Stylish, flamboyant and a free-kick master. A wonderful range of passing, a quick decision maker, creative, patient and composed. Such superlatives could be about any number of brilliant players throughout football’s history. Perhaps reading that statement – and not the title of this piece – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this article will go on to discuss the brilliance and genius of Andrea Pirlo. However, I’m not talking about Pirlo, I’m talking about the regista England never had: David Beckham.
Sure, England had Beckham, from his debut against Moldova in 1996 to his final appearance against Belarus in 2009, but did England – and indeed every single team he played for – fail to see where Beckham’s true talent lay? Did managers, other players and even fans fail to notice that England potentially had our own version of Pirlo?
This is not to imply that Beckham didn’t have a great career. The Englishman won almost everything at domestic level, from winning the treble and numerous doubles with Manchester United in the late 90s, to winning La Liga with Real Madrid. Even when he moved to LA Galaxy to help kickstart football in North America, he won the MLS Cup. Amongst his status as a celebrity, it’s often easy to forget that Beckham was a truly gifted footballer, and was twice runner-up for World Player of the Year, in 1999 and 2001.
This writer has any number of great memories of David Beckham, particularly that free-kick against Greece. Beckham single-handedly took England to the World Cup in that match at Old Trafford. Still, when you consider the qualities Beckham had, it really is strange he was never played in the centre of the park for any meaningful length of time.
Had Beckham been born Italian, he would undoubtedly have been played centrally. Other than the fact that the dominant formation in English football at the time was 4-4-2 – meaning Beckham wasn’t going to replace Scholes or Keane in central midfield – the only reason that it can be considered that Beckham played out wide was simply because of his out-of-this-world ability to cross the ball.
Another factor hindering Beckham’s progression into the centre of the park was his 2003 move to Real Madrid, as the final Galáctico. Beckham was signed for what appeared to be financial reasons, though Beckham had not noticeably declined by this point, and was forced into a team that already had Zinedine Zidane and Luís Figo as creative outlets behind Raúl and Ronaldo. With this to consider, it is perhaps natural that Beckham was played out on the right – with some short-lived unbalanced experimentation in the centre, in a system that was never going to work. Had Beckham moved to Italy, with its love of 3-5-2 and wing backs at the time, it seems likely that Beckham would have played in the centre of the park.
It is also possible to remember only the very simple things about David Beckham. If you ask a child today what David Beckham’s best quality was, I’d bet 90 percent would say ‘free-kicks’. Whilst this was undoubtedly one of Beckham’s strongest attributes, to limit him to just being a good free-kick taker does an injustice to how good Beckham was as a footballer. His long-range passing was sublime (much like Pirlo), he was composed and calm on the ball (like Pirlo), and was far more creative than many gave him credit for.
Those of you that may still be sitting thinking ‘this is nonsense’, let me remind you that a couple of seasons ago Steven Gerrard, a former box-to-box marauding central midfielder, was converted to play regista for Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers. This writer would contest that a player such as David Beckham was actually far more suited to that role than Steven Gerrard ever was.
Beckham had better positional nouse than Gerrard – compensation for his lack of strength defensively – had better long-range passing and was more mobile than Gerrard in his latter years. While Beckham may have gained less highlights on programs such as Match of the Day, he also wouldn’t have bypassed his midfield quite as often as Gerrard did.
For a player who was undoubtedly a global superstar, Beckham rarely showed his ego on the pitch, being a willing passer to those higher up the pitch than he was. Again, this is a vital skill for a regista. As a deeper playmaker, he cannot take the game into his own hands. Yes, he can control it from deep, as you would want him to, but his main responsibility is to deliver the ball to those higher up, in more threatening positions.
What’s more, it’s not as if Beckham’s crossing ability would have been negated by moving into the centre. All he would need to do is combine with the right or left-sided defender – something Beckham was always good at – before delivering one of his trademark crosses for the attackers. Being a regista wouldn’t have limited any of his strengths; it would have enhanced them.
Usually, an opponent’s left-back or left-winger would be given the responsibility of preventing Beckham crossing the ball as much as he could. With no-one to really combat this as he moved from the centre of the park to the wing, Beckham would find himself in more space. David Beckham making free, unchallenged crosses? A terrifying prospect for opposition centre backs and goalkeepers.
It is certainly possible to argue that Beckham wasn’t a world-class defender, so to put him in defensive midfield could have been a liability. However, this would be no different to the use of Steven Gerrard in that position, and Beckham would work far better with a more defensive partner than Gerrard did, holding his position in a double pivot and acting as the playmaker of the two.
There were isolated glimpses of this ability as a central midfielder. On YouTube there is a video of Beckham playing against Deportivo La Coruña in the middle of the park, acting much like a modern deep-lying playmaker. His distribution from a deeper position is absolutely fantastic, and the number of times he makes difficult passes to find Raúl in dangerous areas and half-spaces is staggering. He combines well with Zidane ahead of him, acknowledging the creative genius of the Frenchman, and making the correct passes.
He also gravitates out to the right every now and then to put in the unchallenged crosses mentioned above. When you watch the performance in its entirety, Beckham looks like a composed, competent and creative modern-day deep-lying playmaker. In a way, Beckham looks ahead of his time.
The former England captain did play centrally at times during his stint at Paris Saint-Germain, but this was right at the tail end of Beckham’s career, when he had drastically declined, was much slower, and really struggled to cope with the speed of the modern game, particularly in a 4-4-2 that exposed him against Barcelona in the Champions League.
Had Beckham been protected in some kind of 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, his weaknesses would have been masked, and he would still have been able to play the position. Furthermore, had his ability to play as a regista been noticed much earlier in his career, Beckham would have gained greater experience in the role, and would certainly have improved.
In theory, David Beckham could have been England’s answer to Andrea Pirlo, and could have been the metronome to which England’s band played from 1996 to 2009. Fans would still have all the great moments associated with Beckham, but he would have been even more influential and could easily have challenged for the position of England’s greatest – certainly most influential – footballer.
Instead, David Beckham is remembered more as a global megastar and a talented football, rather than a player who was ahead of his time, playing a role which would come to be a necessity by 2010. What’s more, if his ability in the middle of the park had been recognised, Beckham’s peak would have been elongated.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Now we only have mere glimpses of Beckham’s real talent and potential as the regista England have desperately needed for almost three decades.
By Jonathon Aspey. Follow @JLAspey