Fabio Capello named his final World Cup qualifiers squad for the games against Ukraine and Belarus, with David Beckham included. The right-sided midfielder also announced over the same weekend his intention to return to Italian giants Milan in the New Year with a deal close to agreement.
These two stories side-by-side seem to point towards the same thing – should he remain fit, David Beckham is going to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There are pros and cons to his inclusion, namely the nature of the competition he has been plying his trade against, between those periods in Serie A.
His decision to go to America continues to haunt him, at least from the footballing point of view – the man is richer than most players in the world, and friends with a unique list of A-listers. But moving to the MLS – regardless of the raised profile the league has enjoyed in his company – has seen the player suffer on the pitch. His game is under extreme scrutiny, and rightly so. If he can get into England squads throughout the qualifiers, particularly under the strict disciplinarian Capello, does that suggest he is still that good, or that the others available for that position are not?
The MLS certainly doesn’t demand the high level of competitiveness and fitness European leagues do, hence last season’s decision to go to Milan for the second half of 2008/09. One argument in the player’s favour is his ambition. The fact he was prepared to risk his relationship with his club, fans and teammates in America to put his country first and attempt to show he can still hack it at a higher level has to be recognised as sheer guts and determination. And that he is looking to do it a second time shows where his priorities lie. Breaking into the Milan team last season almost immediately, and staying there, is testament to the player’s unique levels of fitness and professionalism. Although there are question marks over the kind of shape he will be in come summer 2010, the impact he had at the San Siro in 2009, and the anticipation of his return to Italy in January suggests one of Europe’s biggest clubs has no doubt over his fitness or what he can offer the team on the pitch.
It is true that last season Beckham joined a squad full of ageing stars and found a place in the side almost entirely thanks to the injury Gennaro Gattuso sustained earlier in the campaign. Had Milan’s bulldog been fit, competition would have been tougher in the centre and Beckham’s starting place wouldn’t have been so assured. This season, should he finalise the deal to go back, he is joining a team currently in crisis. Seven games into the season, Milan are languishing in 12th place and the run of results has been a series of embarrassments. Losing at home 0-4 to rivals Inter, 0-1 away to Udinese and draws with newly-promoted pair Bari and Livorno and away to 10-man Atalanta have culminated in calls for Coach Leonardo to be sacked. FC Zurich inflicted defeat on the side in the Champions League, suggesting their involvement in that competition when Beckham arrives is under real threat. Serie A is almost always written off for this version of Milan – under Carlo Ancelotti, the past two seasons have been dismal, and it was a minor miracle, even perhaps down to Beckham himself, that Milan had an ounce of fight for the closing weeks of the league 2008/09. But the chances of Leonardo being in charge come next January are getting slimmer by the week. Beckham could arrive in the winter with a new Coach, perhaps not as favourable to playing the Englishman, leaving his World Cup hopes in tatters.
The risks remain there as Beckham continues to pay for 2006/07’s decision to go to the land of Mickey Mouse, and he is riding his luck wherever he goes to prove to Capello his fitness and competitive value. If he succeeds in his mission to do just that, then he has met his side of the bargain, and the focus moves back to Capello and how he is going to select that all-important World Cup England squad, given the inclusion of Becks is on the cards.
There is the argument that a 23-man squad traditionally indicates a selection for each Coach of three goalkeepers and two players for each of the defensive, midfield and striking positions. For all Beckham’s ability, does he limit England’s options on the right side of midfield? The 2009 Confederations Cup in the summer showed the nature of the competition due a year later, with an ability to play on hard pitches and with pace – particularly in attack and down the flanks – just two stand-out requisites of any squad looking to perform at the World Cup. Beckham should have no problem adapting to the pitch quality, certainly less of one than his teammates – the MLS is good for something then. However, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Young, James Milner, Theo Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips may all have something to say on Beckham’s capabilities of racing down the lines when required. Speed of movement as a unit will be needed to compete with, let alone beat, teams like Holland, Spain and Brazil. Italy’s performance at the Confederations Cup highlighted their immobility and despite being world champions, they subsequently fell out of the competition in the early stages.
Should Capello go with a ‘two for each position’ approach, then Beckham’s position in the selection looks miscalculated. England will have enough players lacking pace in the centre of midfield without having one of their side-midfielders also slow on the move. It looks likely that Lennon has a place in the 23, and should England go with direct replacements for each position, then Young or Wright-Phillips will best offer the same style of play, whilst Milner is more likely to be competing on the left-hand side with Joe Cole for a place under Steven Gerrard. However, it is unfair to be comparing Beckham to this wave of England runners on the right as he offers a final ball still shamefully unrivalled by any England player and has shown during his stint at Real Madrid and Milan that he can also offer Capello a level of flexibility, playing in the centre at times with great aplomb, which is why, given the likelihood of Beckham going to South Africa, Capello could choose his squad in another way.
There is no guarantee the England Head Coach will opt for the ‘two for each position’ approach as it can be considered quite limiting on the squad – imagine if England only have one fit left-sided player from the above names and Capello picks a sixth-choice left-sided player to fill that role rather than pick the best players available to best cope with the situation? A team of 11 of England’s best is far better equipped at dealing with a week position than 10 players and one passenger not up to international standard. Not every country follows the theory either – indeed champions Italy took three keepers, eight defenders, six midfielders and six strikers to 2006, whilst runners-up France took three keepers, eight defenders, seven midfielders and five strikers.
If the Italian goes with the second method of selection, picking his eight best midfield men, Beckham’s inclusion has more plausibility. A level of fluidity changing between positions for the team could benefit them in South Africa, and with Walcott considered a striker more than capable of taking the right-midfield spot, then Beckham could be taken as a third right-midfielder and second central-midfielder. A selection like below where the best eight players are selected rather than by position gives Capello room to move with whom he plays where. The selection below includes six players (including Gerrard) who can play on the right of midfield, five in the centre and three (arguably four if you count Walcott) on the left of midfield. Wright-Phillips and one of the strikers will miss out on