On the last edition of the popular Monday Night Football (MNF), Sky Sports’ Premier League review show hosted by Ed Chamberlin and featuring the expert analysis of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, the unlikeliest pairing imaginable, the two pundits debated over their selections for teams consisting of the greatest players from UK & Ireland, and the Rest of the World, to have played in the Premier League. As you can see in the video, the link to which has been provided below, Carragher chose the UK & Ireland team, and Neville the Rest of the World team.
Now, as with any inherently subjective discussion based on “Greatest of All Time” lists and “Best XI” lineups, there are innumerable choices to be made, and each person will almost invariably have a different set of criteria to pick from. In this article, I’ll try and assess the choices the two pundits made, include players, positions, formations and tactics, and then end by naming my preferred lineups. Let’s get cracking!
Wait, one more thing. Whenever I read about Best XIs, I find that people confuse the purpose of the exercise. While most compiled lineups are just about getting the best players in each position into a team, like the end-of-season “Team of the Year” lineups, what Carragher and Neville have done is not only try and get the best players on the pitch, as usual, but also enter tactical discussions about how the teams would set up, who would win individual battles etc. So there is obviously an important question about players’ compatibility with each other, and the overall team. In light of this, when I comment about their selections, and choose my own teams, I’ll discuss things from the tactical perspective, while also trying to get the best players in the team. So even if Kevin Nolan is the best player for me from a tactical perspective, he won’t get in. Likewise, if I feel Player X is tactically more suited to a lineup than Player Y, even though Y is marginally better–as is the case with the elite players; we really are clutching at straws while trying to select two of the five or ten most talented players to have played in the league–I won’t hesitate to put X in.
Right. Let’s really get cracking now.
These are the respective squads chosen by the Carragher and Neville. Since the screenshot is really poor, I’ll list the teams down. Do watch the video, though. The analysis is great.
- Jamie Carragher’s UK & Ireland team (4-4-2)
Starting Lineup — David Seaman (GK); Gary Neville (RB), Tony Adams (RCB), John Terry (LCB), Ashley Cole (LB); David Beckham (RM), Roy Keane (RCM), Steven Gerrard (LCM), Ryan Giggs (LM); Wayne Rooney (ST), Alan Shearer (CF).
Substitutes — Joe Hart (GK), Irwin (LB/RB), Ferdinand (CB), Scholes(CDM/CM/CAM), Lampard(CM/CAM), Bale (LM/RM/CAM), Fowler (ST)
- Gary Neville’s Rest of the World team (4-2-3-1)
Starting Lineup — Peter Schmeichel (GK); Pablo Zabaleta (RB), Vincent Kompany (RCB), Nemanja Vidic (LCB), Patrice Evra (LB); Patrick Vieira (RCM), Yaya Toure (LCM); Cristiano Ronaldo (RAM), Eric Cantona (CAM), Thierry Henry (LAM); Luis Suarez (ST)
Substitutes — Edwin van der Sar (GK), Javier Mascherano (CDM/CM), Xabi Alonso (CDM/CM), David Silva (CAM/LM), Sergio Aguero (ST), Didier Drogba (CF/ST), Ruud van Nistelrooy (ST)
What fantastic line-ups. It’s almost impossible to choose which of the two would win in a head-to-head. Both teams have their respective strengths. Carragher says his team would give him excellent work rate in every position, with even his wide midfielders and strikers not shying away from the dirty work, and that would likely give him an edge over the Foreign team. However, I do think a midfield of Vieira and Toure would hold their own against Gerrard and Keane. Let’s take a look at the head-to-heads on the pitch.
- Suarez and Cantona vs Terry and Adams
This is an interesting one, because the two strikers are not the kind of players that you expect Terry and Adams to be most comfortable playing against. Both centre-backs were strong in the air, up for a physical battle, and very difficult to get the better of in close quarters. I never saw Adams play, unfortunately, but Terry is pretty accomplished at one-on-ones, although his main strength is his defensive organization and dealing with crosses against a big number nine. Which is why going up against Suarez and Cantona might be tricky, since neither were traditional centre-forwards (even though I must mention that Cantona scored quite a few headed goals from Giggs crosses), and were better at dropping deep or wide, picking up the ball and playing in front of the defense, or trying to get in behind them, instead of playing in line with them, and jostling for crosses.
