The result read England 3, Belarus 1, with Steven Gerrard on the score sheet, and yet like night following day, the pundits were still assessing Capello’s success in dealing with on one of the most tired clichés in Modern Football — Gerrard v. Lampard.
That the two cannot play together has been part of journo orthodoxy since 2001. Conventional wisdom tells us because Gerrard sat out Euro 2004, England played great football (precisely up until Rooney’s broken metatarsal).
In fact, whenever Gerrard has been left out of the England line-up with Lamps there to take his place, England apparently plays ‘champagne soccer’ — witness the hooting and hollering among print journalists following the Eleven Lions trouncing of the Ten Croats in Zagreb. Yet even after Saturday’s thrashing of Kazakhstan, some normally reserved members of the English press were calling for Gerrard to hang up his England shirt for good.
Sometimes the English press is like a biologist who thinks he can tell you something about human nature by studying the behaviour of white blood cells. If they’re not clamouring about Beckham’s relative position on the pitch (less of a problem now as he’s turning into an eightieth minute sub), or fretting about Rooney moving ‘too far forward,’ or hemming about Rio Ferdinand ‘pushing up out of position,’ or hawing about how Ashley Cole ‘doesn’t run up the wings like he used to,’ they’re whingeing about Gerrard and Lampard ‘cancelling each other out.’ You wonder sometimes if these are footballers or sub-atomic particles wrenched apart by some enormous collider. Position one here, and position one there, you’ve got either a nuclear meltdown or a black hole.
I can’t think of any other national setup where debates are posited along these lines. France is stinking up Europe at the moment, but most French onlookers suspect Domenech’s tactical naiveté, not whether Ribery is getting ‘cancelled out’ by Malouda. What does it say about a player’s adaptability if, positioned next to a player of equal or greater ability (I’m not taking sides here), he is suddenly unable to make a pass, take a shot, or lay off to a player on the wing?
I believe Gerrard and Lampard are very talented players. Certainly their respective performances in the Premier League justifies, on paper at least, their continued presence on the England squad. However I’m not yet convinced they’re versatile players. I’m not yet convinced any player in the England team, except perhaps Joe Cole, or maybe Theo Walcott, is truly versatile. Rooney runs around like a jack-of all trades and can still score a goal or two, when he’s not busy shanking the ball into touch. Ashley Cole is a shadow of the defender he was in Portugal 2004. The rest are good enough. But versatile?
Perhaps if journos dug a little deeper and spilled a little more ink, we might get to the root of the problem — England can’t produce total players, let alone total football. Perhaps if we focused a little less on whether England’s players will implode if positioned improperly, and a little more on why they can’t seem to adapt in the first place, we might begin to realize how ridiculous this Stevie G. v. Lamps meme has become.
Richard Whittall writes on A More Splendid Life.