For all of the problems that people have brought up with respect to the England national team, many seem to ignore the fact that England has solutions to some of their on-pitch problems on hand. One of those solutions is a player the national team has underutilized for too long: Michael Carrick.

Englandai??i??s Central Midfield: Talent ai??i?? Fit

Englandai??i??s problem in the center of midfield has been an issue for quite a while now. Right now, Englandai??i??s central midfield is a trio of Jack Wilshere, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard (though, if Sturridgeai??i??s performances for Liverpool force Hodgson to pick him, then Wilshere would probably be dropped for Wayne Rooney). None of these players are natural at playing the role of the deepest midfielder, nor have any shown a real ability to adapt to the role.

Jack Wilshere likes to drive forward from No. 8-type positions to launch attacks, and defensively, he relies heavily on energy and tackling, rather than tactical awareness and an ability to read the game, which is fine for a more advanced midfield position, but makes him ill-suited for the deepest midfield position. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have much more reserved styles that allow them to mesh better than in years past, but they still lack defensive awareness and no longer have the athleticism to have the chance to track the play from behind. And, despite becoming more reserved in their style of play, both still play their best when they are allowed positional freedom. These characteristics of their play can place them too high up the pitch, leaving the back line quite exposed and vulnerable to players who enjoy playing between the back line and deepest midfield line.

When England are in possession, these playersai??i?? value to the side comes from their ability to do something special. Wilshere could make a mazy run to put pressure on the defense. Steven Gerrard could hit a screamer that gets England a goal out of nowhere. Frank Lampard could hit a phenomenal diagonal ball to a wide player in acres of space to launch an attack or arrive late in the box to score a goal. However, none of those players are skilled at dictating tempo and retaining possession. They are not the type of players who can both speed a game up or slow a game down when needed. And a midfield controller is something England have needed for some time.

Paul Scholes: A Past Solution of the Form bi

I would argue that Paul Scholes retirement from international football represented the biggest blow to Englandai??i??s ability to solve their central midfield issues in these last five seasons. During Euro 2004, Sven-Goran Eriksson had shunted Paul Scholes, the greatest English player of his generation, to the left side of midfield to play a 4-4-2. He was the player that English fans were fine to sacrifice in order to play Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the center of midfield, David Beckham wide on the right, and a striking duo of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, and, at the time, Paul Scholes was still an all-action attack-minded midfielder who may not have fit well into a deep-lying role for England, at that point in his career (would a midfield diamond of Owen Hargreaves, Lampard, Gerrard, and Scholes, with Beckham on the right and only one striker up top, have been that bad of an idea, though?).

Fast forward to World Cup 2010 where, after Englandai??i??s 1-1 draw with the United States, Fabio Capello placed Gareth Barry into the starting XI and stuck with the 4-4-2. While Barry offered more defensive cover than Steven Gerrard centrally, England suffered greatly to retain the possession and dictate tempo. Ultimately, their inability to play with the ball and the lack of numbers in midfield, led to their annihilation against Germany. Had Paul Scholes been available, he would have slotted into the center of midfield behind Lampard and Gerrard. By this time, Paul Scholes had undergone his transition from the energetic all-action midfielder, to a role more akin to a regista. Not only would it have given England a third man in the center of midfield, but it would have also given England that special player who can dictate tempo and significantly increase a sideai??i??s ability to maintain possession. Just imagine a more mobile (and more card-prone) Andrea Pirlo, at the back of Englandai??i??s midfield. But as we know, the opportunity to utilize Scholes to solve Englandai??i??s midfield issue was not on the table. However, unlike some of the past few England squads, this iteration has a real solution to their midfield issues.

Michael Carrick: Possibly a Lesser Talent, Certainly a Better Fit

Now, England have had an opportunity to use Michael Carrick as the deepest-lying midfielder in the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships, but opted for the more physical, tough tackling options of Gareth Barry and Scott Parker. Without context, there is nothing wrong with wanting to play a physical, tough tackling midfielder. However, given the needs of the past few England sides, in particular the need to compensate for the deficiencies of its other midfielders, England should have turned to Michael Carrick rather than going with the more ai???Englishai??? option. If ever there was one decision that could serve as an indictment of the ai???Englishai??? mentality about football, then it would be choosing Parker over Carrick, as they ultimately chose brawn over brains.

