Not unusually for early qualifying games, England’s lineups for the recent meetings with Moldova and Ukraine (do they call us ‘the England’? So stop it) provided the nation’s hacks and hecklers with more than the usual dollop of pliable cud on which to chew.
There was the inclusion of Tom Cleverley in an advanced role. There was Leighton Baines, given a competitive start for the first time and with it the opportunity to augment the case for leaving Ashley Cole permanently and deliciously stranded on 98 caps. We were also to get another chance to cheer, for not unrelated reasons, a central defensive partnership lacking John Terry. On the wings, neither James Milner nor Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be said to have been uncontentious choices, while the selection of Jermain Defoe up front momentarily revived the moribund debate as to whether lone strikers must be big and strong – an argument still groaning and lurching through the streets of England looking for brains even in the post-Torres, post-Messi era.
There was, of course, one other obvious issue, which was the resurrection of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard as England’s central midfield pairing. To consider all of the other talking points only to zone in on that one would’ve been a little like using the ramp at a bowling alley – too easy, less fun and something you probably did when you were much younger anyway – and the history is such that not much needed to be said at first. There was, in much of the press, a silence, with some vague sideways allusions to “the Gerrard / Lampard debate”. Few could bring themselves to go there, leaving the atmosphere akin to a pub meeting between divorcees. Who wants to bring it up first?
Inevitably, the temptation was to prove too great. The Gerrard / Lampard debate is something we’ve grown used to, like Bruce Forsyth or the dance to ‘The Timewarp’, so there’s a Pavlovian aspect; everybody knows what to say and do. Brucey takes the stage, does his little pose, selects Gerrard and Lampard in the centre of his midfield and the whole room responds in unison with the following catchphrases:
- Gerrard and Lampard together make England perform worse than they should, or otherwise would.
- Played together, they are detrimental to each other. Forced to curb their attacking instincts and forge an understanding, neither is fully unleashed and produces his best, so it would be better for the team to play one or the other along with a more complementary foil..
- If you do play them together in midfield, to do so in a 4-4-2 formation is unwise because defensive cover is required for them both to be able to maraud freely.
- Even if they do get results against smaller countries, their deficiencies are woefully exposed against better opposition who punish their lack of understanding, and this hampers us at tournaments.
Luckily, journalistic opinion is starting to shift, in recognition of the fact that both are clearly more mature players now than they were when the ‘debate’ was at its peak, and the consensus is starting to emerge that the trusty old midfield axis might be a valid choice. There remain some stragglers in print and online though, so for their benefit we will attempt to put the issue as it now stands to bed. Before I do that however, what might be a wheeze would be to argue that Gerrard and Lampard in the middle of a 4-4-2 was the answer all along and that the Gerrard / Lampard ‘debate’ is and has always been a piffling irrelevance.
Has it ever worked?
The first of the above arguments, that playing them together has caused England to perform worse than they otherwise would, overarches the others and is therefore by far the most important. If it were not the case, the other arguments would immediately appear churlish if not totally redundant as we’d be too busy celebrating our latest buccaneering World Cup win to care about individual performances. This allows us to attack the argument before even bringing individual players into the equation by demonstrating that England have performed about as well as one might expect over the years, something we’d have to try an awful lot harder at if Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi hadn’t already had a convincing stab in the eponymous chapter of 2009’s “Why England Lose”.
The factors they hold most responsible for England’s string of knockout exits are a middle-sized population, a talent pool restricted by the class divide and a long-standing detachment from Western European footballing orthodoxy. They even contend quite persuasively that England have over-performed given their modest economic and footballing might. Quite aside from these factors, anyone seeking to demonstrate that a Gerrard / Lampard midfield had hindered England’s overall performance might be expected to produce evidence either of a dip in form at the point at which we started playing that way, an improvement when it was discarded (say, immediately after the 2006 World Cup) or perhaps evidence that although we had the right to expect a noticeable improvement on the basis of the players we had available, it didn’t materialise thanks to our impotent midfield partnership.
