Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two cents on England's midfield versus Denmark

Here is a maelstrom of thoughts on the tactical component of England's midfield set-up versus Denmark in Copenhagen.

Leading up to the game there was much discussion surrounding 19-year old Jack Wilshere and specifically Fabio Capello's pronouncements on the Arsenal man playing a deep-lying role. Perhaps the waters were muddied by Capello's allusions to Claude Makélélé and his eponymous role. The Guardian's Paul Hawyard, for instance, prompted an intriguing debate by questioning whether a holding role would "shackle" Wilshere

Amidst all this, I thought it might be timely to delve into some of the points raised in that ensuing debate and try to seperate hot air, as I see it, from substance.

The notion of a player having "natural position" or being "played out of position" is constantly levelled at coaches who make anything from radical alterations to slight adjustments. Such a view can also be needlessly restrictive, after all, many players can perform in more than one recogniseable position without significantly altering their role or much less subverting their innate qualities.

For instance, is Lionel Messi necessarily shackled when varyingly being started at outside-right in one game and false centre-forward in the next? Is there a noticeable rise or dip in his performance? Does his natural game suffer?

This, I must qualify, is not to be equated with those reliably versatile players, those jacks of all trades who often appear to exude seven-out-of-ten in every category yet nine-out-of-ten in no particular one (which still, let it be said, amounts to what are demonstrably good players).

So often do we overlook that positions and roles are not fixed, sovereign coordinates but rather colourings detectable on a vast spectrum, one position invariably bleeding into another. In the above example of Messi, the player will obviously benefit from a certain degree of freedom to displace himself to those areas and towards those players with whom he feels most comfortable. The day some benighted tactician plays Messi as a central midfielder or at left-wing back, these logical leaps will doubtless induce us to decry such abuse of a player's faculties.

Even the most fervent tactical chartspotter will suffer fatigue when attempting to pinpoint a player's fixed position along the spectrum; akin to attempting to define a precise shade of blue. Yet in the face of such an engulfing reality, reactions range from weary to forensic. The late Gianni Brera for instance bequeathed the Italian language an impressive lexicon of tactical terms and definitions for various positions in football. This legacy was not confined to a sports-media chateratti but permeated down to the popular classes and their vernacular. Which may explain why Capello with his holding forth on "the Makelele role" probably thought he was merely using verbal shorthand or engaging in casual bar-talk, not exhaustive nit-picking.

One theme which cropped up in discussion of Wilshere's role was the promotion of 'versatility'.
Towards that strand of footballers who are praised for their consistently even performances across a variety of positions, we are usually more accepting of their temporary displacement and even the resultant discretion of their performances. It is as if their natural game didn't seem eye-catching enough to warrant attention in the first place or to be missed thereafter. They are "doing a job", as the parlance goes. Maybe they could be doing a better job elsewhere but this doesn't nag at our conscience nor is our sense of there being some harmony in the footballing cosmos disturbed.

Nonetheless, let's examine this custom in its other manifestations; what if the fruits of this job-doing are the shackling of a player whose plenitude is blatantly being curtailed ? His versatility becomes a personal degradation and a collective atrophy since the benefits of his natural 'specialised' game we can't bear to go without.

Bringing this back to England and Wilshere inio the context of that Denmark game, it is difficult to discern what Wilshere's role was or, for that matter, what it was intended to be. Was he simply to share duties with Frank Lampard, as one of two indistinguishable parts? Would this be tantamount to overlooking their quite different qualities?

The Chelsea man's movement is locomotive and his instinct objective, whereas the Arsenal tyro is more elusive and imaginative respectively. Lampard is associated with conclusion where Wilshere's game is more conducive to progression. And if they were intended to be a central duo, what office were they entrusted to share, caution or enterprise? The emphasis could have been towards sitting-back but equally getting forward as often as possible might have been the priority. We are told by those advocates of yoking box-to-box midfielders in pairs that the players themselves will sort it out and come to an understanding. Yet there might be recrimination if the sum of the two players is a pale diminishment of their seperate contributions from when they were both individual parts.

Furthermore, Arsène Wenger's assertion that he sees Wilshere as "more of a box-to-box player" is probably attested to by heat maps, but surely it also ought to be qualified by the admission that he is very much a box-to-box playmaker, whereas Lampard (closer to the steamrolling Bryan Robson archetype) is patently not.

Once again, the contentious question of what constitutes a holding midfielder rears its head. To some, the omnipresence of this term in football-related conversation is an irritant. I can't help but think that here language and culture come into play. For many pundits in the Anglophone world, the term has become synonymous with "destruction" and "defensiveness". But is this necessarily the case?

Not so with Spanish for example, where the term mediocentro - literally, 'centre-half' -is the stock phrase that survives into the present day and describes all kinds of central and holding midfielder to the point where there is no distinction between the two. A central midfielder is a player who holds. The degree to which a holding midfielder's particular qualities render his role more or less destructive/creative is as varied as the gamut of players themselves to whom the term is typically applied: Xabi Alonso, Nigel de Jong, Andrea Pirlo and Gilberto Silva are but some of the players usually denominated "mediocentros". This habit is indicative of a common denominator: these players try to stay behind the line of play relative to the ball either as an obstacle or as a reference (a rallying point from where attacks can be recycled again). Ironically, this is a maxim that has been articulated by John Giles, someone who is openly scathing of what he considers to be a senseless veneration of the holding midfielder (though it is not unreasonable to presume that Giles' wrath has been stoked by the preponderance of those holding players who are overtly defensive and lack creative faculties).

