Football: Batty proves a hard man to dislodge
England's midfield was exposed before Scholes' exit.
Sunday 06 June 1999
It goes without question that every successful British team needs a bristling midfield destroyer: a Norman Hunter, Nobby Stiles, Graeme Souness or Roy Keane. But should it? That France won the World Cup without one of that mould is not, it seems, a cause to alter old habits here.
Although Zinedine Zidane was the star of France 98, the foundation work for France was done by Emmanuel Petit whose defensive midfield work was hard yet athletic, whose distribution was spot on, and who spotted chances to take scoring opportunities with World Cup winning efficiency. Almost a year on and yesterday England were still locked into the belief that they were incomplete without someone who thinks real men don't let their hair grow long and tie it in girlie fashion.
So back came Batty - pugnacious, grown-up, lookalike of a million close- cropped little monsters charging up and down the aisles of Tesco. Keegan asked him to be the cornerstone in a diamond-shaped midfield formation. Batty himself used to be called an uncut diamond, and the rough edges have only ever been blurred rather than polished. He won his first tackle yesterday even before Paul Scholes had cluttered into the unfortunate Hakan Mild within the first minute. Who wins midfield often wins the game. In that respect Sweden were unlucky. Batty and Scholes needed to stop Stefan Schwarz even thinking about it, but failed, yet Sweden were unable to take advantage.
By playing so deep, Batty necessarily became the person best placed to be the playmaker. That, of course, is to expect too much. Sweden were not over-concerned. Batty's distribution came in short measure. Short passes usually arrived where they were intended, the rest were gift-wrapped and addressed "Sweden". Scholes became the snarling ball-winner, which he did with such lack of disguise that it was extraordinary that the referee spent 27 minutes forgiving transgressions before taking his name.
Sweden capitalised on England's midfield difficulties, which were compounded by Tim Sherwood's peripheral contribution, to the extent that in the first half they forced nervousness to eat into the defence even before Martin Keown's steadiness was lost through injury. Once Scholes had recklessly challenged the growing threat of Schwarz with a tackle (which rendered absurd the home crowd's derision of the referee's later and proper decision to send him off), he needed to get a grip on himself.
Risking all, he plunged into the cause of so much of England's discomfort, Schwarz, with one of those challenges that so clearly give away a player's innermost thoughts. Schwarz had got the better not only of him but the entire midfield. The yellow card was not so much a warning of indiscretion as a sign of failure.
How England pleaded for some original imagination to break the deadlock. The arrival of Ray Parlour for the injured and dispirited David Beckham was the next best thing. Parlour will never have the natural touch and compass of passing as a Hoddle or Haynes but does most things well. That could not be said of so many of England's players yesterday. Sweden did not even have to be exceptional to grasp the initiative where Batty, Scholes and Sherwood were unable to protect their defence with any degree of confidence nor offer the declining Alan Shearer and, here, the ineffective Andy Cole the service that might have allowed them to hide their poor performances with a face-saving goal or two.
If in the pool of England's resources there was a player who could dispense with the need for us to dwell in the past things might be different. As it is, the home crowd yesterday resorted to booing the referee, which rather missed the point.
Keegan was full of honest appraisal at the end but after his short time in control he is already becoming aware of England's long-standing problem of finding players who can not only win the ball but do something interesting with it. Instead he still relies on those of the type that served Alf Ramsey well fully 30 years ago.
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