Let’s start with the dip in form and perhaps the rest will follow. Lamps and Stevie G first played together for England in a friendly against South Africa in 2003 but their time as mainstays amid a four-man midfield didn’t begin until the last warm-up game prior to Euro 2004, a 6-1 pummelling of Iceland. How were England getting along before they showed up? Rather unspectacularly is the answer. From Euro 2000 until the intervention of our two heroes, England managed to win 45.5% of their games with an average goal difference of +0.64 per game. We’ll be as charitable as we can be and assume that some experimentation in friendlies was to blame: With the sample restricted to competitive matches, they manage a marginally more respectable 55% of games won with an average surfeit of 0.8 goals per game. That’s still well below the all-time competitive scores of 57.1% wins and 1.25 goals per game, but it’s no disaster.
…At least it appears so until we tot up the scores for all games in which England have built their 4-4-2 around Gerrard and Lampard – the majority of these occurring between Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006. Weighing in with an average advantage of 1.71 goals per game, they secured a win 70.8% of the time and lost a competitive game in open play only once. And that was a last-gasp defeat to Zinedine Zidane’s France which, owing to Steven Gerrard’s incisive backpass, I’m choosing to interpret as a magnanimous freebie.
The argument for that much-maligned setup having considerably improved rather than hindered England looks quite persuasive already, but we can’t rule out a fluke. Perhaps England’s squad as a whole improved dramatically at the time Gerrard and Lampard became its core, in which case we might expect to see a further upturn in results when the team tried changing things around after World Cup 2006? Or not: England’s goal difference per game since the end of that tournament is 0.43 lower than during what you might call the Gerrard / Lampard heyday – and the best part of half a goal per game goes a long way. It is, for example, slightly greater than the difference between Arsenal (3rd, 70 points) and Everton (7th, 56 points) in last year’s Premier League. You may try to lay the blame for that discrepancy at the door of Steve McClaren, who seemed to deflate the whoopee cushion of morale in the very act of taking the hot seat, but then a reasonable reaction might be that if he wanted better results then he ought to have stuck with a system that had a track record of producing them. Guess which one I mean.
Should I stay or should I go
Another attack beloved of the they-can’t-play-together brigade is that, gifted individuals as might they be, Gerrard and Lampard hinder each other’s performances with their lack of understanding. They’re incapable of deciding who should stay back and who should go forward, we were always told, leaving us alternately light-handed in attack and exposed in defence.
We don’t have to be statistical bloodhounds, however, to find evidence to suggest that not only have they proved themselves capable of playing together in England’s midfield, they have displayed a clear tendency to bring out the best in each other. The stats suggest that, if we have been left exposed on occasion by an over-eagerness from both midfielders, the upshot in terms of attacking threat has been well worth it. The Gerrard / Lampard 4-4-2 produced on average 0.72 goals a game more than than all other setups used since its inception, while its defensive record is – I hold up my hands – 0.01 goals a game worse.
Individually speaking, Frank Lampard has never averaged as many goals per game for England as when playing in a 4-4-2 alongside his Scouse partner, in particular during their golden age from the run-up to Euro 2004 to the World Cup two years later. During that time he averaged bang on half a goal per game- provided Gerrard was next to him – which is more than double his career international strike rate of 0.22.
For Gerrard’s part, there seem to be two ways extract goals from him in an England shirt. The first is to be Fabio Capello and have him play to the left of Lampard (0.39 goals per game) and the second, the only sample of any respectable size that comes close, is to play him alongside a certain London-born midfielder in the middle of a certain traditionally English formation featuring a back four and two strikers (0.38 goals per game, again double his overall strike rate since Lampard’s first cap).
