Euro 2012 — on France, Carrick and Spain

Written by  //  May 28, 2012  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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3 Comments on "Euro 2012 — on France, Carrick and Spain"

  1. Arghya May 29, 2012 at 6:34 am ·

    Hi Suhrith,

    I agree with you regarding your assessments of France and Spain but regarding Carrick, I couldn’t disagree with you more. In principle, I found Carrick’s request a strange one; no player can dictate terms to the manager to say that he will only be in a squad if he is to play an occasional role. Whether he plays an occasional role or is a regular starter is the manager’s call and may change over the course of 2 months. I saw it as a shocking request, an underhand blackmailing technique to try and force the hand of the manager to make him part of the first eleven. If Hodgson had accepted this, there would certainly have been a strong moral compulsion to play Carrick or risk an unsatisfied player in the squad spoiling the general morale, which again would have been picked up by the fanatical British football media which would have made it sound like the Second World War all over again. This, I think, is good enough reason to leave him out.
    Secondly, while he certainly had a good season by his standards, he isn’t so brilliant (and so much better than the others) to allow England to keep possession of the ball more or bring anything that the squad currently does not have. Perhaps I say this because I’m not a fan of this 2-holding midfielders strategy which seems to have become fashionable for most teams now. Parker I think can get the tackles in; Lampard and Gerrard can be the chief playmakers, allowing Rooney, Carroll, Milner and whoever else to be at the receiving end of their passes. I would have definitely called Carrick on once Barry got injured, but I’m not surprised Hodgson didn’t given Carrick’s rather audacious demands laying down the conditions for his inclusion. If 12 players are happy to play roles off the bench, so can he- there’s no reason for him to get special treatment.

  2. Suhrith May 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm ·

    Arghya, thanks a lot for the comment. Here is my response:

    To begin with, Carrick has been a regular starter for a team that has won four titles and a champions league in six years, and has been pivotal in, at least, three of these campaigns. He was brought in when Keane left the club, not as a replacement, but to mold a different, new style of play. I am convinced that Man United wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as they have been without Carrick providing the calm presence in midfield. Now, how many caps has he won for England, since he began his professional career in 2001? Twenty-two. Here’s a list of players who have won more caps than him in that period: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_England_international_footballers

    The list brims with mediocrity. I’ll also point you to this piece by Michael Cox of Zonal Marking fame: http://www.zonalmarking.net/2010/03/03/michael-carrick-demonstrates-why-he-could-be-crucial-to-englands-world-cup-hopes/

    You’d have thought that Carrick would have been used by Capello in the World Cup, but he wasn’t. Instead he persisted with Gerrard-Lampard or Gerrard-Lampard-Barry and we all know how that went. It’s not so much a request for a starting berth that Carrick was making — he was merely saying that he didn’t want to be placed on a stand-by list, which is exactly where Hodgson was going to place him: behind Lampard, Gerrard, Barry and Parker. For 6 years he has seen players less qualified than him (Barry in particular) being preferred to him, and I think he has every right to seek some sort of assurance. England has a history of not using cultured midfielders properly and the trend has extended with Carrick.

    On your second point, even if they were to play Parker-Lampard-Gerrard, what has happened in the past is well documented. Gerrard and Lampard constantly get in each other’s way and the team is entirely devoid of any cohesion. So Lampard will in any event have to drop deeper, a position that he isn’t particularly competent at. The way Spain plays should by no means be considered the prototype (they have extraordinary talented players), but unless you have a defensive backbone capable of concentrating for large periods when the team doesn’t have the ball, you’re in trouble. Carrick’s role as I mentioned in the post is two-fold: to break down play more through interceptions than dirty tackles, and to keep the ball moving in a simple and effective manner. He has done this superbly for Man United for large phases of his career, and certainly in the last 8 months. England need Carrick more than they do Parker. He breaks down play far more effectively. So even if Gerrard and Lampard must both start, Carrick could have been the sole holder. He just isn’t as showy as Parker is.

  3. Anonymous June 4, 2012 at 5:57 am ·

    It is Hodgson after all. I think you’re overrating Carrick a bit here, but agree with the general sentiment. He really should get in ahead of the likes of Barry, Henderson, Milner or Jones.

    On France, I’m slightly perplexed with Blanc’s selection in defence. Rami, Mexes and Koscielny seem to be the only central defenders in the squad, and none of them inspire particular confidence. I’m amazed he left out both Yanga-Mbiwa and Sakho.

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