I’m a fan of David Beckham. I think he’s a hard working, solid player, completely outside of any marketing or publicity tools he brings to the table. I’m not sure that Beckham is one of the greatest players in world, but he is skillful, and particularly good at what he does. One of the things he does well is play England’s style of football.
With Croatia dropping England out of the Euro 2008 tournament, and McClaren getting sacked (finally), I’ve read an awful lot about the tactics that England plays and the style of their games. Forefront in many of those discussions are whether David Beckham has a role in the English team of the future.
Unless the team plans to play a radically different game than it has for the past 40 years, my thought is that he definitely does, if for no other reason than Beckham has the skills necessary to play the game that England plays. It’s easier to put him in the squad than try to change the way the country as a whole plays the game.
One of the major complaints about Beckham is that he’s not particularly tricky with the ball, and he’s slow. Wingers are “supposed” to be fast, although I don’t know how we can to a consensus about what a winger is or is not supposed to do. I think of Beckham as if he’s a turret on a battleship — not too mobile, not too fast, but can do serious damage and has a long, long range.
England has often played a long-ball game. There’s nothing wrong with that — if the team is good enough to capitalize on it. Beckham has the kind of crossing and long-ball passing ability that works for this type of strategy, and it’s shown. After a jaunt over to Englandfootballonline.com, I checked out the winning percentages for the four most-capped English captains since WWII. Beckham is number four overall for England, with 58 appearances as captain, after Billy Wright and Bobby Moore with 90 appearances each and Bryan Robson, with 65. The next highest is Alan Shearer, who only has 34 appearances as captain.
Of all four, Beckham has the second highest winning percentage (70.7%). Does this mean that he is the second best captain England has had? No, not at all — the makeup of each team is different, as are the opponents each team plays. But it does indicate that perhaps Beckham plays England’s game pretty well. He’s also got a solid offensive record compared to the other historic captains as far as goals — he’s got 17 from 99 national team caps, as compared to two for Moore’s 108 caps, or three for Wright’s 105 caps. Robson has the highest record, with 26 strikes in 90 games.
Statistics can’t tell the whole story of a soccer game but here’s the bottom line: in an English squad that’s relying on 6’7″ Peter Crouch as its lead hitman, keeping Beckham on the bench for half a game like McClaren did against Croatia is deliberating hobbling the team. Beckham’s got the skills to get the ball to forwards like Crouch, as he showed in the second half when he sent the cross forward in the 65th minute.
According to UEFA.com, Beckham played a total of 112 minutes in England’s campaign to qualify for Euro 2008 this year. In those 112 minutes, spread out over two games, he had three assists. No one else on the team had this many assists, including Gerrard, who played nine more games than Beckham, and nine times as many minutes. It’s unrealistic to expect that Beckham could provide three assists every two games, but if he’d been given the same playing time as Gerrard, what would Crouch’s numbers look like? Beckham doesn’t have the pace or the range that Gerrard does, but he has a knack for coming up with important plays in big games. So far, that’s something that both Gerrard and Lampard haven’t been able to do internationally with any consistency.
The important distinction here is between Beckham being a great player in general, and being a great player for England. It’s my belief that Beckham, in general, is a solid, hardworking player and good on the field. Lampard is probably better, overall, than Becks. But Becks is one of the most productive players that England has ever seen, because his talents so nicely align with the style of football the country plays. Until an English manager comes along who is willing to break the team of its long-ball habits and searching crosses, who forces the squad to put the ball on the ground, and who trains the players in serious technical skills, Becks is going to be the best goal-supplier the country has.
I highly doubt that, even with a capable manager, England will look like Brazil or the Netherlands anytime in the near future. Quick tricks, fancy ball play, and Ronaldo-esque moves are not the priority for youth development programs in England right now. Changing the way England plays would take a lot more work than getting new players — it would take a change in the way the FA represents soccer, and I can’t see that happening in the near future. The 2010 World Cup is in the near future, though — and Becks should be with the team when they go.
Written by guest columnist David Rini.