Call it what you like – grit, belligerence, bite – but we Brits like nothing more than to see our country’s footballers assert and reassert their masculinity by haring about the pitch like headless chickens and leaving stud-marks on as many opposition shins as possible.
Terry’s Butcher’s weeping head wound, Stuart Pearce’s psychotically contorted face, Steven Gerrard snapping into another rashly-timed midfield lunge: these are the moments we prize from our modern-day gladiators. Controlling and passing the ball? That can wait.
Naturally, the position most conducive to this battleground mentality is central midfield. It’s the position that has made icons of Gerrard and Bryan Robson – with the nation having seen in them not a pair of fine technicians but two archetypal ‘battlers’ – and the position from which the fundamentally limited Scott Parker won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award in 2011 for the heroic feat of captaining his side to abject relegation.
Given all of the above, then, it’s odd that the current England set-up does not include a single holding midfielder in this mould. Parker is now yesterday's man in a very real sense. Gerrard remains, of course, but his role for club as well as country these days is a rather more nuanced and technically-oriented one than in his previous years as his side’s chief scowler-marauder. His propensity to patrol the centre circle with flailing elbows and studs has, after much physical and mental maturation, receded.
Other midfield options include Frank Lampard, another passer-shooter (still yet to form that perfect partnership with Stevie G), Jack Wilshere, a cute, ball-carrying playmaker, and Michael Carrick, a positionally canny (and reasonable effective) holding player, but certainly not one in the Robson/Parker mould.
But what does it mean, this absence of a pure tackler in the engine room? Is English football finally facing up to its crisis of identity (and technique)? Have we finally found, in Roy Hodgson, the man to lead us out of the dark ages and steer our national team into a trophy-laden era of possession-based tiki-taka? Does our revering of technique merchant Wilshere mean that our entire value system is being turned on its head?
In short: no, no, and no. The on-going presence of the likes of James Milner and Theo Walcott in the England set-up is enough to tell us that many of our better footballers have little to offer in the way or touch or invention, and Wilshere, despite his reputation as national saviour, trades in reckless tackles as much as he does slick passes. Hodgson, of course, will always be Hodgson.
With all that said, though, there seems to be far more balance and capability in a midfield featuring the likes of Wilshere and Carrick (and even Tom Cleverley) than one anchored by Parker – as was the case in their last tournament match, against Italy in Euro 2012.
It is not so much than England don’t miss Parker’s combativeness – after all, it’s hardly as though Wilshere and Cleverley are averse to putting their foot in – but when it comes at the cost of ball retention, it becomes a problem. Inevitably, Parker’s pass accuracy over the course of last season (84% accuracy) languishes behind that of his immediate replacement in the squad, Michael Carrick, as well as Wilshere and Gerrard, so his departure is hardly an unwelcome one.
Hodgson's England will never be a side who'll look to dominate possession against any vaguely strong opposition, so the absence of a midfield destroyer would appear to be something of an oversight.
However, shape and compactness are far more imperative for a team looking to play on the counter than a lunatic charging about on the halfway line. And besides, Carrick averaged the same number of defensive actions as Parker last term, and even put in a similar proportion of tackles to minutes played. Carrick also made 76 interceptions, far more than any England midfielder.
Parker’s time taken to distribute possession was another source of frustration for many. This causes additional problems for an England side whose more dangerous forwards, Rooney aside, are pace merchants who feed off early balls into space – namely Welbeck, Walcott and Sturridge. Carrick, Wilshere and Cleverley are far more astute providers in this regard than the ever-rotating Parker.
In short, the absence of a midfield scamperer should, on paper at least, benefit the England set-up far more than hinder it.
(None of this is to say that Hodgson has finally struck upon the perfect midfield, or indeed that the presence of a pair of young, technically accomplished ball-players should get us excited about the bigger picture – the talents of Wilshere and Cleverley are the respective results of two elite-level academies rather than any nationwide restructuring, and, anyway, they are hardly England’s answer to Xavi and Iniesta. )