SPORTS

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January 11, 2004

Beckham still looking for his place in Spain

On the eve of France '98, an entire nation was gripped with a question of paramount importance: should David Beckham play for England in central midfield or on the right wing? Sadly for Beckham, that debate was not most people's lasting memory of his contribution to the English cause in the World Cup, but his recent transfer to Real Madrid, and accompanying switch to central midfield, has revived the now classic debate about where "Golden Balls" should best deliver his balls from.

On the face of it, Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson appears to be a proponent of the right-wing theory. He deployed Beckham there during his entire stay at Old Trafford, claiming that Beckham was the "best crosser of the ball" in the modern game and would be wasted in the middle. However a closer inspection of Manchester's squad suggests that Beckham was not so much pulled to the right wing as he was pushed there. First, his competition for central midfield was world-class: Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Second, his competition for the right wing was awful: for five seasons, an out of position Scholes was about the best Ferguson could manage, with the young and untried Luke Chadwick being the only true right winger to challenge Beckham.

For England, it was the same story: Scholes, and the likes of Steven Gerrard, Nicky Butt, and Paul Ince (when he was actually good) have filled the central slots, while Trevor Sinclair, Ray Parlour, and the eternally unfit Darren Anderton have been the alternatives on the wing. Only Peter Taylor offered Beckham the chance to play in the middle back in 2000 when the current English captain was first entrusted with the armband.

Beckham himself has always maintained a preference for the middle, but this begs the question of what makes a good central midfielder (or winger, for that matter)? If you look at the best of the current soccer world like Edgar Davids, Patrick Vieira, and the aforementioned Keane, you get a pretty clear picture. The first necessity is a good engine, i.e. excellent stamina, and the desire to apply it. Keane is renowned for his omnipresence, complementing each spectacular goal with a crunching tackle in front of his own area. The consequence is that the player will expect to see a lot of the ball and must distribute it well. Other essential characteristics include good long-range shooting, strength, courage, aerial prowess, and the ability to read the game. For a good winger, speed, acceleration and dribbling are the standard criteria, all of which one can find in the likes of Ryan Giggs, Marc Overmars and Luis Figo.

Looking at the above lists, it seems difficult to reject the notion that Beckham is naturally a central midfielder. Yes, he crosses well, and Ruud Van Nistelrooij, Michael Owen and Dwight Yorke will all testify to that. But as far as being a winger is concerned, it stops there. Beckham couldn't dribble around a lamppost and is hardly blessed with the speed of former team-mate Giggs, but that doesn't matter since his other abilities more than compensate: his long-range passing and shooting are second to none, and so is his stamina. Certainly, there are question marks about his tackling ability and strength, but no one is perfect.

Naturally, the proof is in the pudding, and Beckham has crafted some spectacular puddings every time he has occupied the central position (including his one-off for England). What's more, it turns out that good crossing is not such a rare commodity; while it comes as no surprise to see Ole-Gunnar Solskaer setting Ruud up for headed goal upon headed goal, I certainly woke up and smelt the proverbial coffee when it came to the previously maligned quality of Gary Neville's right boot. Perhaps Chadwick should have played more!

Is Beckham a good winger? No doubt. He twice finished in the top three for FIFA World Player of the Year on the back of fine seasons out on the right. But the right question is: Is that his best position? Oh no, and for once, performances actually agree with what is true on paper. Bad luck in the form of his teammates, particularly Keane, has robbed him of the right to play centrally, but Beckham is an intelligent and fast-learning player, and is clearly making-up for lost time as he revels in his new role at the Bernabau. It looks like Beckham was right after all