Michael Carrick, despite playing in a similar area to late-career Paul Scholes, goes about it in a different way to the Manchester United great. As described above, late-career Scholes was much like Andrea Pirlo. Playing in the regista position, Scholes played the role of controller and playmaker, utilizing a mix of short and long passes from a deep-lying midfield position, while sitting in front of the back line. Michael Carrick operates much more like Sergio Busquets or Xavi Hernandez than Paul Scholes or Andrea Pirlo. Carrick relies on tactical discipline and awareness to put himself in the position to prevent passes, by taking away a potential passing lane. When a pass is made, he looks to intercept the ball rather than going to ground to win the ball. While Paul Scholesai??i?? and Andrea Pirloai??i??s passing breakdowns show a mix of long and short, Carrickai??i??s passing breakdown shows a much greater preference for shorter passing. He uses his passing and movement to set the tempo of the side and get the ball to his teammates in good positions to make plays. For that recitation of his ability, Arsene Wengerai??i??s statement about Carrick being able to play for Barcelona makes complete sense. Those abilities have made him one of the most valuable players, if not the most valuable, for Manchester United, over the past three seasons. Carrick is the heartbeat of the side, and he can do the same for England.

Like Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes uses both long range and short range passing. Passing data from Squawka

Like Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes uses both long range and short range passing. Passing data from Squawka

Michael Carrick favors short passing much more than Scholes. Passing data from Squawka

Michael Carrick favors short passing much more than Scholes. Passing data from Squawka

 

Putting Michael Carrick into the England midfield would give England a midfield who could occupy the space in between the back line and the midfield. This makes the side less vulnerable to those players that thrive playing ai???in the hole.ai??? Carrickai??i??s ability to win back possession by intercepting rather than tackling, allows him to more efficiently transition England from defense to attack. This ability to transition quickly could prove pivotal in matches where England look to hit their opponents on the counter-attack. His positioning and commitment to protecting the back line will give Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard more freedom in their midfield positions and decrease the costs of the deficiencies in their games. While he does lack pace, his positioning and discipline should keep him in the proper position to maintain Englandai??i??s defensive base, while still controlling Englandai??i??s possession with his short passing. Ai??And most likely, given the slower pace of international football, Carrickai??i??s lack of pace is much more of an issue for Manchester United than England.

Formation with Wilshere, Lampard, and Gerrard that leaves the England back line with little cover, and whatever little being rather inadequate

Formation with Wilshere, Lampard, and Gerrard that leaves the England back line with little cover, and whatever little being rather inadequate

Carrick gives the back line an interceptor who can protect them and creates a diamond in the center of midfield as Wayne Rooney is wont to drop deep from his center forward position

Carrick gives the back line an interceptor who can protect them and creates a diamond in the center of midfield as Wayne Rooney is wont to drop deep from his center forward position

On the ball, Carrick can serve as Englandai??i??s metronome, making sure they play at the speed that suits the situation. His passing and movement into positions to receive the ball should help England retain possession. This element should not be underrated as England, in this set-up, will have three midfielders in their 30s so limiting the amount of chasing they need to do will go a long way in limiting fatigue. This ability to retain possession also limits Englandai??i??s ability to get caught on the break and helps establish and maintain their rhythm in possession. While this may have less value in the knockout rounds, if they even make it that far, it could prove vital in killing games against weaker trailing sides in the group stage. His technical abilities will also make English counter attacks more potent, as the chances of a poor pass killing an attacking move decrease with Carrick in the side.

The one major criticism of Michael Carrickai??i??s play is that he does not deal well with hard pressing sides. For Manchester United, in the Champions League, against Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, this can be a serious issue. However, in international football, teams play at a much slower pace and very few teams have a hard pressing system. With the lack of familiarity and training time, when it comes to international side, it is difficult to introduce and teach a pressing system. Also, with the World Cup coming after the end of many domestic leagues and with the competitionai??i??s compact fixture list, sides often lack the fitness necessary to successfully press. Even if the plan is to focus on pressing in one or two matches, the amount of time to get the system right often presents too great of an opportunity cost, as sides need to work on aspects of their game that will be used throughout the tournament (though Brazilai??i??s pressing of Spain in the Confederations Cup Final would demonstrate a side not seeing it as too high of an opportunity cost). So, unless England wind up playing Chile (please qualify for the World Cup) or find themselves in an important enough knockout round match, to properly incentivize their opponents to press, they should be fine (and if itai??i??s the latter, then England probably outperformed expectations anyway).

A Final Thought

Many in the media say that England needs to change what they value in a footballer in order to catch up to the rest of the world. To me, starting Michael Carrick would be a much needed sign that they are willing and able to do that.

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