It could well be that Fabio Capello envisages Wilshere as a holding midfielder, but certainly the mere presence of another player (any player) accompanying him will entail some licence for Wilshere to venture forward. This is by no means an uncommon arrangement elsewhere. In the classic Spanish double-pivot typified by Valencia between 2000 and 2004, David Albelda was an overtly defensive component whilst Rubén Baraja, though dutifully exercising positional caution, was more of a box-to-box all-rounder. More recently, and perhaps more comparable to England and Wilshere in terms of creativity, is the example of Villarreal and Borja Valero who was redeployed from a more advanced position to partner Bruno Soriano in central midfield, with Bruno clearly more inclined to screen the defence. We could even go back to Cesc Fàbregas' early career at Arsenal when he was occassionally paired with Gilberto Silva or later Mathieu Flamini. Then again, all this could prove to be conjecture were it to emerge that Capello is anticipating a lone holding role for Wilshere in the Pirlo fashion. It would follow that Wilshere would then be England's deepest-lying midfielder, but the knock-on effects are such that Capello would have to consider placing two enforcers in the mould of Gattuso and Ambrosini ahead of the young creator, as did Ancelotti with Pirlo.

One certainty that did transpire in the Copenhagen friendly, was that whatever the doubts surrounding Lampard, Wilshere's deployment in a relatively deep role did bring clarity and fluidity to an area in which England have been orphaned for what must seem like forever. How refreshing it was to see an England goalkeeper and his centre-backs offered a reliable option for the releasing of a first ball out of defence and which wasn't the full-backs spreading to receive, all the while knowing that Wilshere not only served as an outlet to relieve pressure from the press of opposing forwards, but could also subsequently distribute the ball in a manner that was neither overambitious nor bureaucratic.

As regards Lampard and Wilshere in a central pairing, the suspicion abounds that as holding players go they are perfunctory exponents and that both need the company of a specialist to liberate them. But is either man happy to be that safety net to the other for certain passages of play?

Michael Cox of observes that Germany's Basti Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira formed a well-rounded partnership at the 2010 World Cup that somewhat surprised people given Schweinsteiger's more wide-midfield attacking origins. Even more interesting was Schweinsteiger's willingness to sit in midfield and Khedira'a occassional attacking incursions. However, a moot point is whether Germany's midfield stability and fluidity would be adversely alterted were the attacking liberties in the equation to fall 70:30 in Khedira's favour. Paradoxically, Khedira's incorporations into the attack are so dangerous precisely because of their comparative rarity when held against those of Schweinsteiger, in that they are less predictable. With Lampard and Wilshere however, neither is as naturally inclined to screen a defence as is Khedira, which leads me to the following conclusion.

Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere can reign in their dissimilar progressive instincts to play as auxiliary holding midfielders - but not to one another. There is a case to be made for the inclusion of a dedicated holding player of any variety (destructive or creative as the circumstances of each game dicate) - a trio then being formed, enabling both Lampard and Wilshere to more fully exude their respective games without concern for adulteration.

This does raise the question of where Gerrard (among others) would then play - but we've been down this weary road before.


  1. I agree with your conclusion, and ultimately I think right now Barry is the closest England has to a "volante de contencion." But did the Hargreaves-Lampard-Gerrard triangle at WC 2006 really light the world on fire?

    I feel that the intuition necessary for a 2 person center midfield is not the strong suit of the current England crop, as evidenced by Wilshere playing with Song and Lampard playing with Essien.

  2. Elliott,

    my main beef with the Hargreaves-Lampard-Gerrard triangle is that there you had three midfield berths and not one went to a playmaking figure, instead we saw one destroyer backing two all-rounded dynamos.

    Even if Gerrard and Lampard were unshiftable, I would have placed a pensive holding midfielder (of Carrick's ilk) to replace Hargreaves. I know this might be a chronological mess (Carrick wasn't so established back then) but you get my point...

  3. Roberticus,

    I get your point and Carrick has always been the ugly duckling of the England midfield - somewhat odd considering that club midfield tandems (such as him and Hargo back in the day) tend to lead their national teams to glory (Gattuo and Pirlo 06, Busquest Xavi and Iniesta 10).

    I think a more balanced triangle for today would be Barry-Carrick-Wilshere, with ball winning passing and early/late runs. However, I think Capello has been seduced by the kick & rush EPL, so Carrick's place in the squad is a longshot.

    Come to think of it, Capello going to England reminds me of when the American defender Gooch Onyewu went to AC Milan - everybody expects Italian intelligence to meld tactics into the Anglo Saxon athleticism, yet, yet, yet...

  4. Robert,

    Obrigado pelo incentivo.

    Sobre Piacenza:

    O padrão do norte da Itália é mais elevado que em Piacenza. A burocracia aqui não chega a ser pior, mas também não é melhor de Parma ou outras cidades do mesmo porte. Piacenza é um grande vilarejo. Há tempos não necessito de serviços prestados pelos órgãos públicos como a Questura ou o Registro Civil e não saberia lhe dar informações.

    Mesmo sendo uma cidade menor, o custo de vida em Piacenza é relativamente alto, com aluguéis altos no centro e nos bairros mais procurados. Ser estrangeiro em uma cidade menor é mais difícil, mas o piacentino se abre quando percebe que o interlocutor é boa pessoa.

    Se desejar maiores informações, não hesite em solicitar. :)


  5. What do you think of Lucas (da Silva) Roberticus? Likely to break into the team before the end of the Copa America?

  6. We should play a midfield 3 of Muamba, Henderson and Rodwell.

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  11. In England team they have so many good midfielder. They played very well. They are well known midfielder.