While we’re examining the potency of the two players in front of goal, we might finally snuff out for good the idea that, in order to get the best out of them both at once, a defensive midfielder was ever required. England have played 11 games featuring the duo plus additional cover, recording a goal difference of 0.73 per game which is slightly worse even than their horrendous average between Euro 2000 and Euro 2004. Individually, Lampard averaged 0.09 goals per game, while Gerrard, revelling as you might expect in the freedom to bomb on, clocked in at 0.18.
“It’s All Very Well In The Qualifiers…”
Capello’s England qualified assuredly enough for the World Cup in 2010 that there was serious consideration in the media (as opposed to the usual irrelevant tabloid panting) given to the idea that they might go all the way, while the lopsided 4-4-2 variant he used, deploying Gerrard on the left and Lampard in the middle, became one of only two systems to have outperformed the ‘standard’ Gerrard / Lampard 4-4-2 in at least a decade (the other being the diamond but more on that later).
In the 18 games in which Lampard and Gerrard both played under Capello, England came out on top by an average of 1.78 goals, winning 77.8% of the time, a slightly superior record to last season’s Manchester City side and a world away from their Evertonian post-2006 average. In almost all of those games, Capello used his preferred system with Gerrard drifting in from the wing and Lampard set to ‘default’.
There were three exceptions to this; a 5-1 win against Kazakhstan in which, with the two talismans (‘talismen’?) given license to wreak havoc in front of Barry, nothing but lush grass and Emile Heskey in front of them, England were booed off after 45 goalless minutes. Restored to the middle of a 4-4-2 at half time, they oversaw the predicted rout, with Kazakhstan’s last chance falling on 47 minutes. “In the first five or six minutes of the second half they did not play well together” nitpicked Capello afterwards.
There was also the first game of the 2010 World Cup (leaving aside the easy warm-up victory that preceded it) which was a 1-1 draw with the USA. The midfield pair dovetailed more than competently throughout and were blameless not only for the USA’s calamitous equaliser but for any danger whatsoever to their own goal, while Gerrard found himself unstifled enough by defensive angst to put England ahead after a typically cavalier raid into the box.
England were, however, roundly panned for their nervous performance in the match, as well as in the rest of the tournament. This knack of qualifying impressively and then falling apart in tournaments is nothing new to England whatsoever, yet it spawns one of the most forlornly optimistic arguments for Gerrard / Lampard non-compatibility; that their lapses go unpunished against poor opposition but are ruthlessly exposed against bigger fish in bigger games.
…To which you’re immediately prompted to ask how the hell we’re to distinguish, in that regard, the Gerrard / Lampard combination in particular from every other aspect of the team? Since England’s defensive record in the later stages of competitions has generally been quite sound, one must assume that this argument refers to their trademark cackfootedness going forwards (or, as often, sideways). But at no stage have the performances of Lampard and Gerrard as a duo for their country been noticeably worse than those of the rest of the side, prestigious opposition or no.
There is more than enough evidence in the form of torrid displays featuring neither player to show that, if England in the 21st Century have been ponderous, directionless, hesitant in attack and prone to surrendering possession cheaply in games that matter, then they have required no special assistance from specific players in order to do so. For which undoings at the hands of superior opposition are we to blame the Gerrard / Lampard midfield? The only knockout exits in which they have both played are a 2-2 draw versus the Portuguese with ten men, a 0-0 draw with the same side two years later (having ditched the 4-4-2 in Owen’s absence and installed a holding midfielder) and the 2010 battering by Germany for which Gerrard played on the left.
Our travails against more polished opponents, as should be obvious by now, have nothing to do with the minutiae of team selection. A lack of fluidity and composure on the ball have been well-documented failings of English sides since the advent of Puskas and Hidegkuti and will most likely haunt St. George’s Park for a generation or three to come, so to blame their reoccurrence on our selection of the two best central midfielders in the country at any one time makes little sense. They are products of our national game, not the other way round.
