By Trevor Haylett
David Beckham - a wide player with sublime crossing skills, or a central midfield player who can dissect defences with forward passes that appear radar-guided as they land unerringly at their target? If you were his coach, where would you want him to play?
The debate over where to get the best from the England captain and Manchester United FC star is one that has exercised coaching minds and supporters for some time. While he remains out on the flank for both club and country, offering tantalising glimpses of what he can produce from a more central position, the argument continues to stimulate opinion.
The discussion was given new impetus at the start of the season, when it was reported that Sven-Göran Eriksson had said he wanted Beckham to play in a central role for his club, and until he did, the England coach had no choice but to place him out wide for the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign.
Beckham himself has said that he prefers to patrol the central acres. His United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, feels that where he plays is dictated to a large extent by what other players are available. As far as England are concerned, Sir Alex maintains that Eriksson has no one better in the wide position, so that is where he should play.
In an attempt to provide some answers, uefa.com undertook a special study of Beckham's performance during United's opening UEFA Champions League encounter with Maccabi Haifa last week that United won 5-2. It was a game which could have seen him lining up in a central midfield role, such was the extent of United's injury problems, but he was again stationed on the flank.
However, for some time now, both in the Champions League and the English Premiership, Beckham (along with Ryan Giggs) has been given licence to move infield as Sir Alex seeks a more fluid formation. So for a lot of this game, he could be found in the centre of midfield; occasionally he popped up wide on the left.
The statistics for Beckham's work that night reveal the player's remarkable accuracy in possession. Only on five occasions was he off target with his passing; 50 times he hit the mark. His crosses, free-kicks and corners also carry a high level of precision, and nearly always increase the threat on the opponents' goal.
It was interesting that a good proportion of Beckham's forward passes from infield made significant headway for the team, creating good chances for first Ruud van Nistelrooij and, later, Diego Forlán. Out wide, he is much more likely to pass square or lay the ball back because he finds himself boxed in. Having said that, when Beckham is on the flanks, he is still causing big problems for defenders, and he fashioned a great opportunity for Giggs that way with a first-half cross. Amid the debate, one thing is clear - in the centre or out wide, David Beckham is an indispensable asset for both United and England.
Beckham facts v Maccabi Haifa
1st half - Passing (short and long): successful - 11; inaccurate - 0
Crosses, free-kicks and corners: successful - 7; inaccurate - 2
2nd half - Passing: successful - 14; inaccurate - 1
Crosses, free-kicks and corners: successful - 3; inaccurate - 2
1st half - Passing: successful - 14; inaccurate - 2
Crosses, free-kicks and corners: successful - 1; inaccurate - 0
2nd half - Passing: successful - 11; inaccurate - 2
Crosses, free-kicks and corners: successful - 3; inaccurate - 0
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