For years England’s central midfield zone was consumed with one conundrum summed up by two names: Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Both were great players for their clubs. Powerful, charismatic,adept in front of goal, and decent passers. Both had won numerous accolades at club level and at their peak, were considered two of the best players in the world in their position.
Yet when it came to international competition and the two were put alongside each other, it never worked. They were too similar some said. Others felt that they didn’t cover for each other or that they were too slow. The truth was probably a mixture of all these things, but for years they played together and after England’s numerous tournament failures, eventually ”Gerrard and Lampard” started to become a byword for international failure. Just hearing the two names together in a sentence would make an England fan groan.
Although both players are in the England squad for the 2014 World Cup, times have moved on. Barring a catastrophic series of injuries, Lampard is very unlikely to start alongside England captain Steven Gerrard. Unfortunately, midfield woes continue to plague an England team that otherwise has quite an intriguing blend of youth and experience.
The problem this time is not that of two elite players who are unable to combine their talents, but one of finding the right blend of defense, passing, agility and discipline between four quite different players.
England’s main central midfielders for Brazil 2014 are Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere and Frank Lampard. At this stage, all four have had a chance to play in England’s pre-World Cup friendlies.
In the first friendly against Peru, manager Roy Hodgson opted for Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. This was probably the most obvious choice as the two players are teammates at a Liverpool side that have just enjoyed a magnificent season.
Before the match, much had been made of England playing “the Liverpool Way” which essentially appears to mean pressing hard and attacking with speed and fluidity. This would also mean Steven Gerrard playing quite a deep role with the rest of the midfield in front of him. This did not happen when England played Peru and given the heat and humidity in Brazil and the slower pace of international football, this seems a tough ask.
Instead, Henderson and Gerrard played as a two man central midfield and were generally side by side on the pitch. This did not seem to work particularly well. Neither player seemed able to move into the right positions to give England the requisite fluidity in midfield and England were often reduced to relying on Gerrard attempting to pick out players from distance. In fact, Peru seemed to work out quite quickly that Henderson is not a particularly effective passer in this area of the pitch and as a result, they tended to let him have the ball. This led to Henderson playing 114 passes in the match, almost double the amount of any other England player.
This is not intended as a slight on Henderson; if anything it is an oversight by Roy Hodgson. Henderson’s qualities are more in his ability to receive the ball on the run and to apply a disciplined press. Setting a passing tempo and bringing others into the game in this zone are not really his forte. There is a reason that Henderson has often been used as a right midfielder by Brendan Rodgers.
As for Gerrard, there is also a reason that Rodgers has pushed him further back for Liverpool. Gerrard does not quite have the mobility anymore to bustle around in the centre of midfield and seems more comfortable in the space just in front of the centre backs. Seeing him play against Peru further up the pitch was a bit like watching Steven Gerrard unplugged; the desire was there but not the ability to barrel forward and make space through force of will. Given Henderson’s inability to affect the game with his passing, Gerrard tried to take control but he seemed a step slow to both bring the ball under control and pass it forward.
Against Ecuador England started with Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere. In terms of fluidity, this combination was a little better as Wilshere is quite adept at moving into the right positions to receive the ball and then picking passes that bring others into play. That said, neither player was in particularly good form.
Lampard looked a little off the pace and struggled to have much effect on the game, although he didn’t make too many errors either. Wilshere’s movement was good and his inclusion did seem to help the team function a little better going forward, but he often held on to the ball too long and on several occasions, came very close to losing the ball in dangerous positions. What’s more, the two players provided very little protection for an already frail defense and Ecuador, a decent but far from spectacular team, took full advantage.
This creates quite a conundrum for Hodgson. The one definite starter here is Gerrard as he is captain, so the task is to find him a partner. Gerrard and Henderson is a bit stiff and forces England to rely on Gerrard’s long range passing. Gerrard and Wilshere would be more fluid going forward but neither player is particularly disciplined and the defense would lack cover. That leaves Gerrard and Lampard…the less said about that the better.
This may be less of an issue against Costa Rica and to some extent Uruguay, as neither side boast particularly potent central midfielders. Against Italy however, this will be a problem.
In players like Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Daniele de Rossi, and Marco Verratti, Italy possess a good blend of discipline, mobility, defensive nous, and passing ability. It is unlikely that any duo of England central midfielders will be able to handle them if they play anywhere close to their best.
A better option may be to play a three man midfield and to push Wayne Rooney out wide to the left. The Manchester United man may not be happy with this but, at this stage, he can like it or lump it. Adam Lallana or Danny Welbeck will be more than happy to take his place should he cause any fuss. Rooney’s talent should mean he has a spot in the team but not at the expense of team harmony and shape.
Instead of Rooney at number 10, Raheem Sterling can fit in here as he is very agile and an underrated tackler, something that will be key against Italy as Andrea Pirlo will need constant attention. To help Sterling with what will be a difficult and tiring defensive task, Jordan Henderson will play right midfield and help to harry Pirlo. When the ball moves away from the Juventus playmaker, Henderson will tuck in a little to bulk out the midfield. This will be tiring work for Henderson but as one of England’s younger and fitter players, he is the only player who is up to this task.
In central midfield then will be Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere, not an ideal pairing defensively, but the best of a flawed bunch who should receive help from both Henderson and Sterling. This may leave England a little exposed on the wings but this isn’t usually an area of great strength for Italy so England may just have to take their chances.
Whatever happens on the day, what England do with this central midfield zone is likely to have a significant impact on their progression through the tournament. The oft heard cliché that games are won and lost in midfield is a cliché for a reason. This is where many attacks begin and where opposition attacks must be stifled. England must find some kind of solution or their stay in Brazil may be shorter than expected.