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Boyz on the double

Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer

It's hard to tinker with success. Yet, despite Jamaica's triumph in the Digicel Caribbean Championships (DCC) last December, John Barnes was not totally happy with the way the Reggae Boyz lined up on the field.

Barnes admits he stuck with the 5-3-2 formation, which carried Jamaica to World Cup 1998, because he was wary of public perception if he switched to a new system so soon after taking over as senior national football coach.

Barnes dumped it

But his concerns over the "balance" of the tested system of three central defenders and two fullbacks, coupled with three midfielders and two forwards, peaked during a 0-0 draw against Nigeria in February. So late last month against Haiti, Barnes dumped it for a 4-4-2 formation: four defenders, two forwards and four across the middle.

The two central midfielders became vital cogs for the compact, ball-possession game Barnes craves. For the twin roles, the coach paired Jason Morrison, a former Portmore United player now with Ferencvaros in Hungary, and Harbour View's Richard Edwards.

The lanky Morrison and the stocky Edwards were trusted with making Jamaica's play flow, on offense and defence. Where once the "119" or "safety" role, as former coach Ren? Simoes called it, rested with a single central player like Peter Cargill, Christopher Dawes or, more recently, Rudolph Austin, the tempo would now be set by the unlikely duo.

They would keep the team's shape, form a first-line buffer in central defence and get the ball to the right players at the right time, whether trying to avoid turnovers or starting an attack.

But draws against Haiti and El Salvador the last two weekends offered mixed results for the experiment. Jamaica struggled to keep the ball against their French Caribbean neighbours. Yet Barnes pointed elsewhere for the let-down.

"I felt that the two central defenders (Claude Davis and Damion Stewart) pushed on too much when we had possession," Barnes explained. "So, therefore, the two central midfielders had no room."

Stewart and Davis' fill-in, Adrian Reid, made the adjustment against El Salvador and Jamaica looked more composed. Morrison and Edwards had rarely played together, but by the time El Salvador rolled around the duo had smoothed over some kinks in their new partnership.

"We're getting to understand each other better," said Morrison, who played in the DCC and against Nigeria. " ... It's working."

Quick turnaround

Edwards, who represented Jamaica under coach Bora Milutinovic, credited Morrison, Barnes and his club for the quick turnaround.

"We speak a lot on and off the field," he said of his central midfield partner. "I've gained a lot of experience from him, owing to the fact that he's been overseas. (The coach) put the belief in us and we just portray it on the field."

Barnes thinks his trust in the new system is being rewarded. The 4-4-2 may be new to Jamaica, the coach contends, but most of the overseas-based players are used to playing the formation at their clubs. He believes Edwards and Morrison possess the discipline their roles demand.

"Playing in that position you have to be disciplined," Barnes said, even if it means sacrificing the flair fans relish.

"In Jamaica we don't revere those types of players because they are not pretty," the coach added. "But they are effective."

Yet with the invitation of Austin for the June 7 Panama game, plus Khari Stephenson, the holding midfield area has become crowded ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July. Some think Edwards, the only local-based player among the quartet, will be the easy choice to cut. But Barnes is adamant none of the Boyz is guaranteed a spot. No gulf in quality exists between "Shortman" and his higher-profile teammates.

"For what I want to do and the type of player I want in midfield (Edwards is) very similar to Jason Morrison and Rudolph Austin," Barnes explained after the Haiti match. "I've been very, very impressed with him."

If they are selected, Panama is another chance for the duo to anchor itself in the new formation.

"We just have to show what we can do so we can be in the squad for the Gold Cup," Morrison said.