Beckham's struggle to make case for defence

Spool forward to yesterday and the message was no different, if a little less candid. "There is more of a defensive role in central midfield, there has to be, you can't have a load of central midfielders who all go running forward," Beckham said when asked about England's change of formation and how it will accommodate him, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in that area. "You have to have that defensive part in your game. It's not one of my strongest parts, the defensive, but if I am asked to play there I will."

It was the most half-hearted of endorsements and Beckham visibly blanched when he was asked if the role he will fulfil for England today - indeed one he helped to propose - bears comparison to that undertaken by Claude Makelele at Chelsea.

"I'm not a Makelele-type player, just like he's not my sort of player," Beckham stated. "Of course, he is a great player, but I am not as defensive as him, but I can play that role. I played it for Real Madrid. I am not the most defensive player around, but in the Madrid team I have to be."

By default, then. Indeed Beckham's arrival at the Bernabeu two years ago was swiftly followed by Makelele's departure to Stamford Bridge, with one reason being the new arrival vastly out-stripped his salary. Into the void left by the disgruntled Frenchman stepped Beckham - partly because he craved a more central role, partly because Madrid simply had no one else willing or able to do it.

At first it worked. He became a focal point, more defensive yet still driving from deep. His distribution was excellent - analysis showed an astonishing 90 per cent of his passes hit their target. But then things began to dip. Beckham kept on running - but often to no purpose. Forrest Gump, the Spanish press called him, harshly ridiculing his inability to grasp the nuances of what is one of the most specialised, technical positions in a team. Beckham looked lost and soon he even stopped running, too.

Matters improved only when he was shipped out of that position and back across to the right. Madrid experimented with Guti, then bought Thomas Gravesen and then paired him with Beckham. Tellingly this summer they have bitten the bullet and acquired two Uruguayan hardmen to provide the ballast and bite, Pablo Garcia and Diogo. Hardly galacticos, but vital.

For his club then, Beckham will stay in the middle, but shift to the right, and although he has defensive duties, he will not have to cover all areas. Unfortunately for him, Gerrard will occupy that role in the national side.

Beckham has to find a niche and so may, having just turned 30, have to persist with something that is alien to him to keep his place in the side ahead of the coming, express-force of the younger, quicker, trickier Shaun Wright-Phillips. He will only continue to improve this season under Jose Mourinho. And Beckham knows it.

"My favourite position is both of them," Beckham said yesterday when asked where he preferred to play. "On the right I can put in the crosses, but in the middle I have the chance of passing to the left, the middle and the right." He continued: "If I am asked to play a different role, then I will play there. The manager, if he comes to me and says so, I will do that. Like the other players."

It feels an uncomfortable compromise, especially with players such as Michael Carrick, who could easily provide that central midfield discipline following the demise of its last incumbent, Nicky Butt, watching from the sidelines. However, it is a fault that is unlikely to be exposed by Wales today. Greater challenges are to come which, of course, may well do just that.

Yesterday, Eriksson reasoned through his thinking. "Every system is easy to work out if you have the right players," he said. "As a coach, you have to look to see which players are available and make the best of it." Which may well be true.

But his words came just over a year after the 3-0 friendly victory over Ukraine at Newcastle United, where Eriksson said that it would be vital for England to go into a tournament with a specialist, defensive midfielder, such was the nature of international football. No one thought then, or believed so yesterday, that he meant Beckham.

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