Carrick ignored while England persist with the long ball

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The Independent Online

Michael Carrick has been a shy and unobtrusive presence on the cobbled streets of Baden-Baden these past few weeks, strolling around town with his fiancée and family and amiably stopping for autographs when asked but without the hysteria that even Peter Crouch and Theo Walcott have generated on the occasional visit from the England team hotel in the mountains above.

Accusations that he is similarly inconspicuous on the playing field, too, were not dispelled as Sven Goran Eriksson's luck held out against Ecuador yesterday. "The biggest game of my career so far," was how the Tottenham midfielder labelled his debut in a competitive international, exactly five years and one month since making his first England appearance as a substitute against Mexico at Pride Park.

It has been a long wait for a 24-year-old of rich potential, but his greatest frustration must be at how his long-awaited role in the starting XI and the assets that have attracted firm interest from Manchester United this summer were comprehensively overlooked as England delivered another instantly forgettable performance in Stuttgart and stumbled into the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Having preferred two defenders, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher, plus the previously maligned Owen Hargreaves in the holding role this year Eriksson surprised once again when he promoted Carrick into that position in the wake of Michael Owen's cruel injury and immediately on the back of the Bayern Munich man's impressive midfield performance against Sweden.

Maybe it was the oppressive heat that tempted the England manager to import the elegance and composure that Carrick brings to midfield at the expense of the more tenacious Hargreaves, or the fact that three of the Geordie's previous six international appearances had come in victories over Central or South American opposition - Mexico, Columbia and Uruguay. Whatever the reason for experimenting four games into a tournament he has had five years to prepare for, Eriksson failed in his responsibility to provide a game plan that suited the supposed architect of this performance.

If confusion reigns among the England support then it is hardly surprising it has affected players who are having to tailor their performances by the game in Germany. The England squad were enthused with Hargreaves' display against Sweden and Joe Cole (pictured) in particular was anxious to share the acclaim for his man of the match award with the Bayern Munich midfielder. "I had so many quick balls from Owen that I could get running at the full-backs. Tactically it was brilliant." One game later, he had been dispensed to full-back.

It took four minutes before Carrick took delivery of the ball for the first time against Ecuador, and promptly squandered it with a poor pass down the left flank that Ulises de la Cruz was able to intercept ahead of Joe Cole. His second pass failed to find its intended target too - David Beckham out on the right - but his distribution towards Wayne Rooney and the forward runners was significantly better and a reluctance to join his team-mates in sending long balls over the full-backs offered England their most productive route of an appalling first-half display.

Too often, however, the direct play that would have gelled with Crouch in the team but was unforgivable with an unfit Rooney having to expend valuable energy down blind alleys rendered Carrick superfluous to England's performance. With the close support that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard offered to Rooney coming at the expense of assistance to Carrick who, like Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley before him, has now graduated from the Wallsend Boys Club in Newcastle to the World Cup arena with England, the simple pass was rarely an option for the playmaker. Yet again, Eriksson had placed faith in a player whose strengths he then ignored.

Those who had signed up to an on-line petition for Carrick to be included from the start will have questioned the effort by 5.45pm last night. With Eriksson reluctant or unable to change the pattern of the second half the Tottenham midfielder was left stranded in anonymity throughout, although his defensive presence was important alongside Hargreaves in the final quarter as England sought to preserve their fortunate advantage. "Once you arrive, there's no room for error," said Carrick at the start of this World Cup adventure. He may wish to reconsider that opinion in respect of his manager.

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