- Rooney and Shearer vs Vidic and Kompany
This is rather more straightforward to analyze, although certainly as difficult to choose from. Shearer was the traditional number nine, the guy you could stick against any centre-back pairing, and he would occupy them all day. I’m a huge fan of both Kompany and Vidic, who were both exceptional in the air, and again, very physical players; Kompany has the added advantage of being an excellent distributor. But I do think Shearer would be a lot to handle for them, probably too much. And Wayne Rooney as the second striker, playing behind Shearer, picking up loose balls and also–crucially, a difference from Neville’s choice–dropping deep and playing as a third midfielder, would really help his midfield as well. Which serves as an excellent segue to:
- Keane and Gerrard vs Toure and Vieira
Three midfielders who, on their day, no one could stop, and one–Keane–who, on his day, could stop anyone. Who would come out on top? This is a bit of an easier choice for me, from a tactical perspective, even though it is impossible to choose from the players based solely on their talent and achievements. On paper, at their peak, all four midfielders were absolutely unplayable. Technically, they’re impossible to separate. Gerrard and Keane edge it on mental attributes, while Vieira and Toure edge it on physicality.
Tactically, however, it’s a less complicated story. I think even Neville acknowledges later in the video that Yaya Toure can’t play in a two in midfield, as we’ve seen at City, and what elevates Carragher’s team above Neville’s is the presence of Wayne Rooney up top. Even though Carragher plays him as a striker, he will almost certainly drop back and make it a midfield three when not in position, while Cantona probably wouldn’t do the same for Neville’s team. Also, Carragher’s team has a lot more balance in midfield if you include Beckham, Giggs, Henry and Ronaldo in the discussion. That is because Beckham and Giggs wouldn’t play as wingers, but as wide midfielders, completely attuned to the defensive side of the game. Sir Alex Ferguson has said that Beckham was the best trainer at the club, and when you add his engine to that of Keane, Giggs and Gerrard, you have a midfield that will be very difficult to play against. On the other hand, Henry and Ronaldo would leave Vieira and Toure totally and utterly isolated in midfield.
Furthermore, Toure nor Vieira are out and out defensive midfielders (like a Mascherano, for example), so I think the balance is affected, whereas in terms of balance and tactical compatibility, it doesn’t get much better than Gerrard and Keane. Manchester United’s treble-winning midfield in the 1998-99 season was Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs, and had great balance as well. But Gerrard coming in for Scholes is an improvement for me, since Gerrard is fantastic at defending as well, and his brilliant distribution skills mean that he wouldn’t be a downgrade on Scholes from that perspective. Keane and Gerrard can both play every, and I do mean every, role in the middle of the park, and thus making tactical and positional alterations during a game would not be a problem. That is why Gerrard and Keane are above Vieira and Toure in my books when analyzed in the context of team tactics.
- Henry and Ronaldo vs Cole and Neville
Down Carragher’s left flank, with Cole and Ronaldo, it really is an even battle. Obviously, over 90 minutes, you expect the attacker to get the better of the defender, but if there was one full-back who consistently matched up to Ronaldo, it was Cole. We all know about Ronaldo: the speed, acceleration, physicality, skills, ability to hug the line or cut inside with equal effectiveness. But I don’t think Cole gets enough credit for what a superb one-on-one defender he is. From the perspective of full-backs attacking, Ronaldo (certainly the Real Madrid iteration of the last 2 years) doesn’t track back too often, and Cole is very dangerous going forward. But if I had to choose one, it’d be Ronaldo getting the better of Cole.
Down Neville’s left side, with Henry up against Neville, again, it’s a strange one. From a one-on-one perspective, I am sure Neville will be the first to admit Henry would consistently get the better of him. Rarely has the Premier League seen a more perfect physical and technical specimen than the Frenchman. So let’s close that chapter of the discussion: Neville 0, Henry 1. However, if Neville chose to support Beckham in attack, which he routinely did over the years, Henry would be taken out of the game, since he, like Ronaldo, was not the most adept at tracking back. Hell, he isn’t even a wide player! While it is obvious that Neville the pundit put Henry out wide to put him against Neville the player, I think the move will backfire on him when Carragher’s team decide to attack down their right flank.
- Giggs and Beckham vs Zabaleta and Evra
It’s important to note that Giggs and Beckham weren’t traditional wingers (Beckham certainly wasn’t), and therefore they wouldn’t get into proper one-on-one situations against Zabaleta and Evra. However, if they did, the Zabaleta-Giggs story is much the same as the Ronaldo-Cole one down that same flank, except that Giggs would carry out his defensive duties very effectively. On the other flank, Beckham would rarely get past Evra, such was the Frenchman’s defensive prowess. However, the thing about Beckham is that he rarely got into one-on-ones, instead relying on Neville to make the overlapping run, dragging the full-back with him, giving Beckham the time to cross the ball. And seeing as Henry would not contribute too much defensively, and that Toure or Vieira coming over to help would leave the Rest of the World side even shorter in midfield, I have to pick Beckham to win the fight. That was what made Beckham so difficult to play against.
