Injuries allowing Gerrard to flourish
JUNE 24 — Roy Hodgson certainly wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but the pre-tournament injuries suffered by two of his most experienced players could well be the best thing to happen to England’s Euro 2012 campaign.
For a number of years, a succession of England managers have struggled with the conundrum of how to fit Lampard and Steven Gerrard into the same team. First Sven Goran Eriksson, then Steve McClaren and finally Fabio Capello: all tried; all failed.
Throughout that period, the Chelsea and Liverpool stars have self-evidently been the most productive and most respected of all English midfield players, producing consistently good enough performances for their clubs to demand a place in the national team. Indeed, both have had spells of wearing the captain’s armband, as Gerrard does again now.
But where should they play? They have never played well together as a central pairing because both prefer to attack rather than to defend, therefore getting in each other’s way and leaving the defence too exposed to rapid counter-attacks.
An alternative formation was needed, and Gerrard’s greater mobility resulted in him being shifted all over the pitch in a vain attempt to find the solution: central midfield, support striker, wide right, wide left... Gerrard has done them all, without ever really showing the same kind of dominant form that he produces on a consistent basis for Liverpool.
Latterly, in a further stage of experimentation, a three-man midfield approach was largely favoured, with Gareth Barry providing the defensive stability and allowing Lampard and Gerrard to both push ahead in more advanced positions.
But that didn’t seem to work either because England don’t really know how to play a 4-3-3 formation, and the recent emergence of Scott Parker as a bona-fide international performer added yet another confusing element to the equation.
With Barry, Gerrard, Lampard and Parker all in the mix, England had four players for two positions... and nobody had a clue how they could be accommodated.
But we’ll never know how Hodgson would have addressed the issue, because the decision was taken out of his hands when Lampard and Barry both suffered serious injuries on the eve of the tournament, ruling them out of contention for the big event.
Suddenly, the centre of England’s midfield picked itself: Parker and Gerrard in the middle of the park was the simple solution. No confusion, no controversy, no second-guessing, no trying to fit square pegs into round holes — Hodgson needed to do nothing more complex than simply write the names “Parker” and “Gerrard” on the teamsheet.
And the results have been encouraging. Parker plays as though his boots were affixed by a magnetic force to the central third of the field, chasing from box to box and snapping into tackles to dispossess opposing players whilst rarely veering away from the width of the centre circle.
Comforted by that central solidity, Gerrard has been liberated to float around his midfield partner, searching for space to run forward or to arrow one of his favoured cross-field diagonal passes into the path of his wingers.
Although nobody would claim that England have suddenly transformed themselves into a free-flowing team of beautiful football, there is at least a growing sense of midfield coherence about their play that has been lacking for a long time.
And there have been tangible results, too: Hodgson’s team have scored five goals so far in the tournament, and three of them (Joleon Lescott’s goal against France, Andy Carroll’s header against Sweden and Wayne Rooney’s winner on Tuesday) have resulted directly from right wing crosses tantalisingly delivered by Gerrard.
So now England are in the last eight, where they will face an Italian team that has looked far from invincible. Rather like England, this is an Italy side that looks far more comfortable when they are defending and soaking up pressure rather than dictating the pace and flow of a game.
It will be interesting to see which side seizes the initiative when they meet in Kiev tonight. Both teams prefer to sit on the back foot and play on the counter-attack; if that happens this evening, we could be in for a pretty dull encounter. But if England do find the confidence to play in a more expansive and expressive manner, it’s a pretty sure bet that captain Gerrard will be at the heart of things.
England will be hoping that it gets even better because the only thing missing so far from their skipper’s performances in this tournament have been a goal — the way he’s been playing, we shouldn’t be surprised if he gets one against Italy tonight.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.