Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur meet on Sunday in a contest in which the result has ramifications for potential European qualification. It is also an occasion that will see two of the Premier League’s most fascinating projects in action.
Helmed by former Chelsea employees Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas, both clubs are putting their long-term health in the trust of these young managers. Both have grand ideas and philosophies as to how to fulfil the lofty ambitions of two of England’s underachieving traditional powers.
A decidedly old school principle, one that was previously lacking, has played a large part in their respective team’s strong recent form—leadership. For that, they have Jamie Carragher and Michael Dawson to thank.
The central defenders were not regarded as first-choice starters for the first few months of the season. Carragher was still around as one of Liverpool’s wise old heads, but Dawson was told he could seek a transfer with his first-team opportunities likely to be limited. Queens Park Rangers were reportedly interested, but he decided to fight for his place.
"We ended up being on the better side by the fact he agreed to stay with us,” Villas-Boas admitted last month (here via SkySports.com). “We were lucky in that sense”.
Dawson was given his first league start of the season against West Ham United in November. It followed a disastrous defensive display from the Tottenham defense in their 5-2 loss at Arsenal. They had looked disorganized (and just a little soft) most of the season, but this performance was the final straw. It was telling that they looked markedly tougher in the second half once Dawson came on.
Since then, the only losses Spurs have suffered (against Everton and Leeds United) have been when Dawson did not start.
Since Rodgers recalled him to the side following their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, Carragher has been a similarly sturdy presence in the Liverpool defense. Though they have not gone unbeaten in that time, the Reds have looked a good deal more solid with the veteran defender. How Rodgers intends to move on without Carragher after he retires this summer will be one of the more intriguing storylines heading into next season.
For now at least, Carragher and Dawson’s willingness to lead makes them stand out among the defenders at their clubs. Backed by other attributes they share—commitment, bravery, strong tackling ability and organizational skills—the two are players who take responsibility, no matter the situation. An attitude that has proved important given the inconcistency of their teams without them.
The likes of Daniel Agger, Steven Caulker and Jan Vertonghen are all fine defenders. None though have yet developed a commandment of the penalty area (both vocally and in their actions) that is so vital in keeping opposition teams out.
It is not about age. John Terry and Vincent Kompany are two of the finest exponents of this no-nonsense brand of defending in the division, and both led their teams to success well before the age of 30. At Tottenham, William Gallas is older than Dawson, but he is ineffective at maintaining alertness and shape in defense without a more responsibly-inclined player beside him.
Neither Dawson nor Carragher are perfect. Pace particularly can be an issue when passes are played in behind them. The value of their contributions has been in the balance it has brought to defences that were too one-track. As desriable as ball-playing defenders in the Barcelona-mould might be, brawn and grittiness is just as important when tasked with stopping quality attackers (though both are better footballers as given credit for).
Liverpool and Tottenham have come become tougher propositions with Carragher and Dawson respectively at the back. Both teams have become less prone to lapses in concentration, and Spurs especially have enjoyed a marked improvement defending late in games.
Sunday’s game will see them tasked with playing their part in stopping two of the division’s most in-form attacks, led by two players in spectacular form. Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale will be as daunting an opponent as either Carragher or Dawson have faced this season.
One of their team’s good runs may well come to an end, but it will not be as a result of poor effort from two of England’s hardest working defenders and leaders.
By Thomas Cooper.