Shortly after the end of England's 1-1 draw with Holland last Wednesday, Terry Venables could be seen disappearing towards the dressing room with what looked much like a consoling arm around the shoulders of the Everton striker Andy Johnson. "Striker," please note, not wide- midfield player; which might conceivably have been the subject under discussion.
Guesswork is involved in that assumption as, regrettably for a Football Association employee, England's engaging assistant head coach keeps his thoughts these days exclusively for the national newspaper paying him a handsome fee. It is reasonable to suggest that Venables' message would on this occasion not have deviated far from the party line expounded later in the evening by Steve McClaren: Johnson "did a job for the team, which bodes well for the future, as adapting to other positions is [a favourite McClaren word] key".
There is an equally persuasive argument, however - supported by evidence of England's worst performances coinciding with square pegs being forced into round holes - that international football is quite difficult enough when playing in one's proper position. The débâcle in Zagreb last month followed a switch to 3-5-2 for the first time in years, with Gary Neville and Ashley Cole asked to perform as wing-backs.
Against Northern Ireland a year earlier, David Beckham was fatally used as a quarter-back, and Wayne Rooney was stranded out on the left wing. Going further back in time, Gareth Southgate was once pushed into midfield with such disastrous results (0-1 at home to Germany) that Kevin Keegan resigned within minutes of the final whistle.
Even when such a strategy works, the effect tends to be short-lived. Beckham seemed to have done well in the holding midfield role against Wales a few days before Belfast. Tottenham's Ledley King was effective there at home to Poland last year, but was quickly found out when the quality of opposition improved sharply in the form of Argentina.
As for Johnson, he is diplomatic enough to have agreed in a recent England match programme: "I've played out on the right for England, and in the modern game you have to be versatile." He did, however, add: "I'd say my strengths are my pace and my ability to play as a second striker or an out-and-out striker."
It was for that reason that Everton paid Crystal Palace £8.6 million last summer to secure his services, so it is unfair on him to have been stuck out on the wing twice in five appearances, and hardly surprising that in 198 minutes of international football (averaging less than 40 minutes per game) he has never had a sniff of a goal.
McClaren had decided to match up with Holland's 4-3-3 formation before knowing which players would be available, and it was a blow that Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, who had been earmarked for the right side, was one of eight squad members to drop out. With Shaun Wright-Phillips having on his own admission "a rough patch" and neither Stewart Downing nor Kieran Richardson in much better shape, it was decided that the genuinely versatile Joe Cole should start on the left, with Johnson brought in on the other flank. According to McClaren, the idea was that both should "maybe come inside and join in, dropping Wayne down to make the extra man in midfield".
As Steven Gerrard revealed, Cole was in fact switched to the right (from where he made England's goal) after about half an hour to stop Holland's left-back Urby Emanuelson bringing the ball out, which meant Johnson was even more marginalised on the left before Wright-Phillips replaced him for the last 20 minutes. Effectively, the Evertonian was the sacrificial victim of a system that allowed England to play like-for-like against opponents who had proper wide players - Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart - in the wide positions.
The beneficiary was Gerrard, allowed to play in the middle three, closer to what he insists at every opportunity is his best position. "I'm a central midfielder, it's as simple as that," he said after the game, to which his club manager, Rafa Benitez, might have responded: "Oh no it isn't".
Benitez's familiar argument is that Gerrard scored 23 goals playing mainly out on the right last season. It is true that by mid-November he had 10 of them in the bag (half of those in European qualifying games), but scoring only once in the equivalent period of this campaign is clearly either cause or effect of his current despondency.
"Maybe I'm lacking a bit of confidence and composure in front of goal," he said of two bad misses on Wednesday. "That's the story of my season so far. I'm my own worst critic, and it preys on my mind if things are not going right."
Asked if he was knocking the goals in during training sessions, he replied candidly: "No!" Gerrard added: "I'm happy with that role I was asked to play and thought I did all right. I prefer it because I was more central. Against Holland, who play three in the [centre] midfield, there's a danger you can get outnumbered if you play 4-4-2, they can pass you to death. After the disappointing performance in Croatia, the team showed the right reaction. We were beating Holland away with five minutes to go, and there's a lot of positives we can take from that."
A confident debut at right-back by Manchester City's Micah Richards was one of them. But do not expect Andy Johnson to share the sense of satisfaction.Reuse content