Defensive worries

Looking back over the World Cup years, there have been some unusual and unexpected twists in the story of England's centre backs; or centre-halves. The story looks fairly similar this time too.

A crisis of centre backs? It looks a little like it as Fabio Capello, at this late stage of thing, with the World Cup finals looming, has turned to two players who till now had scarcely been seen as England candidates. Jamie Carragher of Liverpool — in every sense, not only soccer loyal to the club but to his native city — and Tottenham's Ledley King, the veteran defender whose knees are in such disrepair that he cannot even train.

In Carragher's casé, absence from the international team was voluntary. The consequence of his ham fisted treatment by the disastrous England manager, Steve McClaren. True, McClaren this season has emphatically arisen from the tomb. No longer the so called ‘Wally With The Brolly', the cruel nickname bestowed on him when he watched England's dismal defeat at Wembley by Croatia from under an umbrella, he has just won the Dutch championship with Twente Enschede, and, is in high European demand.

Carragher was sick and tired of being constantly dropped and recalled to the team; and when he was picked, being absurdly obliged to play out of position, a natural right footer, at left back, in Israel. A fringe player under Sven Goran Eriksson in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where, by his own admission, he accumulated quantities of official, discarded gear for the benefit of his own family members who were present.

Carragher hasn't had an entirely good season with his club. But in recent weeks, his form had markedly improved. He is mobile, intelligent, highly committed. At 32 he is arguably past his peak, not so fast, inevitably, as he was. But he is surely a far better bet than Matthew Upson, now with West Ham, who has never truly looked international class to me, when picked for his country, and he has hardly been a rock with Hammers this season.

Ledley King? Another veteran. No doubt about his power and dominant ability. But though, at the end of this season, he managed, against all the odds, to play three full games in a week, the intense demands of a World Cup could surely prove too much for him and those knees. And why, at this late stage, should Fabio Capello feel the need to call up these two? First, no doubt, because an obvious first choice in Manchester United's elegant and mobile Rio Ferdinand has been in and out of football all season with his injuries.

Then there's the case of John Terry. Seriously disgraced after his affair with the ex-girlfriend of his former Chelsea colleague, Wayne Bridge. Foiled in a deplorable bid to gag the Press. Rocky in form as an evident consequence. Capable of giving away two bad goals, when Chelsea lost at Everton. So lucky not to be sent off for a shocking foul on Aston Villa's James Milner, in the FA Cup semi-finals, at Wembley. Plainly slower, as the consequences of his own injuries. Even as long as four years ago, he made a shocking error in the World Cup finals against Paraguay, Ashley Cole coming gallantly to the rescue.

He can still be a dominating player; but will he, would he, be, in South Africa? The England captaincy meanwhile has been taken away from him.

Looking back over the World Cup years, there have been some unusual and unexpected twists in the story of England's centre backs; or centre-halves. It was long ago, in 1925, that the stopper centre half, alias the third back, was invented by Arsenal. Specifically by that famous inside right and future leading journalist, Charlie Buchan who'd just returned to the club, newly managed by the renowned Herbert Chapman. Returned, because he had left them before World War I, when still an amateur, over the trivial matter of 11 shillings' expenses owed to him. Destined to become a major star in the North East, with Sunderland.

Prior to 1925 and the sudden radical change in the offside law, the centre half had been so much more than a mere stopper. He was indeed the pivot, the fulcrum, of his team, an attacker as well as a defender. The Gunners had just been thrashed 7-0 at Newcastle, where the late Charlie Spencer, their centre half, once assured me that he himself had played as the first all defensive centre backs or stoppers. So Chapman withdrew a reluctant centre half for the accomplished Jack Butler to play as the third back, marking the opposing centre forward, and the new strategy was born, soon to be taken up by every major English club.

Not, however, on the Continent and South America, where the centre half remained a mobile and versatile figure. All three World Cups before World War II and the 1950 World Cup, into the bargain, were won by teams playing with an old school centre half.

By contrast with today's formations, where a double centre back defence is almost mandatory, even after the Brazilians had revolutionised defensive football in the 1958 World Cup with four men in line at the back, there was a differentiation between the two in the four man middle. One, such as Brazil's Bellini, was an orthodox stopper. Beside him usually to his left played what was essentially a defensive left half in Orlando. As indeed, was Bobby Moore, World Cup player of the year in 1966, when England won the trophy. Moore, at West Ham, had tried and failed as an orthodox centre half, never being strong enough in the air and when Alf Ramsey used him in that role against West Germany at Wembley in a 1972 Nations Cup quarter-finals, he floundered.

It was in 1954 that Billy Wright, only 5 foot 8, took over at centre half in the Swiss World Cup to solve England's problems for years to come. Today, their problem is one of age and injury. Could Carragher and King be the Kate, surprising answer?