There they were, lining up as part of the same starting eleven as England prepared for their first FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying match in the Moldovan city of Chisinau. Roy Hodgson became the latest England manager to suffer from a delusion now beyond parody. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard played together in the same England midfield for the 51st time and a large chunk of any misguided English optimism was removed from the Hodgson era before it had really got started.
The Gerrard/Lampard debate has been a familiar one for England fans for years, and it’s neither interesting nor amusing anymore. The managerial arrogance that underpins their continued selection alongside one another is mind-bending.
The logic is sound, of course: here we have two quite clearly excellent English midfielders, perhaps (and it is only ‘perhaps’) bettered only in their generation by David Beckham and Paul Scholes. It’s understandable that any single-minded manager with confidence in his own ability and tactical thinking would reason that he – of all those who’ve tried – could be the man to finally crack the golden combination for England and lead them to glory.
Trouble is, it doesn’t work. It never has and it never will. Tactical wizards and Premier League obsessives who watch Chelsea and Liverpool with microscopic attention can probably tell you why that is, but the simple and obvious fact is that hours upon hours upon hours have been dedicated to and wasted on this farce, and it does not work.
Lampard’s goals against Moldova and England’s comfortable win are immaterial; it would be disingenuous to judge England, negatively or otherwise, based on a glorified training match.
The results garnered by England with the Lampard and Gerrard combination on the field do tend to be better than those without, but that’s just half the story. This longstanding argument doesn’t reflect the respective abilities of the two players, who are both of the very highest quality. It’s just one of those things: for whatever reason, playing together takes something away from one or both of them that makes their partnership less than the sum of its parts.
The added dimension is that it is now 2012, not 2006. Hodgson’s inclusion of these two players in the latest attempt to make them gel isn’t just frustratingly misguided, it’s entirely pointless. Even in the unlikely event that Hodgson did get them to click Lampard and Gerrard should not be playing together for England simply because of their ages. Lampard is 34 and Gerrard is 32, and the World Cup is the lion’s share of two years away.
England wouldn’t be the first to be relying upon ageing players in the midfield, and they wouldn’t even be the first to enjoy success as a result. But years of evidence suggest that England’s tried and tested formula – and that extends far, far beyond the Gerrard/Lampard question – has failed. The result should be twofold. First, fundamental reform of the system, something we are hopefully now beginning to see. Second, an intelligently increased turnover of players to make sure that a consistently failed set-up is confined to the bin.
The more concerning prospect is that the very probably vain attempts to successfully integrate these two top-class players could stunt the development of others. Excuse the hypotheticals, but what if, say, Jack Rodwell and Jack Wilshere can take England up a notch at UEFA Euro 2016, but are still forging a partnership because Lampard (who will turn 36 during the next World Cup) was still part of the England midfield during what might have been their first tournament experience together?
Persisting with Lampard and Gerrard is a mistake because it doesn’t allow other potential midfield line-ups to grow and to gel in a way that the old guard never has. Hodgson could conceivably win all his qualifiers with the same old pairing in the team but it will do England no favours in the long term. That he is continuing with them is frustrating and an early black mark against his regime for anyone who was hoping that England might finally discard the players who symbolise the so-called golden generation.
Unfortunately over a decade of under-achievement has clearly gone unnoticed in some of the offices at Wembley.
(Photo credit: Free-ers via Flickr)