For all that, it is no longer 2006 and we have on our hands two rather different players from the shuttling stormtroopers whose explosive all-dancing club displays erroneously triggered the debate in the first place. Gerrard showed, not only in Euro 2012 but under Hodgson’s reign at Liverpool, that he can reel it in as and when he wishes, while Lampard has gone a step further and evolved outright into one of the world’s finest defensive midfielders. If the Gerrard / Lampard debate ever did lurch gracelessly into life, it is now utterly dead.
Their display together in the middle against the… sorry, against Ukraine, thankyou very much, was one of maturity and great control, the more so as the match wore on after Ukraine’s strong start. Those, including this writer, who winced as Gerrard shaped to launch another half-furlong pass quickly learned not to as it became clear that he was picking them rather astutely, while the unfussy distribution of the duo from deep positions gave England a more stately gait in possession than we are accustomed to seeing.
The fact that both players will be encroaching rather heavily on their thirties by the next World Cup has been proffered by some as evidence that they (or at least the older Lampard) should not be considered for selection. Make no mistake, I’m as excited about the prospect of Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere bossing an England midfield as everyone should be, but to ditch our two stalwarts before they show any chance whatsoever of entering serious physical decline would be bizarre and reckless. It’s difficult, after all, to think of two English players with better engines and for anyone to have suggested at any point in the last decade that Lampard in particular wouldn’t play on at least into his mid-thirties would have been for them to have thoroughly sabotaged their own credibility.
With signs in the form of Cleverley and Wilshere that a generation of tactically adroit, possession-minded midfielders may be about to emerge, it would be tempting to phase out the Gerrard / Lampard combo altogether. If that is to happen, though, let it be because they can’t cut it anymore. It has taken nearly a decade of England matches to produce the more thoughtful, tournament-ready Gerrard and Lampard we have now and the right approach would surely be to retain those long-nurtured babies for as long as we can. If we do that, though, it would be a relief at least to throw out the unconvincingly cloudy bathwater in which we’ve marinaded them for so long; the Steven Gerrard / Frank Lampard ‘debate’.
A note on the diamond.
There is evidence for one alternative setup that could possibly, given the chance, have outperformed the trusty Gerrard / Lampard 4-4-2 over the last decade or so. Since the two first played together for their country, England have, as far as I’m able to discern, used a diamond formation on 10 occasions, all but one of them under Sven Goran-Eriksson. In only one of these games did they fail to win, remaining undefeated and winning by a very respectable average of 1.60 goals per game. Restrict the sample further to games featuring Gerrard and Lampard and the stats become even more impressive, even if it is reckless to draw too many conclusions from seven games. In any case, the last appearance of the diamond formation in a tournament for England remains World Cup 2002 and a fine win over Bielsa’s Argentina with Nicky Butt at the base of midfield, and for most of Sven’s reign, flat 4-4-2 was the order of the day.
It is unclear exactly why Sven ditched the diamond but I suspect it boiled down to a willingness to accommodate David Beckham over Paul Scholes. A flat 4-4-2 meant Beckham on the right, which showcased his surgical crossing ability, not to mention that a diamond meant dropping him or displacing Lampard to a holding role – and however competent or comfortable the Chelsea man might’ve been there, the case for exploiting his goalscoring prowess needed little reinforcement.
A diamond also represented the perfect opportunity properly to enshrine Paul Scholes, rather than have him pine away to retirement on the left wing, and here we must brace ourselves for a noisy wringing of hands from the tiki taka-era revisionists. Yes, Scholes was our most technically and tactically adept attacking midfielder. Yes, you might claim that to have built an England team around him would have been to improve our fortunes for generations to come and instigate a sea change in the mentality of the national side but then, frankly, where were you in 2004? Hands-about-chin, cooing over David Beckham’s deliveries, that’s where, just like almost everybody else. In the end, whether the decision to go with Beckham came down to force of personality, as some accounts of Sven’s regime would have it, or rather sheer Englishness, the bold Knight of the Cross resonating more clearly with our footballing psyche than any of Scholes’ underhand Latinate deftness, remains unclear. Perhaps one day somebody will write an article about it…