Can David Beckham work his soccer magic only when he's operating out on the right flank? Is that the only area of the field in which he's effective?
If it is -- and the way that Beckham is currently being used by the Galaxy strongly suggests that Coach Ruud Gullit believes it to be -- then we're forced to the conclusion that Beckham has only one soccer weapon at his command: the extraordinarily, often uncannily, accurate crosses and long cross-field passes that his right foot can deliver.
And so to the key question: Is Beckham a one-act artist? Is delivering super-accurate, right-footed balls the only exceptional talent that he possesses? And if it is, is that enough to warrant all the money he's getting, and all the ballyhoo that surrounds his presence on the Galaxy? As my answer to the first question is "No," I can ignore the second. My "No" is a slightly hesitant "No," it's true, but still "No." I believe Beckham to be a more complete player than a deliverer of long air-born crosses. If I hesitate a little, it is because we have yet to see Beckham taking on a more complete role for the Galaxy.
This is the way Beckham wants it? Or Gullit wants it? It hardly matters, for evidently there is agreement between the two that the right flank, out near the touch line, is Beckham's natural habitat.
I find that perverse. It seems to suggest that Beckham is only dangerous when he has the ball out on the right. But surely Beckham is a danger wherever he gets the ball. That being the case, it would make sense for the Galaxy to ensure that Beckham sees as much of the ball as possible. Which means moving him into a central midfield role.
But there is evidently a reluctance to do this. The perfect opportunity came on Saturday night, when Landon Donovan took sick and could not start against New England. That opened up things for Beckham to move into the center. But he did not, he continued to play his right-sided role.
Yes, his passes and crosses caused the Revs some problems, but they seemed to create more problems for his own teammates, who had trouble anticipating them or controlling them. The Revs won the game. No goals came from Beckham crosses. Indeed, the lone Galaxy goal came late in the game when we suddenly got a glimpse of a different Beckham. He popped up in the center, a midfield battler, and by sheer determination, got off a shot that was deflected into the Revs goal.
Getting back to those wonderful long passes and crosses. If that is going to be all that Beckham does, or is required to do, then he is not going to be a dominant player in MLS. Just as he was never a dominant player at Real Madrid, and has never been for England.
That is a single-act player, and the single-act inevitably becomes predictable, and easier to defend. It can be argued -- probably it will be argued -- that when Beckham draws a defender or two, he opens things up for his teammates -- particularly Landon Donovan. Possibly. But is that what MLS and AEG had in mind when they showered Beckham with dollars?
Is that what the Beckhamania fans pay to see? Hardly. They want to see plenty of David -- with the ball, and some goalscoring, too. Beckham on the flank, on the margin, is not what is required, not at this stage of his career, not under the very special MLS/Galaxy arrangement which promotes Beckham as the superstar to end all superstars.
What is needed is a Beckham makeover. He, along with Gullit and whoever else is necessary, must give us a new Beckham -- one who can operate in midfield as a playmaker, as a roving danger, as a controlling force, as a captain, and as a goal-scorer too. That is not too much to ask for the highest paid player in the league.
I have in mind the sort of change that Pele underwent late in his career, when he emerged as a superb all-around talent, a bit slower, certainly, but a brain and a gamewinner on the 1970s Brazilian national team -- still, for many of us, the greatest team we've ever seen.
Of course I know that Beckham is no Pele. He does not need to be - the Galaxy is not being asked to win the World Cup, merely to be the best of MLS, and to be an exciting team to watch.
A right-sided Beckham cannot fill the role I've outlined. One danger of playing wide is that it is simply too easy for Beckham to rely on others to initiate things -- and to be isolated from the action when they fail to do so. The Galaxy's game against D.C. United on June 29 was a particularly poor game for Beckham -- not only because the Galaxy was badly outplayed, but because, in the second half, he totally disappeared from the game, might just as well not have been on the field. (And please, don't bring up the heat. Are we dealing with a highly trained athlete or not?)
It is simply too easy to become invisible when patrolling the flank. And whatever tactical position AEG and the Galaxy and Ruud Gullit expect Beckham to play, it is quite definitely not that of a right-sided hole in the air.
Unless, that is, one believes that the Beckham signing was always more about lubricious underwear ads, in which case all this soccer stuff that I'm going on about is of minor importance.