The tale of Fletcher’s ascent is best sung to the familiar tune of “zero to hero.” The young Scot, originally billed as the next Beckham, experienced a break-out season last term, making 26 Premier League appearances for United. However, when I try to explain his rise, I find myself at a loss for words. What makes Fletcher so good?
As per usual, low expectations play a part. Sir Alex struggled to find the best role for Fletcher, and, when finally moved centrally, he languished in the shadow of Paul Scholes. Fans abused him mercilessly, decrying his game as boring and languid. But now the chorus has shifted tunes to shouts of “efficient” and “tidy.”
Still, he scored all of 3 goals in the League last season. Not impressive, especially when compared with Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. Granted, his first two goals were crucial for United: they assured 4 points that kept the Red Devils a half step behind Liverpool. But still, I contend that the goal/assist stats fail to capture Fletcher’s worth.
Rather, Fletcher plays a different role from Lampard or Gerrard: he is a Makelele-clone, a horizontal passing park ranger, rarely getting his knees dirty because of his excellent defensive positional-sense. Surely his passing statistics would reflect a high completion rate?
Alas, the EPL does not care for such statistics. Your height, goals, and cards matter, but not your ability to complete a pass. This is a stark contrast to the Fifa stats for the 2009 Confederations Cup. But isn’t completing a pass the basic element of football? And nobody can deny that Fletcher’s consistency and range of passing have both improved considerably. Or can they?
Given the dearth of EPL provided stats, I put pen to paper this Saturday and carefully followed Fletcher’s touches during the 5-0 rout of Wigan. I focused heavily on passing, and categorized passes as a) backwards, b) forwards, and c) sideways. I anticipated a lot of sideways and backwards passes, and I was wrong.
Fletcher attempted 49 passes the entire match, of which he completed 43. His 87% completion percentage was very strong. But what surprised me most was that, of 49 passes, 22 advanced the ball vertically to a midfielder or a forward. He completed 18/22 such “forward passes.”
While Darren did not even attempt to switch fields — a cross field horizontal pass of 20 plus yards – it became apparent to me that he really keeps the offense ticking. Scholes provides some wonderful hailmary balls from time-to-time, but Fletcher provides a calming and consistent influence. A ying to the redhead’s yang.
Granted, Darren’s game still needs some work. He did flub a nice Nani sitter from 5 yards. And he only attempted two shots all game. But his steady barrage of ten foot passes set the rhythm for an impressive 5 goal second half, even if he stayed off the score sheet. He is the drummer, allowing Rooney and company to launch into wicked guitar solos.
That is why last season his tackle on Fabregas sent a chill up my spine — we sorely needed his influence in the Barcelona game. And we can only hope history does not repeat itself step-for-step.
Elliott is the editor of Futfanatico.com.
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