Thursday June 10th, 2010

Sometimes additional information can just confuse the issue. At the end of England's qualifying series, in which it cast aside the disappointment of failing to qualify for Euro 2008 with impressive swagger, England's formation seemed obvious, with doubts over only two positions. After the recent uninspiring friendly wins over Mexico and Japan, there are suddenly a host of new concerns.

It had seemed that Fabio Capello had solved England's Gordian knot, the Lampard-Gerrard midfield dilemma. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard first played together for England against Liechtenstein in September 2003, after which it became increasingly obvious that they were too similar to function as the central pair in a midfield four. Both, when playing in central midfield, liked "bombing on" in Gerrard's phrase, which not only meant they often got in each others' way, but also meant that great vacuums tended to open up in front of England's back four.

The dangers of that were rammed home in England's first qualifier for the 2006 World Cup, when Gerrard and Lampard both scored, only for Austria to come back with two goals in the final 20 minutes that both stemmed from just that space. Having become aware of the problem, both became tentative, which meant England lost the attacking thrust that makes both such effective players.

Had they played together at club level, as Jose Mourinho envisaged when, as Chelsea manager, he twice tried to sign Gerrard form Liverpool, daily work on the training ground probably would have brought sufficient mutual understanding for them to operate together; in the limited time available to national managers, it was impossible.

Then again, Mourinho would probably have played them in a 4-3-3 with a holding player, something neither Sven-Goran Eriksson nor Steve McClaren could countenance because it would have meant dropping Michael Owen and David Beckham (McClaren did drop an ageing Beckham in a misguided attempt to assert his authority; Eriksson could never have done so, and both remained in thrall to the tabloid hope that Owen might somehow turn back into the player he was in 2001).

It was a predicament England never really solved until injury kept Lampard out of a Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel in September 2007.

Gareth Barry came in, Gerrard was liberated and England won 3-0.

McClaren retained Barry for the next game, against Russia, and England won 3-0 again. By the time of the crucial final qualifier against Croatia, Gerrard and Lampard were back in tandem, playing ahead of Barry in a 4-3-3. A goalkeeping error and some half-hearted defending on the counter had England 2-0 down before they'd really begun, and Barry was withdrawn at halftime as England reverted to 4-4-2.

England scored twice with the Gerrard-Lampard pairing in the centre of midfield, and then Mladen Petric capitalized on that familiar space in front of the back four to larrup a winner.

Resolving the Gerrard-Lampard issue, and finding somebody to play on the left in a country that hasn't produced a top-class left-footed creator since Chris Waddle, seemed Capello's two biggest issues. As it was, he solved them in a stroke, by the simple ploy of moving Gerrard to the left. Barry and Lampard played in the central midfield roles, Barry holding and Lampard having license to push forward. Gerrard had previously been reluctant to play anywhere other than centrally, but Capello persuaded him, perhaps as much by his ruthless reputation as anything else.

England suddenly had balance. Gerrard naturally cuts in onto his stronger right foot, which marries with Wayne Rooney's natural leftward drift to create an intriguing intermovement that is difficult for markers to counter. That might have meant a lack of width on the left, but England has in Ashley Cole arguably the finest attacking left back in the world. By playing as an inside-out winger, Gerrard facilitates Cole's surges, and Cole's surges equally make it harder for an opposing fullback, who cannot simply show Gerrard outside onto his weaker left foot, because if he does Gerrard can push the ball out for the overlapping Cole.

To make the balance perfect, England then needs pace and genuine width on the right, and by happy chance, it has such depth in that area that Capello could leave Theo Walcott at home. Question marks remain about Shaun Wright-Phillips's delivery, but Aaron Lennon has emerged as a very fine player this season. Either Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch then functions as the target-man, there to provide a defensive outlet and operate as a shield for the three deeper-lying creators. Heskey, who played in seven of 10 quaifiers, is the more physical, but his lack of playing time at Aston Villa might have let in Crouch, who offers the greater goal threat.

The target-man also has a role in manipulating the opposing defence.

Naturally a defending team would look to sit deep against a side with the pace of Lennon and, to a lesser extent, Rooney and Gerrard, denying space behind them, effectively forcing England to try to pass its way through them. A defending team, though, cannot afford to let a target-man win headers in or around the box, and so they naturally play with a higher line, which is exactly what Lennon wants. So England have a balance that is both pleasing on the eye and threatening.

The big area of concern is at right back. Glenn Johnson is probably England's best player in the position, but he, like Cole, is attacking. To have balance, with Lennon offering limited defensive support and Cole pushing forwards on the left, England would be better off with a more defensive fullback on that side, which is why Wes Brown has hung around the squad so long, and why Jamie Carragher, ultimately, was recalled as cover on that side.

Barry's injury, though, has raised all the old doubts. He is now back in training, but it remains unclear just how fit he is. Capello is so concerned by the lack of defensive midfield cover that he even tried to call up Owen Hargreaves, who had been restricted by injury to 43 seconds of league soccer last season. Neither Michael Carrick nor Tom Huddlestone impressed in the anchor role against Mexico or Japan -- Huddlestone being left out of the final 23 -- and in both Gerrard ended up playing centrally.

Against Japan, England even ended up with Gerrard and Lampard back together in the middle of a 4-4-2. It's the problem that won't go away.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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