Who will play the holding role?
By Graham Lockwood.
One of the most asked questions at the moment regarding Fabio Capello’s 23 man world cup squad is ‘will Gareth Barry be fit?’ If he is, he will be in the squad and presumably play as a ‘holding midfielder’. If he is not, we ask the slightly over asked question ‘can Gerard and Lampard both play in the centre of midfield?’ Assuming the answer to that is still ‘no’ we then ask ‘who will play alongside Lampard (assuming Gerard plays on the left) in the holding role?’
If Barry misses out, the options at the moment are Michael Carrick, James Milner, Scott Parker and Tom Huddlestone. For me, James Milner is not a ‘holding midfielder’. I like using stats to back up claims; however they are by no means the definitive answer and can be very mis-leading at times. Let’s take a very simplistic view. Presumably, compared to an attacking midfielder, a holding midfielder should make more (successful) tackles, take fewer shots, score fewer goals and possibly record a lower number of assists. Statistics over the last premier league season according to thetelegraph.co.uk show that James Milner made 2.6 tackles per game compared to 3.7 from Tom Huddlestone and 3.3 for Scott Parker and Gareth Barry. Michael Carrick put in only 2.3 tackles a game. However Milner and Barry came out on top of the tackles won ratio. James Milner shot on average 1.3 times a game compared to one shot a game from Scott Parker. Tom Huddlestone completed 1.4 per game. Out of this group of players, James Milner was top of the goal scoring and assists charts. So with a simplistic view, James Milner is not really a holding midfielder compared to the others.
However there is a lot more to football than statistics and particularly just these statistics mentioned. For a holding midfielder we would need to look at interceptions made, accuracy of short and long passes, fouls committed and many more that Capello will presumably have access to. One reason Michael Carrick may put in less tackles per game is because of the team he plays for. A team who like to hold on to the ball therefore giving him less chance to make tackles. Is Tom Huddlestone’s greater ‘shots per game’ ratio down to him taking free kicks within shooting range? Or is it because he leaves his defensive role and ventures forward too often? Or just his shooting ability and confidence meaning he takes more long range shots. What Capello will surely have done is watched each player play in their respective positions for their respective clubs and decide which one will fit in to his playing formation and style at the world cup.
For me it depends on what type of ‘holding midfielder’ Capello wants. Barry is clearly his first choice, he offers stability, a cool head, a good short range passer and generally a no thrills central midfielder. He will do the tidying up and let the more creative players do the ‘headline’ work. He is not particularly a hard man but I don’t think that is needed at international level. His tackle success ratio is good and we don’t need anyone getting reckless red or yellow cards. He fits in to the category of midfielders who can quietly win you a world cup. If he is good enough will have to wait to be seen.
So to James Milner, there is no questioning his energy levels and his desire. But this is in complete contrast to the role Barry would play. His tackle’s won ratio is good but this is one stat. He clearly likes getting forward and ‘creating’ rather than standing back and ‘breaking up’. Michael Carrick and Tom Huddlestone are more in the Barry mould. For me, Huddlestone has more about him than Carrick. Carrick is still living on his reputation from a West Ham youngster but is still yet to show any signs of the full potential he once had being reached. The debate between these two would open up a new argument. If Carrick was picked, is he at the perfect condition having not played as much as the others or is he not ready for a world cup after not being a regular part of his club team. Carrick has actually played in more games this season than Huddlestone.
Only the men in charge can make that final decision as they are the ones who see the players every day and will spot any signs of obvious fatigue. For me, Carrick can have great games but is more often than not exposed as a defensive midfielder. Huddlestone could be that Xtra factor if Barry doesn’t make it – something different that other international managers wouldn’t know as much about. We are still waiting for Scott Parker to become the player he threatened to be at Charlton. Did he ever get a good enough chance at Chelsea or was he just not good enough we will never quite know for sure but I don’t think he is good enough for a world cup starting role. Should he be in the 23? Maybe, but only as cover.
So finally, two options. Firstly we look at Gerard and Lampard with two out and out wingers. Find a world cup winning team with no defensive midfielders in the starting 11 and you could only start to tempt people to dig up this old argument. At international level, no matter how good a team is on the attack, and no matter how good a team is defensively you can not allow opposition direct access to the back four. Even the great Brazilian teams usually have a player who sits in front of the back four and protects. Secondly, 3-5-2? On a tactical board, it has the makings of a successful formation (assuming you are playing against 4-4-2). Three centre backs against two centre forwards, two marking one spare. The wing backs mark the opposition wingers and then look to get forward. The three centre midfielders out number the opposition’s two. The front two play as normal against a back four. It gets criticized as being defensive and if the opposition full backs get forward the wing backs become exposed. I think it can be said with some confidence that Fabio Capello wants and probably needs Gareth Barry to be fit.
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