James Lawton: Butt steals ahead of Scholes in diamond robbery

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The Independent Football

Yes, it's happening again - Alice In Wonderland time. It's quite inevitable, of course. England are heading for a major football tournament. First sign: David Beckham tells a part of the media he is still willing to address without duress that his season in the company of Zinedine Zidane has made him so much a better player, a claim, let it be noted, without the support of too much video evidence.

Yes, it's happening again - Alice In Wonderland time. It's quite inevitable, of course. England are heading for a major football tournament. First sign: David Beckham tells a part of the media he is still willing to address without duress that his season in the company of Zinedine Zidane has made him so much a better player, a claim, let it be noted, without the support of too much video evidence.

Meanwhile, Paul Scholes, still just 29 and whose contribution to both England and Manchester United makes a molehill of Beckham's when you strip away all the hoop-la, says that he will not be totally surprised if he loses out to a Frank Lampard who has been in rampant form for Chelsea both at home and abroad.

This makes possible the bizarre scenario of an England midfield lacking Scholes but including Nicky Butt, whose season was so disappointing that he slipped behind Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson at Manchester United and who, it has to be said, at his peak - which some would say was the 2002 World Cup when you almost needed more than one hand to count his incisive passes - was never quite half the player Scholes continues to be. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

It's true that Scholes has had a three-year scoring block for England, but his performance level has remained high and with him in the side there is always the potential for a clean, game-breaking eruption. Ask Arsenal, who so recently were blown away by Scholes' devastating intervention in the FA Cup semi-final. Here, surely, is the most simple question: name the four best English midfielders? No prizes for coming up with Steven Gerrard, Lampard on current form, Beckham on the right (let's be very specific about that while discounting the alleged influence of Zidane in favour of the hard evidence of performances in Spain) and Scholes.

So how can it be that Butt, who didn't play in half of United's games this last season, is given a serious chance of ousting one of the above, a possibility that in any logical preparation for the coming European Championship would become a certainty if, as reported, he plays in both this week's glorified training games with Japan and Iceland? It is because, we are told, Butt has to play at the base of England's mythic "midfield" diamond.

Let's place that against another reality. Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes all know how to tackle - and just happen to be infinitely superior to Butt when they have the ball, which will have to be quite a bit of the time if we are to have any chance at all of upsetting Zizou, Thierry and company in Lisbon in a couple of weeks' time.

What is a diamond? It is something you can draw on a blackboard and up there it makes great sense. You have four points of a diamond, of course, one at the top, one at the bottom, one on the right and one on the left. This gives you control of the blackboard but not necessarily the field, especially when you are up against opponents of the quality of Henry, Zidane, Pires and Vieira, to mention just a few, and the ball is a moving entity rather than a blob of chalk.

Swift, inspired movement makes a nonsense of any tactical drawing, and if it is right to have balance and solidity in your team, it is equally important to field your best players. Naturally you don't want players to duplicate each other, but then there is little danger of Butt duplicating either Scholes or Lampard, the players at most risk because of the need for an established bottom of the diamond.

The problem is that we are in the iron grasp of received wisdom. Butt is England's number one "holding" player. Holding player? He is in a fixed position before the kick-off, then has to respond to the ebb and flow of the game. The wisdom is that Butt has talents which make him indispensable in this position for England, though plainly not for an underperforming United.

Another problem is that the holding role is as big a tactical myth as the diamond. All-round players like Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes have more than enough acumen to adjust to a covering position quite instinctively when they happen not to be involved in a forward movement. Their presence also means that their superior passing ability reduces the need for someone permanently assigned to cover the back four.

Where will all this end? The drift of opinion, helped along by the voice of Beckham, is that Butt will start against France at the expense of either Scholes, who, whether or not he is scoring goals, is still one of England's banker talents, or Lampard, who amid all the uncertainties of life at Stamford Bridge improved his already promising game by roughly 100 per cent. What can you say except pass me a half-cup of the Mad Hatter's tea?

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