Overall, while there is very little to separate the sides when analyzed on paper, looking at the individual battles in different areas of the pitch reveals that Neville’s wingers (Henry and Ronaldo) should have an edge over Carragher’s full backs (Neville and Cole) from an attacking perspective, whereas his strikers (Suarez and Cantona) would probably not play right into Terry and Adams’ hands. Furthermore, Giggs and Beckham would pose all sorts of problems for Zabaleta and Evra. However, the only clear advantage I see is in midfield, with Keane and Gerrard (and Rooney from up front, with Beckham and Giggs from the flanks) theoretically superior to just Vieira and Yaya Toure, without any support from wide or up front. And since everyone will tell you that while defining moments in a match come at either end of the pitch, games are won in the middle of the park. So while I would not be crazy enough to put money on a game between these two great sides, I do feel Carragher’s team would probably edge it by the width of a hair, simply because of the superb balance.
If you watched the video, you’ll have seen that after the initial analysis of their respective teams, Neville made changes to Carragher’s UK & Ireland team, and Carragher did the same to Neville’s original Rest of the World Team. I won’t get into the level of detail I did for the original selections, instead just going over the major changes made, and overall balance.
As you can see, Neville changed to a 3-4-1-2, with Ferdinand coming in for him, Scholes for Gerrard and Gareth Bale for Ashley Cole. Carragher changed to a 4-4-2, with Silva in for Suarez, and Drogba in for Cantona, with Henry moving to a central role.
For me, Neville’s team (UK & Ireland) wins this one hands down. Carragher hasn’t addressed the tactical issues presented by the lack of balance in Neville’s original side (Silva might actually be worse at both attacking and defending than Henry down the left flank), although Drogba can be trusted to give Terry and Adams problems all day. Neville has made his midfield even better, with Bale and Rooney providing support in midfield, and also great penetration up front. I think Neville made the Scholes-Gerrard switch simply because he think Scholes is the better of the two, and while I don’t necessarily ascribe to that view, I do agree with the switch in the context of this tactical set-up. While I think Gerrard is Scholes’ equal in terms of offensive distribution of the ball, Scholes is quite clearly the better of the two at retaining and maintaining possession, and can be trusted to never lose the ball. Think about it this way. Scholes can make five short passes when the game calls for it, and not get irritated. But with Gerrard, who is my favourite currently active footballer (so my comments are totally objective), he NEEDS to play the occasional long ball, simply because of his aggressiveness and gung-ho approach to the game). With Bale in the middle of the park, the team no longer needs the box-to-box characteristics of Gerrard, and can settle for the deep-lying playmaker that Scholes became later in his career. The midfield of Scholes, Keane and Bale (potentially Rooney as well) clearly beats Vieira and Toure to give Neville the upper hand.
However, I do agree with the point Carragher made about leaving Terry up against one-on-one. Terry is positionally superb, but I doubt he would have a good time up against Ronaldo for 90 minutes. Also, I can’t imagine two better wide midfielders to play the wing-back role than Giggs and Beckham, who provide the work rate required. When defending, if they played as full-backs in a back five, I am sure Rooney and Bale would slot into the two wide areas to make it a 5-4-1, highly compact, well-placed for a counter-attack. I am partial to the way Neville has set this UK & Ireland team up mainly because it is very similar to the way I set my team up on Football Manager, except that I don’t play with three centre-backs, instead using a defensive midfielder in a half-back role. So my modification to Neville’s UK & Ireland team would be bringing Steven Gerrard in for Tony Adams, and playing Keane as the defensive midfielder, and Gerrard and Scholes in central midfield. Keane and Gerrard could potentially even be swapped.
This leads me to the final section of this article (thanks for sticking up with this for so long, if you’re still with me): my preferred UK & Ireland, and Foreign teams.
- UK & Ireland (2-3-2-1-2)
Hart; Beckham (RWB), Ferdinand (RCB), Terry (LCB), Baines (LWB); Gerrard (CDM–half-back/anchorman), Keane (RCM–ball-winning midfielder), Scholes (LCM–deep-lying playmaker), Bale (CAM); Rooney (ST), Shearer (CF)
I know, I know, I left Giggs out.
- Foreign (2-3-2-1-2)
Schmeichel; Zabaleta (RWB), Kompany (RCB), Vidic (LCB), Evra (LWB); Makelele (CDM–ball-winning midfielder/half-back), Vieira (RCM–ball-winning midfielder), Toure (LCM–box-to-box midfielder), Bergkamp (CAM); Henry (ST), Suarez (ST)
I know, I know, I left Ronaldo out.
And just to make it interesting, here is my composite selection of the greatest Premier League team of all time (in terms of balance as much as positional excellence) in my preferred tactical system.
Schmeichel; Beckham (RWB), Vidic (RCB), Terry (LCB), Baines (LWB); Keane (CDM), Vieira (ball-winning), Gerrard (box-to-box), Scholes (CAM); Henry (ST), Shearer (CF)
I know, I know, I left both Giggs and Ronaldo out.
So there you have it. Thanks for reading, I’d love to know what you think about my analysis of Neville and Carragher’s teams, their modifications, and my selected teams.