actually, it’s best not to contemplate what he can offer the England team by focusing on this single game.
What Carrick does well is often what goes unnoticed. He will never slide in with a rough tackle or pick out a 30 yard ball to Rooney in behind the defence. He’ll never sell millions of copies of Heat magazine with his mug and he’ll never invent a cure for cancer. It’s almost cliché: he does the mundane and he does it well. He’s well disciplined. He’s positionally spot-on. He plays simple passes. He allows other midfielders the freedom to get forward without worrying about defensive duties.
Defensive midfielders are an elusive and ever dwindling group in the England camp too. Take Gareth Barry, for example (assuming he will recover from injury). Barry is a more assured passer than Carrick. But Barry lacks a real defensive mindset; he often likes to get forward. His last season at Aston Villa demonstrated how terrific he is in a central creative role. It is that that attracted Rafael Benitez’s interest as rumours circulated around Xabi Alonso’s future at Liverpool. Since his arrival at City, he has certainly played a deeper role but not necessarily a more defensive one. At City, he stimulates the play and links the defence with the attack.
England, a team with a vast amount of creativity on the field, will need a defensive anchor. In order for the best to be yielded from Rooney, Walcott, Lennon, Gerrard, Lampard, Milner and the like, they need to be confident that their absence further back isn’t going to cause problems. And currently, there are only three real options to secure against these insecurities to cause havoc. One of them is injured. Another one of them has relatively little experience at this level.
Not taking Carrick on the plane to South Africa is like a boxer discarding his gum-shield.
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