Archive for July 24, 2006

Man for the Middle

Whatever Alex Ferguson has seen in Michael Carrick that makes him believe that he is the key to unlocking Chelsea’s domestic hegemony, clearly the prescription for his corrective lenses are weaker even that of Sven Goran Eriksson’s. If one were to embark on a self-flagellating (or, if one were not an England fan, simply mean-spirited) attempt to salvage England’s Titanic of a World Cup campaign, one could at least say that Eriksson realised that there was one player who needed to be thrown overboard before the waters lapped too high. That man was Michael Carrick who stood out in England’s midfield only because he played the straight man to Frank Lampard’s slapstick clown. But while as a double act they must have had all of England’s potential opponents clutching at their sides and with tears of delight dribbling down their cheeks, neither offered much to please the true football fan.

Carrick was tentative, unsure, and often absent, and that was in a five-man midfield, specially deployed to make use of the extra man to maintain possession in the midfield. With Manchester United favouring four-four-two, there will be more space, and as such, more responsibilities on the shoulders of the central midfielders. Unfortunately, more space would seem merely to indicate more room in which Mr Carrick will be able to absent himself from the match taking place around him. No, Ferguson is looking at the wrong world cup squad from which to bolster his ragtag midfield. It is not England, as anyone who understands that midfielders must be able to pass intelligently could tell you, but a country who has gone forgotten amid the furore surrounding the decline of Brazil, and the rise and fall of Zinedine Zidane. That midfield is the midfield of the only African team to make it into the second round; Ghana.

That Ghana lost to a fading Brazil team is not an indictment of the Ghanaians, but rather their defence and an outrageous decision by the assistant referee to allow the South Americans to score the second goal which effectively ended the game as a contest. Up until that point, the Ghanaians had been looking like the only team who ere going to score. Brazil were on the back foot, being thoroughly outpaced, muscled and thought by a quicker, stronger and more alert midfield unit. And this was a midfield playing without the player of the group stages, Michael Essien. Essien was suspended after picking up two yellow cards in his first three matches. But in those three matches, the man who has earned a reputation as a thug in his first season at Chelsea showed that, given the reigns of midfield, is worth every penny of the millions of pounds that were shelled out for him. Essien is likely to be joining Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench for most of next season; the arrival of Michael Ballack, who will surely join funny man Lampard and defensive specialist Claude Makelele on the list of untouchables, means that the Ghanaian may well be the odd one out.

Yet, if Manchester want to find a player to control that midfield, not in the way that Roy Keane did, but with more skill, pace and acumen, then surely Mr Essien is the man Ferguson requires. And if Essien is unavailable, then one of his colleagues from the national team, notably Udinese’s Sully Muntari or Fenerbahçe’s Stephen Appiah. Mention has been made in recent times of Ferguson losing the plot in spectacular fashion. By passing on this trio in favour of underperforming Mr Carrick,  it does seem that these accusations may not be without foundation