Why haven’t England performed better at major tournaments over the last 20 years? Why couldn’t Gerrard and Lampard work together better in central midfield? Both questions have been pondered over for several years by football fans and theories vary wildly from “they’re too similar” to “they’re too different” and even rumours that they ‘hate each other’. Strangely, my answer starts with a conversation with my Dad about what Ron Weasley brought to the table in the Harry Potter books.
As many of you with children or grandchildren (or young enough to have read them for yourself) will know, Ron is the third member of the trio with Harry (the leader) and Hermione (the brains). Apart from showing an aptitude for chess in the first book it seems that he has no particular talent but in the seventh book, when he leaves the other two to search for ‘Horcuxes’ by themselves, Harry and Hermione fare even worse, despite, on paper, having everything they need.
Oh, we England fans are familiar with that phrase ‘on paper’. ‘On paper’ we have had one of the best teams in the world but real life is not played out on paper. This is where me and my Dad turned to football. Ron seemed to have a hidden quality that brought the team together and allowed the talent to shine, who is the Ron in the England team? The answer: for the past few years, there hasn’t been.
Luckily, when this conversation took place, Scott Parker had recently won the PFA Player of the Year and he and Gareth Barry were being integrated into the England squad. We thought that these two players were good examples of ‘Ron’s and looking at Tottenham and Manchester City’s fortunes this season with these two players it seems the importance of a Ron is justified. When Manchester City have played at their best this season, it has usually been when Barry and De Jong have hung back, Ron-like, and allowed Yaya Toure to surge forward and join the attack.
This is where the Lampard-Gerrard debate comes in. They are both players who play with a Barry-type player alongside them; Lampard has had Essien and Mikel recently, Gerrard has had Xabi Alonso and Lucas and both have played alongside Raul Meireles. They are both leaders, surging players, both ‘Harry’s to continue the Harry Potter metaphor. Although neither has a particularly large ego it seems, leaders tend not to get on too well with other leaders, it becomes a power struggle rather than a compromise.
Another analogy would be with central defenders at a goal kick. There are two central defenders – normal practice is one would go to head the ball and the other would stay back in case the first missed it or the ball was flicked back. Now imagine if there were two defenders who were experts at going to head the ball and neither like sitting back. They both go to head it, they take up each other’s space and they both miss leaving the striker virtually one-on-one with the keeper. If one of those central defenders had been a ‘Ron’, he would have stayed back and collected the ball (although he would probably have been capable of going to head the ball had he needed to).
This ‘Every Team Needs A Ron’ theory, in football, focuses on central midfield as it is a) the position that drives most teams and b) one of the problems that has been plaguing England recently. However, it does seem to be a valid way of simplifying the problems of the midfield position. For those who are interested, ‘Ron’s are generally players who work hard consistently for little or no credit and seem quite happy to let others take the plaudits. Although they are superb passers with excellent footballing vision, Scholes, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso would all, I would say, fit into the category of a Ron.
This is because they fit the categories or the traits that I would say ‘Ron’s have. They must be hardworking. This is a given in footballers you might think but there are some positions where slacking off is forgiven. Because Rons don’t tend to be flashy players if they don’t work hard then they will be criticised as it isn’t immediately obvious what they do, to put it bluntly. They can be overlooked as, generally, they aren’t obviously special. ‘Special’ players can get away with slacking off as they can be ‘game-changing’, a spectacular piece of skill can transform them from zero to hero.
Because of the long wait for recognition or appreciation, they need to be reliable. This is the problem with a player like Michael Carrick, despite being a magnificent player, capable of holding back and mopping up in front of the defence it is necessary to put in the phrase ‘at times’. He is a brilliant player for United and a loss for England because he fills the ‘Ron’ role very well… ‘at times’. There was a period of time when it was difficult to justify the money spent on him by United because he was in poor form and people couldn’t see what his qualities were.
Perhaps the biggest trait is the fact other players need to trust them. It is the trust that Lampard had in his fellow central midfielders in his prime that allowed him to make the surging runs. Trust in fellow players has been an issue for England. It is now a common sight to see Wayne Rooney defending in his own third, desperate to win the ball back for his team. In the 2012 FA Cup Final, Liverpool tried to play Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing as ‘Ron’ type holding midfield players to allow Gerrard freedom to attack, in a similar way to the De Jong-Barry-Toure triangle at Manchester City. A combination of inexperience and lack of ability meant that Gerrard felt it necessary for him to play in that role himself, leaving them short of options upfront. Like in central defence at goal kicks where the one going to head the ball thinks ‘It’s OK if I miss this, my fellow player is there if I don’t get it right’, so the same needs to happen in central midfield.
Finally, Rons are generally happy to let others take the plaudits. Football is a game where a single goal can decide the fate of a match and as such, those who score, create or stop those goals (more usually score) are the ones credited with being great. Cricket is a good example to compare this with as there are both similarities and differences. With bowlers, the case is similar, the great bowlers are the ones who take wickets and a good, low run rate, though necessary, is not discussed in terms of greatness. However with batsmen, individual runs are valued much less – it is seldom that a single run decides a Test match. However good Kevin Pietersen may be for England, however explosive and entertaining he may be, he can’t be described as great for reasons of inconsistency. Pietersen is a Harry compared to the Ron of Strauss or Cook.
Unfortunately for England, Barry was ruled out of the European Championships, there were issues about Scott Parker’s fitness and Michael Carrick (another Ron providing he improves his consistency) retired himself from international football earlier this year. Had all three been available, the wide players such as Young and Walcott and Gerrard as well would have had more of a license to roam without the added pressure of a serious defensive duty. Certainly, when he returned from suspension, we would have seen a more attacking Rooney instead of the stunted attacker we saw, although fitness did seem to be an issue. Looking back, we have been in serious need of a Ron, to shore the midfield up and allow the front line to attack freely. Every team needs a Ron.
(June/July 2012. Originally published at http://www.itsroundanditswhite.co.uk)