In rugby the saying is “forwards win matches, backs decide by how many”. Football, being less based on territory and lower scoring, cannot be reduced to such a simple tenet, but while goalscorers are the most prized players, international matches tend to be won and lost in the midfield engine room.
The current Spain team are the best example: at times they do not have a forward on the pitch at all, but the key men in previous World Cup-winning teams were Andrea Pirlo, supported by Gennaro Gattuso, and Zinedine Zidane, backed by Emmanuel Petit. Brazil, in 2002, were an exception, but in 1994 Dunga was the fulcrum of the the team.
Which is why beyond the professional requirement of winning the match, and doing so in sufficient style to ensure their goal difference remains the best in Group H, there was a point to this match. Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard are the midfield axis Roy Hodgson hopes will take England to Brazil next summer, and provide a respectable display while there. Yet until tonight the new Great Hope and the old Great Hope had never played a competitive match together. Indeed, they had only played alongside one another twice: the full 90 minutes in the defeat of Brazil last year, and a half against Scotland last month.
It is not much time for the duo to form a relationship, which is why Hodgson risked the fragile Wilshere last night rather than save the Arsenal midfielder for Tuesday night in Kiev. Even when a set of studs were raked across his shins Wilshere stayed on, lasting almost until the hour mark when he was replaced by an even younger Great Hope, Ross Barkley.
Gerrard is 12 years older than Wilshere, and while he may be able to continue to France 2016, he will be 36 then and unlikely to play international football beyond it. So this is a short-term relationship. It ought, though, to be a strong one. Gerrard has experience and a wonderful passing range (albeit he can be too ambitious). Wilshere has something of the ability to see and play a defence-opening pass that Paul Scholes had, plus a way of driving and weaving past tackles with his low centre of gravity. As long as they can co-exist positionally, they should complement each other.
Making up the midfield trio last night was Frank Lampard, who finally seems to have worked out a way to play with Gerrard, and vice-versa, about seven years too late. It may be Michael Carrick who starts against Ukraine – Lampard provides a greater goal threat but Carrick’s speciality is the retention of possession which may be more needed in Kiev – but Hodgson is likely to give them similar instructions. Last night these were to hold the centre, rotate positions, and stay close.
Frequently the trio laid short passes to each other as they looked to move the opposition around and create gaps for the forwards to play in. They were helped in this by an excellent all-round performance from Rickie Lambert who led the line with aplomb, scoring and creating goals. The Southampton man dropped off to both link the play and drag his marker out of position. There was a good example of this midway through the first half when Lambert dropped deep to lay a pass off to Gerrard who played Wilshere into the vacant space. He barrelled forward past two challenges before firing off a shot Stanislav Namasco blocked.
Disappointingly that was one of the few occasions Wilshere broke into an advanced role, though he did for the opening goal, pulling defenders forward and creating room for his partners, Lampard and Gerrard, to combine for Gerrard to score. But when Carrick is holding, Wilshere is more likely to have licence to advance, although longer term the attack-minded Tom Cleverley may become a midfield fixture. He is certainly being groomed for such a role. While this was Wilshere’s first competitive match in more than three years – an indication of how troubled he has been by injury – Cleverley had played every previous qualifier of this campaign.
Cleverley, like Wilshere, favours a short-passing game. Hodgson is occasionally derided as a fan of direct football but, while he likes a big man in attack, he wants his midfield players to keep the ball, move it around and create openings on the deck. While they stay tight the full-back and wide players attack the flanks, often in unison.
Hodgson would have liked his midfield to move the ball quicker last night, and maybe show the unexpected more often – the best example of this was Danny Welbeck’s trickery prior to the first goal – but England did the necessary and in midfield the sorcerer and his apprentice got another vital hour in harness.