Football: COMMENTARY: Batty's fire stabilises the midfield

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The Independent Online
When Glenn Hoddle took over as England coach, one wondered which player would come to represent his reign.

Trevor Brooking's thoughtful skills symbolised Ron Greenwood's stewardship; Terry Butcher's courageous patriotism typified the Bobby Robson era. The Graham Taylor years are recalled through the more prosaic talents of Carlton Palmer while Paul Gascoigne, imaginative but controversial, was Terry Venables' hallmark.

The advent of Hoddle, one thought, meant the rise of Matthew Le Tissier. Hoddle has spoken glowingly of the Southampton captain but, apart from a brief appearance in Moldova, nothing has been seen of him. Instead, at the heart of England's victory in Georgia on Saturday was the crop- haired figure of David Batty.

At first sight the Newcastle midfielder is everything Hoddle was not. A tigerish tackler of limited ability on the pitch, a man not given to deep reflection off it. His previous start for England had been against Brazil in June 1995. A crude foul on Juninho gave away the key goal in England's only defeat under Venables. Together with his poor distribution, it appeared he was not so much a ball winner as a ball loser.

A few matches earlier he had nearly disembowelled Ian Bishop in a club match at Upton Park. A few months later he was involved in the infamous Moscow dust-up with Graham Le Saux. He became estranged from Blackburn just as he had from Leeds, and a decent but unspectacular career seemed in descent.

Then came the first indication that he was a better player than his reputation suggested. Kevin Keegan, a man noted for preferring artistry to artisans, added Batty to his team of all talents. The title drifted away but no one blamed the impressive Batty.

Then came the England recall and, on Saturday, a near-faultless performance. On a day when every English player did well, Batty stood out. "Batty does not get the credit he deserves," Hoddle said afterwards. "I have always believed he was a better passer than people thought. He can use the ball exceedingly well."

Batty played a role reminiscent of Peter Reid in his Everton pomp. Having broken up an opposition attack with a tackle or neat piece of shepherding, he would move the ball quickly and simply. At times the emphasis would be on retaining possession, or in switching play and putting the Georgians on the defensive. The lunging challenges were absent, so, too, were the moments of spite which had let him down.

"You need a player like him in every team," Hoddle said. "Paul Ince is similar. Neither are scared of hard work. If you get a good balance around them, you have a good chance of being strong in midfield."

Ince, too, now concentrates on what he is good at. With support from David Batty, Andy Hinchcliffe and, at times, Gascoigne, he and Batty formed a midfield wall which Georgio Kinkladze and company were rarely able to breach. "We forced them into areas where we had plenty of players," Hoddle added. "We went hunting in pairs rather than on our own as we did against Poland."

This echoes Venables' philosophy: win the numbers game in midfield and thus win the ball by sheer weight of numbers rather than through an enforcer. Under Venables, Batty tried to be the latter and was exposed by the greater technical ability of foreign players. Now he is less impetuous, and that maturity, together with his tackling ability and positional discipline, has moulded him into an excellent holding midfielder.

In playing two such players, Hoddle echoed Milan's use of Marcel Desailly and Dimitri Albertini - albeit in a different formation. It may also enable him to be more adventurous on the flanks. The use of Beckham on the right was a move in that direction; the next step is to get Beckham and Hinchcliffe, both good crossers, behind the opposition full-backs. Hoddle's team, like Batty, continues to evolve impressively.

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