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Gerrard gave a glimpse that day into what happens when Roy Race exists in flesh and blood and not on the side: an endless round of hopeless, hopeless shots, each more desperate than the other. Liverpool, who have been so brutally successful this season, have suddenly been blunted by their own captain’s belief that rescuing them was a one-man job.
This contrasts with Beckham’s performance against Greece, an example of the power of the Raceian approach. His decisive intervention at the last moment, that postcard free kick, seemed to draw directly from the Melchester Back catalog. Here, England’s football history was shaped live on television by a great man.
However, there is an alternate reading of this game that at least one elite manager privately endorses. Beckham’s positional indiscipline has fundamentally undermined England’s equilibrium. By foregoing his specific role, Beckham undermined his own team. He played well that day, but the rest of the team didn’t – and couldn’t.
It’s hypothetical, of course, but it’s entirely possible that England wouldn’t have needed Beckham to score a last-minute free kick to save a point if they hadn’t felt so compelled to be the captain, to be the hero . Perhaps, in fact, he simply freed England of a problem he created himself.
This example is worth considering when evaluating Beckham’s immediate – and current – successor as Manchester United’s number 7.
There is no question that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players of all time. The fact that he has scored a number of important goals for Manchester United since returning to England is beyond dispute. He scored the late goal that Villarreal defeated in a Champions League group game. He scored the late goal that Atalanta defeated in another. It was only this week that he repeated the trick against the latter and saved a point for United in Bergamo, Italy, with his goal in the 90th minute.
Ronaldo was then cast as the solution to United’s problems, a patch that covers his team’s many shortcomings. And that interpretation is correct in pretty much every way.