THE recent influential appearance of Nick Carle in the first leg of the Championship play-off away to Crystal Palace, which I wrote about
while holidaying last weekend, has incited the usual fierce debate about just where he sits in the Socceroos pecking order.
Jesse Fink, subsequently writing a piece
on The World Game
, continues to push Carle’s case for the national team and has even had the opportunity to personally endorse Carle to the national team manager this week.
Rarely has an Australian player incited so much debate, and trust me, it’s been going on since he burst onto the scene for Sydney Olympic back in the 1997/98 season, scoring on his debut as a 15 year old Geoff Harcombe substitute against Marconi.
I was there that day, and have been following his career closely ever since, even interviewing him for a feature piece in the Australian and British Soccer Weekly
back in December 2000, just after he’d turned 19.
At the time Carle was on the verge of fulfilling the reputation as ‘the next big thing since Harry Kewell’ (by virtue not only of his ability on the ball but the fact he came from “Harry Kewell territory”, the western suburbs of Sydney), a tag bestowed on him after his goal on debut. That season, the 2000/01 NSL season, he was having a mighty influence for Olympic, running the show for the Branko Culina coached side that led the table for much for the campaign and played some brilliant stuff, but ultimately fell a couple of games short of the grand final.
By the following season, 2001/02, Carle was off overseas (an unsuccessful stint at French club Troyes), and guess what happened at his old club that season?
Yes, Olympic won the NSL title.
Sound awfully familiar? Yes, the Jets won the title one season after the influential Carle fell a couple of games short in A-League v2.
Timing is everything, and so far the stars haven’t quite aligned for Carle, who was famously also left out of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games squad after playing an influential role in getting Frank Farina’s men there.
But now appears to be his time, and the clamour for his inclusion in Pim Verbeek’s Socceroos 11 is certainly gathering momentum. Certainly, I made no secret of my disappointment
at the lack of match-time afforded to Carle in the pre Asian-Cup warm-up against Uruguay in Sydney last year. Here is what I wrote at the time;
The Socceroos were now struggling to hold the ball up front, and the midfield and defence were under greater pressure. The game, at the break or soon after, was crying out for the introduction of Carle, who might have been able to hold the ball up and relieve some of the defensive pressure.
Conversely, he might be have been able to conjure up a moment of brilliance - as we so nearly saw with his first touch - for the likes of Allsopp and Thompson, but they too were given little time to make an impression.
The pity for all three - like all the A-League players not involved in ACL or Olyroos - is that they haven't been playing regularly since late February (depsite Carle being at Sydney Olympic), an issue the A-League powers need to address.
It now leaves them and Arnold with a headache ahead of the Asia Cup. Given the lack of impact from the likes of Ryan Griffiths and McDonald, there is still enough of
that 'joker' element, as Hiddink liked to call it, in selecting Carle and Thompson, and maybe even Allsopp.
Certainly Carle, as an option off the bench, might even provide some decent delivery at the dead ball, an area the Socceroos have consistently been poor in. This time it was Emerton entrusted with most of the delivery, and almost every time the next touch was a Uruguay head.
Carle, when he came on, either wasn't given the responsibility or didn't take it on. Either way it was to Australia's detriment.
That cameo appearance incited much debate, with many people arguing that Carle’s failed cross with his left peg, from the right side, was a case of showboating, and unnecessary. To my mind, they were looking at the glass half empty.
Just before that game, in my preview of the likely candidates for the Asian Cup
, I wrote this about Carle;
the ‘keep-ball merchant’ of the national competition, it was wonderful to watch Newcastle build its play through him. There is no reason why he can’t fulfill the same role with the national team, in behind the main striker and in front of the likes of Grella and Culina. Main problem is that this is the same space that the likes of Cahill and Holman like to forage. Carle’s other problem is that he isn’t really suited to preferred Socceroos formation which already has Viduka as the focal point in attack. However, a player of this much ability would be a fixture in most national set-ups, if only for the fact he can conjure up an opening with one moment of inspiration.
Now, the latest to add his voice
to the Carle campaign is none other than Tim Cahill. It’s quite ironic given that Carle occupies the space that is invariably occupied by Cahill when he’s fit and well.
They are different players, as I’ve noted previously.
Cahill is more to type to do his business off the ball, ghosting into the box late to get on the end of a header or some scraps in and around the box. He is the perfect foil, and can play the role of the second (or shadow or ghost) striker, or equally can get forward and support two strikers. But he is unlikely to get on the ball and thread killer final balls to the strikers.
That is Carle’s game.
Carle is the type to get behind strikers, get on the ball, keep it and kill teams, like an Andrei Arshavin on Thursday morning
As he noted in my interview almost eight years ago, “my favourite position is in behind the strikers in that creative role”. Nothing, you sense, has changed, but what he has been doing of late is adding things to his game, like work-rate, mobility, competing in the air, making tackles, even if many of them aren’t always perfect.
What Carle doesn’t offer enough of though is that currency that attacking midfielders are often measured by, goals.
Cahill provides them, Brett Holman has been providing them of late in the Eredivise, Arshavin provides (and creates) them for Zenit and Carle, while he creates his fair share, longs to provide them.
It has been his desire to improve his goal-getting ratio for what seems an eternity. In the above-mentioned interview, he admitted his aim for that season was a return of 12 goals. He ended it with two in 26 games.
At the start of A-League v2, he went on the record claiming he wanted goals. Despite his brilliant season, he only managed three in 20.
He is desperate to prove he has the all-round game that can readily translate from league to league, competition to competition and club to country, and there is no doubt from what I’ve seen over the past week (I saw both legs of Bristol’s semi final play-offs against Crystal Palace) he is a far more aerobic and competitive player, but let’s hope that’s not at the expense of his creative and technical game.
In other words, I’m not convinced the box-to-box style of the Championship, or even some Premiership clubs, best suits his attributes. Fair enough, add those things to your game, but don’t let them become your game.
After an impressive first leg, Carle showed signs, in the second leg, that he just doesn’t have the power to drive up and down the field for games after game. Truth be told, for most of the second leg, Ben Watson was giving him the run-around.
Fortunately for Carle and Bristol, Watson missed the most important kick of his career, and the Aussie marched on, having a brilliant opening period of extra time, where he got on the ball, high up the pitch, and did what he does best; offer his team the ability to control a game.
After a few moments of doubt (after giving away the penalty), he also showed in that extra time period that he has the mental toughness to "handle the pressure", something Verbeek is constantly harping.
So, looking ahead, if that’s what Verbeek and other Socceroos managers are after – a player who can control games and create openings, if others do the donkey work – then use Carle.
But if you’re looking for a player who will score you a shit-load of goals and offer consistent box-to-box drive, then right now you'd have to look elsewhere.