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When the Solution Is the Problem


Gerrard, that day, offered a glimpse of what happens when Roy Race exists in flesh and blood, rather than on the page: an endless round of hopeful, hopeless shots, each one more desperate than the last. Liverpool, so brutally effective that season, was suddenly blunted by its own captain’s conviction that salvation was a one-man job.

Beckham’s performance against Greece stands in contrast to that, an example of the potency of the Raceian approach. His decisive intervention at the last moment, that picture-postcard free kick, seemed plucked straight out of the Melchester back catalog. Here was England’s soccer history being shaped, live on television, by a Great Man.

There is, though, an alternative reading of that game, one that at least one elite manager privately endorses. Beckham’s positional indiscipline fundamentally undermined England’s balance. By abdicating his specific role, Beckham undermined his own team. He played well that day, but as a function of that, the rest of the side did not — and could not.

It is a hypothetical, of course, but it is entirely possible that England might not have needed Beckham to score a last-minute free kick to rescue a point if he had not felt so compelled to be the captain, to be the hero. He may, in fact, have simply delivered England from a problem of his own making.

That example is worth contemplating when assessing Beckham’s immediate — and current — successor as Manchester United’s No. 7.

That Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players ever is not in question. That he has, since returning to England, scored a raft of crucial goals for Manchester United is indisputable. He scored the late goal that beat Villarreal in a Champions League group stage match. He scored the late goal that beat Atalanta in another one. Just this week, he repeated the trick against the latter, his 90th-minute strike salvaging a point for United in Bergamo, Italy.

Ronaldo has, then, been cast as the solution to United’s problems, a plaster that covers his team’s many flaws. And that interpretation is, by pretty much any measure, correct.


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