Euro 2012 — on France, Carrick and Spain
The upcoming 2012 European Championships at Poland and Ukraine is just a over week away. Here is a quick glance at France and Spain’s chances, and a player that England will sorely miss.
France is now unbeaten in 19 games under Laurent Blanc, but both its best and worst facets were on display in the recent friendly against Iceland. Any backline comprising Philippe Mexes has enough reasons to be worried, and Iceland, although content to play on the break, cleverly exposed France’s frailties in the first half, taking a 2-0 lead through goals from Birkir Bjarnason and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Sigthorsson ran the channels superbly, constantly catching Mexes and Patrice Evra out of position. And with France starting with only one designated holding midfielder in Yohan Cabaye, it seemed every time Iceland broke it could score, particularly when the intelligent Gylfi Sigurdsson was on the ball.
In the second half, though, France’s tasty attacking talents came to the fore. Hatem Ben Arfa was magnificent playing off the right wing – a position that he’s adapted to adroitly at Newcastle United, and he was at the centre of most things that France did well. He constantly linked up with the lone striker, Karim Benzema — his former club-mate — and it was his sublime skill inside Iceland’s box that eventually helped right-back Mathieu Debuchy to pull a goal back. Frank Ribery and Olivier Giroud came on late in the second half to wonderful effect, as well. The pair exchanged an exquisite one-two before Ribery icily lobbed the goalkeeper for the equalizer. Giroud was the architect for the winner too, heading down with remarkable precision for centre back Adel Rami to ram home a powerful effort.
Blanc gave Yoann Gourcuff plenty of on-pitch time, but the once-elegant playmaker looked a shadow of the player that he was, under Blanc at Bordeaux. It’s still unclear whether Gourcuff would make the final cut, but an attacking quartet of Benzema, Giroud, Ribery and Ben Arfa is as good as any other team can muster, not to mention that France will likely have Samir Nasri, Florent Malouda, Mathieu Valbuena, and Jeremy Menez in reserve. The only concern for France is that their good work may be undone by shoddiness in defence. Evra may well be dropped for Gael Clichy, who was in fine form for Manchester City in the latter phase of the season, but the lack of an obvious replacement for Mexes — who also wore the captain’s arm band — must be particularly worrying.
Nobody, not even the greatest of English optimists, is expecting England to so much as stand a chance at the European championships, but that the country’s best midfielder isn’t going to the tournament is a disgrace. Roy Hodgson revealed shortly after announcing his squad that Michael Carrick had informed the F.A. that he’d rather be excluded from the squad than play an occasional role off the bench. Hodgson said he’d have to be convinced that Carrick was better than the four central midfielders that he had picked, and that he would be willing to return to the format.
Carrick, though, is exactly the kind of calming presence that England needs in midfield, and he would have entered the competition on the back of a stupendous season with Manchester United — one in which he performed far better than each of the four central midfielders that Hodgson initially picked.
Frank Lampard, although influential in Chelsea’s F.A. Cup and Champions League run, has had a largely subdued season, and even though he can lay proper claim to a place in the squad, he’s hardly going to provide the base in midfield that international football mandates. Steven Gerrard may be England’s captain, but ravaged by injuries, he isn’t anywhere near the player that he once was. In any case, it has been proven beyond doubt that his speculative passing, bereft of even a modicum of consistency, won’t cut it in an international competition. Gareth Barry, Hogdson’s initial pick — now replaced by a centre back, Phil Jagielka after picking up an injury — is pedestrian at best and adds almost no value going forward, with his positioning as an anchor-man hugely suspect. That he’s won as many caps as Glenn Hoddle says more about the way England is run than about his own footballing ability. Scott Parker for all his tough-as-nuts tackling is a poor passer of the football, and hasn’t the class to influence games from midfield at this level. He is also susceptible to regular injuries, bringing into attention the only other options that Hodgson has for the position: James Milner and Phil Jones. Milner is hardworking and full of perseverance, but isn’t an international class footballer, while Jones is hugely inexperienced and can scarcely be trusted to run a midfield.
Possession and its values are often overestimated, but a team that enjoyed a mere 44 percent of the ball, as England did against Norway in a recent friendly, isn’t going to threaten anyone in the Euros. A midfield of Parker, Lampard and Gerrard will only bring to focus England’s familiar failings: a shocking lack of technical excellence. Play Carrick alongside Parker with one of Lampard and Gerrard, and it’s a different story altogether. Carrick isn’t a forceful tackler, but his positional sense is peerless. He wins balls in midfield by intercepting cleverly as opposed to resorting to rash, last ditch tackles, and there is no midfielder in England — barring Paul Scholes — who is smarter at using the ball. Yes, he plays a substantial number of passes backwards and sideways, but expansive, reckless passing will only work to your detriment in international football. Carrick is the classiest midfielder that England could have chosen, and it’s a damning indictment of the way the team is managed that he isn’t going to the Euros.
As defending World and European champions, Spain starts the tournament as overwhelming favourites. Vicente Del Bosque has a galaxy of midfield stars to choose from, but he is likely to stick to the three who started in South Africa 2010: Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez. David Silva and Andres Iniesta will likely provide support to the lone centre forward, with Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla coming off the bench. However, with David Villa — perhaps Spain’s greatest ever striker — ruled out due to injury, Del Bosque will have to choose between Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Torres for a starter’s spot. Llorente’s relative immobility and Negredo’s inexperience at the level means that Torres – in spite of his woeful form – may well get the nod. And therein lies Spain’s chief concern.
With Carles Puyol also ruled out, the defence wouldn’t be as solid as it was in the previous two competitions, but there is enough experience – in Raul Albiol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique – to ensure that there are no significant mishaps. One would imagine that with the midfield that Spain has it would be a shoo-in for the knockout stages. If Torres can find even an ounce of form by that stage — although the evidence of the season gone-by suggests that he wouldn’t — there may be no team capable of stopping Spain.