Holding patterns

Owen Hargreaves... exemplar of holding players.-AP

The theory behind the West German and Dutch teams of the 1970s was that anybody could and should do everything; defenders attack, attackers defend. But a holding player is specifically a specialist; limited to his role.

It seems that in England, and not only there, holding players have become all the rage. As exemplified by Owen Hargreaves, Manchester United’s English international, of Canadian background and successful experience with Bayern Munich in the German Bundesliga. Hargreaves, who scored a spectacular goal recently from a free-kick at Fulham, is held up as the exemplar of such players. So what does he do and what is a holding player, when he is at home?

It has been pointed out that a good many European teams use not one but two holding players, which puts a particular burden on Hargreaves and his natural stamina and energy as he has to do that whole job on his own. Defence is really of the essence; other players can go for the glory of advancing from midfield into attack. Thus, Hargreaves is expected to station himself as a shield in front of United’s back four, but also to be alert to situations in that midfield which cause him to move quickly across from the middle to deal with them. Rather like a kind of footballing fireman.

Chelsea, though they are of course constantly ringing the changes on their personnel, have a famous holding player in the French international Claude Makelele. When, a couple of seasons or so ago, he decided he would retire from international football, his France manager made such a fuss that he changed his mind; and played a crucial role in his team’s passage to the World Cup final of 2006.

With Chelsea, he, like Hargreaves, is the sole holding player, playing just in front of the back four, though he can count on substantial help from the Ghanaian international, Michael Essien, when Essien plays in central midfield, rather than the German international, the elegant Michael Ballack. Combative as well as positionally shrewd is the word for the veteran Makelele. Early in March, a lunging foul on an opponent at West Ham, though Chelsea were cruising to a 4-0 victory, was, in the view of some reporters, well worthy of a red card. But there is no doubt that when Real Madrid unexpectedly allowed Makelele to leave for London, their defence suffered greatly for his going.

Milan have their own holding player in the tough, uncompromising Gennaro Gattuso, who had a spell in Glasgow with Rangers but came into his own, not to mention the azzurri team, when he returned to his native country. Hard and uncompromising in the tackle, there are times, rare times, when Gattuso may go forward and strike for goal; but rare is the operative word.

Yet, just as there is nothing new under the sun, so it seems at times that for all the current jargon and nomenclature, the same thing may apply to football. What, for example, was little, implacable Nobby Stiles, if he wasn’t a holding player? Not that he was always such. Whenever I have the rare pleasure of meeting him, I demand him to tell me which, at Wembley, were his two finest games. First, of course, he will answer, the 1966 World Cup semifinal against Portugal, when his implacable marking played the great attacker Eusebio out of the game. Secondly, and here comes the surprise, England schoolboys versus Wales, when Nobby was a 15-year-old.

And how exuberantly well he played that day! I happen to have reported both matches, and I can still see him flying up the right flank in his adventurous enthusiasm. No sign then of the dourly defensive element he would become. So essential to the plans of the England manager, Alf Ramsey, that when the Football Association wanted him to be dropped, after a fearful foul at Wembley on France’s Jacky Simon, Ramsey replied that if Stiles went, then so did he. So, needless to say, Stiles stayed.

One is tempted to go back even further and, with the nomenclature still more in the distant future, you might say that Joe Mercer filled that role with huge effect for Arsenal, between 1946 and 1954. Filled it in a kind of second incarnation. For Mercer, on the eve of World War II, had materially helped Everton win the 1938-9 League Championship with his driving runs from right-half. “You’d have liked me then, Brian!” he said to me in Leipzig on the 1974 England tour, when he was the team’s cheerful temporary manager.

During the War, he was left-half in a famous England half-back line — no caps awarded — with his Everton colleague Cliff Britton at right-half, the resourceful Stan Cullis of Wolves at centre-half. All three, plus ’keeper Frank Swift and the prolific centre-forward Tommy Lawton, also played for the Army; and for little Aldershot where they were not stationed as physical training staff, as guest players!

When, in 1946, Everton callously let Mercer hobble all the way home with a damaged knee, he decided to leave them and came south to Arsenal, where the trainer, Tom Whittaker, of the “magic hands,” cuffed his knee, enabling him to captain the Gunners successfully for years. But now in a withdrawn, defensive role. Holding?

Let’s look at this supposedly new phenomenon from another point of view. Could it be reconciled with the principle of Total Football, so supremely well carried out by the West Germans and the Dutch in the 1970s? The theory behind those exciting teams was that anybody could and should do everything; defenders attack, attackers defend. But a holding player is specifically a specialist; limited to his role.