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Defeats to Italy and Uruguay have left England teetering on the brink of World Cup oblivion. Though pre-tournament concerns may have focused on a new, exciting generation of emerging young stars and their lack of international experience, it was ultimately Roy Hodgson’s seasoned captain Steven Gerrard who disappointed most.
The Liverpool midfielder was worse than anonymous against La Celeste, heading the ball into the path of Luis Suarez for his club mate to deny England a vital point in Group B with his route one winner, but it wasn't his first major error of the evening.
In the build-up to Suarez's first goal, Gerrard fluffed a tackle to allow Nicolas Lodeiro to steam past him, even after the Englishman had initially managed to get his foot on the ball. His challenge proved to be too feeble to stop the Uruguayan in his tracks and the 34-year-old was left struggling to find his footing to react, let alone keep up with his opponent.
Gerrard is not a natural holding midfielder, regardless of his form at club level, and when he is unable to keep his Hollywood forward balls on target he can become a defensive liability.
At times he can be more likely to surrender possession with a wild pass than create the required chances, while lacking the necessary pace or rearguard diligence to compensate for his frailties.
The extent of his creative impact against Italy and Uruguay was limited to just one chance created per match, with the single opportunity in the latter fixture coming from a free-kick outside the opponent's box. He also failed with two out of his three attempts at making a tackle against the Italians and did not record a single interception, block or clearance as Andrea Pirlo and pals dictated terms through the middle.
Against Uruguay, his singular moment of invention came about amid a more productive output of two successful tackles out of five, an early interception, two blocks and three clearances as England's inability to control the game descended into a need for fire-fighters deep within their own half.
Given Gerrard's struggle to provide creativity or be dominant from deep, the least he could have done to aid Hodgson's side was to retain possession, yet with a 79% pass completion rate — hampered by a number of speculative rather than imaginative balls up to the front — he was unable to even do that.
Without a proper holding player, and the man picked to play in that role leaking possession forwards without conjuring up the decisive chances to justify his selection, England were unable to screen and support their back line or gain a permanent foothold in the fixture.
Unfortunately, England's defence isn't what it used to be. John Terry and Rio Ferdinand may have had their fair share of individual problems as they have declined with age over the years but the 2014 vintage of Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill is at least a level in calibre below what Fabio Capello and previous national managers have been able to call upon to resist attacks in the box.
Of course, Gerrard did well playing in front of another relatively poor back line for Liverpool last season but Brendan Rodgers solved the problem of his unsuitability as a holding player, and his occasionally erratic passing, by deploying Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen either side of him to provide the legs he now lacks and recycle rather than lose the ball. Gerrard was the Reds' talismanic deep-lying playmaker, not a risk averse tempo keeper.
A third central midfielder—James Milner for some added grit or Jack Wilshere as an attempt to replicate Allen's role—may have helped to bring balance instead. After all, Gerrard retains the natural wilful tendencies of an impulsive match winner from his glory days of old, playing higher up the field as Liverpool's midfield dynamo.
This should have come as no surprise to Hodgson. If he was hoping that his captain's experience alone would have turned him into the calm and disciplined safety player best suited for the ill-defined role handed to him in midfield then he was naive and mistaken.
Ultimately, the compromised nature of Gerrard's job within the England set-up sums up the compromised nature of the national team itself, which at times looks to be caught between the promise of youth and the terror of leaving the household name safety blankets on the bench.
Some may scoff, but would a less heralded but more functional player such as Gareth Barry have been as ineffective as a more limited anchor man behind Sterling & Co., letting them play? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but hopefully England's difficulties shoehorning the stars of the past and of the future into one side will give Hodgson and his successors the foresight to pick one or the other in the future, rather than a compromise that doesn't suit either generation.
Regarding Gerrard's position in the England team, his time as a valid option in a two-man midfield—without the support from someone like James Milner from the flanks—has come to an end. Yet even then, he is not Pirlo or Xavi and it shouldn't be a mandatory requirement that he is accommodated for.
- Sports & Recreation
- Steven Gerrard
- Roy Hodgson