Before we return to domestic action this weekend, I’ll make one final post concerning the England national team, and specifically, that ongoing debate of whether or not Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard can or even should play together at the heart of midfield.
Fabio Capello, in the short months that he has been England boss has (seemingly) already solved one of the teams major problems, in that he has managed to get ‘the best’ out of Wayne Rooney. ‘The best’ is a term I treat lightly because I think Rooney will continue to improve, but up until now it is something that we have seen only in fleeting glimpses when Rooney sports the three lions on his shirt.
Now Capello must work on getting ‘the best’ out of Gerrard and Lampard simultaneously, because I believe that Gerrard is one of the greatest midfielders kicking a ball in the world today, and Lampard isn’t too far behind (and is certainly ahead of other Englishman, bar Gerrard). For me then, to consider leaving one or other out in order to get the best out of the other, and therefore bringing a lesser player into the fold is idiotic, and would show a blatant inflexibility in the manager.
While England, and English clubs have for many years been thoroughly addicted to the 4-4-2 formation (with good reason I do not deny), I think we can say that employing Gerrard and Lampard as a straight pairing in that system has not worked. Primarily I think this is because it imposes necessary discipline on one or other of the players, where one must hang back to an extent, while another marauds forward. But the brilliance of both players is that they do get forward, Gerrard covers every inch of the pitch, and Lampard is always popping up on the edge of the box. So while I am sure either player could be utilised as a holding player, that would stifle their brilliance and defeat the very purpose of this exercise; to get ‘the best’ out of both players at once.
So is the 4-3-3 formation, a version of which Capello used in the latest two fixtures, the answer? He deployed Gareth Barry as the designated holding midfielder, giving Gerrard and Lampard both license to roam, while having Walcott and (surprisingly) Rooney, playing as wingers, or probably more accurately ‘wide forwards’ either side of Emile Heskey. While this may work theoretically, I don’t think that we saw it succeed in practice. The problem here is related also to Capello’s getting the best out of Rooney – which seems to require him playing alongside a target man, like Emile Heskey, in a partnership, with a bit of freedom to drop off here and there. Add into this the habit that Lampard, Barry and Gerrard all have (as well as Walcott on the right) to play as part of a midfield four for their clubs, and we saw at times a sort of confused and lop-sided formation, with Rooney stuck between staying wide or pushing up (and scoring) and Gerrard feeling restricted to the left when Rooney did push up.
I think the second half of the game against Kazakhstan, when a 4-4-2 was adopted, proved that the formation had been a large part of the frustration that prevented England from scoring, or even playing, in the first forty five. Against Belarus also, it was when Rooney got forward that we looked most like a complete team unit, and defensively in the first half, the Belarusian midfielders found lots of space and time in midfield while Gerrard, Lampard and Barry couldn’t quite figure out what they were doing.
Either then, we accept that the 4-3-3 does not suit the players, or we conclude that more training ground work needs to be done to discipline the players into that particular formation. But I have to say, I don’t like it. It compromises Rooney’s (who is our best player) best position, which even if it meant getting ‘the best’ of Gerrard and Lampard, probably isn’t a worthwhile sacrifice, or at least, not an acceptable one if there are alternatives.
Before the two recent games, I had been thinking that a formation that might be called a 4-1-2-2-1 may be the solution to the problem. This would see a straightforward flat back four, a holding midfielder sitting in front of them, two out and out wingers (surely Theo Walcott on one wing and Joe Cole or Stewart Downing on the other), then two players in ‘the hole’, of course our two subjects, and up-front, Wayne Rooney.
Initially this may seem like a conservative formation, what with it having only one striker, but put into practice properly, it is very much an attacking setup. Essentially you have Gerrard and Lampard both free to roam as they like, but encouraged to be the link to Rooney. Supporting these three are the wingers who form a great outlet down either touchline. I often judge formations on the number of triangles they allow (ask any coach – passing triangles are gold), and this one has a lot of triangles (apologies for the quality of the graphic):
It would inspire fast and fluid football, quick passing, played at a high tempo – which I believe suits the English game. It’s well known that the Premiership is the most furiously fast of all the ‘top leagues’ and so it should be something that we utilise in our favour (look how we couldn’t handle Belarus’ tempo in the first half the other day). The major flaw I see with it is that it doesn’t really include a target man, and therefore, may inhibit Rooney’s brilliance.
The inspiration for this formation comes (don’t mock me) from my Football Manager exploits. I myself do have a target man in my formation, he takes up one of the spots in the hole, and gets forward often to support my speedy and predatory striker. The problem though is that our two spots in the hole are already designated to Gerrard and Lampard, that’s the whole point, and there is nowhere else for Heskey, our target man to go.
I don’t think all is quite lost though, because I don’t think that Rooney’s potential has necessarily been unlocked by having a target man next to him alone. I think what Capello has brought to the team, in bits and starts, is a greater variation in our attacking play. Where previous managers had felt compelled to pair Rooney with our other ‘best’ strikers (Owen, Defoe, even Andy Johnson) and thus limiting our attacking prowess by only having one sort of striker, Capello reverted to the old-fashioned, ‘little and large’ partnership.
My 4-1-2-2-1 formation, though it only has one formation, also allows a greater range of attacking play than we had previously seen. Under previous managers England had struggled to play the cutting through balls that small, fast strikers thrive upon, and that was about it. However, adopting a 4-1-2-2-1 would give us out and out wingers, who have the pace and skill to go past a player and deliver balls (not necessarily to the head of Rooney – though he isn’t terrible in the air) into the area, and pull them back to Gerrard and Lampard who are both unstoppable from the edge of the box. Walcott showed against Croatia that wingers can score too, something that wright-Phillips (another contender for the other wing) is showing at City (and that’s not forgetting one C.Ronaldo, though he may be an exceptional exception). On top of this it provides a greater pathway through the middle of the park, where our ball-playing holding midfielder (Carrick, Hargreaves, Barry all qualify) can link up with Gerrard/Lampard/Rooney and the wingers, who then have a similar number of options themselves (as well as Ashley Cole bombing forwards).
I have gone on for quite a while on this I appreciate, and I’m afraid that is because I myself am not entirely decided on this subject. Though I am a strong advocate of this formation, I think that the players may have similar troubles breaking out of their 4-4-2 shaped moulds as they have with the 4-3-3 and whether Rooney does in fact rely on a target man is an unsolved question, though I think the liberated Gerrard and Lampard plus wingers surely equate to one Emile Heskey (and that’s no slight on Heskey at all).
In all then, I haven’t solved the problem of how to get ‘the best’ out of Gerrard and Lampard (and Rooney) simultaneously, but I have expounded some theories on how it could be done. Whether Capello utilises any of these ideas (no I do not presume he will ever read this blog) or manages to solve it some other way could have a big impact on his success as England manager. I don’t want to make a grand over-arching statement, but if he can get Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard playing at their best, England would be doing well to not bring home a major trophy by 2012.