Today is the day that Fabio Capello puts Steven Gerrard in his place in more ways, it would seem, than one. The England manager revealed yesterday that the role in which Gerrard will play against Kazakhstan is the role in which he believes the player is best-suited for in the long term, but Capello was also insistent that it will be the manager – and not Gerrard – who dictates what that role is.
As The Independent revealed yesterday it looks like Capello is prepared to let Gerrard and Frank Lampard saddle up one more time and give their hitherto doomed partnership in central midfield for England one last try. But what about Gerrard? Through little fault of his own he has felt the backlash of saying in an interview last month that of the 68 times he has played for England on only five of those occasions has he been played in his favourite position. What was he supposed to say? That right-back would be fine? Or the old time-honoured nonsense of being happy to play anywhere in exchange for the glory of representing England?
Gerrard will be under scrutiny this afternoon like never before because he, above all, is the highest-profile gatecrasher of the party that beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb. If the winning streak of this team is disrupted today then it will probably be Gerrard who has to carry the can. He is arguably the greatest English player of his generation and yet no England manager has been able to decide properly where he would like him to play until today, when Capello claims that he will end all the arguments.
The smart money is on Capello picking a team for today's World Cup qualifier in which Gareth Barry plays behind a Gerrard-Lampard partnership with Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott either side of Emile Heskey in attack. Capello would not give a direct answer to the question of whether Gerrard should stop complaining and play where he is told but it goes without saying that the Italian is not up for a debate on these matters – with his players or anyone else. "He [Gerrard] played where I think it's better for him, always," he said. "I have tried throughout my career to put the players in the best position for them to play better and 100 per cent for the team." So it will be with some trepidation that Gerrard approaches today's final team meeting and the announcement of the line-up. If, for example, Capello has decided that the left side of a four-man midfield is where Gerrard is best-suited then the Liverpool man can take it as read that that is pretty much where he will play as long as the Italian is in charge of England. After eight years of international football this is shaping up to be the final verdict for Gerrard from a manager who, on recent results, is promising to be around for some time yet.
In reality, Gerrard has never been well treated by England managers who have looked to fix problems by adapting him to wherever in their midfield they have found themselves threadbare. Steve McClaren played Gerrard on the right wing before he rescued England playing in the centre against Andorra in March 2007, Capello tried him as a second striker against France in March this year and – arguably – on the left against the Czech Republic in August. Even Gerrard's most vehement critics would surely concede that if he is not to be played in his preferred position in the centre then he at least is entitled to some consistency.
Tellingly, yesterday Capello thought that Gerrard had only played for him three times since he took over as England manager. In fact, Gerrard has played for England five times under Capello. This is a lapse of detail worthy of Sven Goran Eriksson himself who, in his time, seemed to recall virtually nothing specific about past matches and was sketchy about those forthcoming. You would have expected Capello to have a better grasp of the details.
In those five games Gerrard has played for Capello – Switzerland, France, United States, Trinidad and Tobago and the Czech Republic – the player has been in the centre of midfield three times. Gerrard has never been specific about exactly what it was about those few games out of his 68 caps that were so agreeable but he will not be getting any special dispensation from Capello. "He has to play like he plays with Liverpool," Capello said. "He's an important player, for sure, but he's only one of the 11."
Yes, it is good that Capello is not overawed by the big names and it is true that Spain's success at Euro 2008 was based on certain players fulfilling different roles from those they perform with their clubs – Cesc Fabregas in particular. But it would be a pity if Capello was to shoehorn Gerrard into a position to which he is patently unsuited. No such worries for Walcott who was given the closest thing to a free pass as anyone is likely to get from Capello to play for England for the next four years. "I said after the Croatia game, that they [young players] do not always play that well," Capello said. "But he [Walcott] is a fantastic player and a big player for the future of the England team. He'll always be with us, for the seniors." Capello said he had told the 19-year-old he should not feel duty bound to win the game himself every time he gets the ball. "Young players feel they have to do fantastic movement, something fantastic with the ball, passing, dribbling [all the time]," Capello said. "You have to play normally. You mustn't try to do too much. I will tell him that. He will take that on board. He's a very good boy."
At last, England arrive at the new Wembley stadium with some wind in their sails and more than a little hope in the air. It is only Kazakhstan but you do feel if Capello cannot blend the riches he has – Gerrard, Lampard, Walcott, Rooney et al – with all this confidence then perhaps no one ever will.
The odd couple: Gerrard and Lampard
*First started an England game together in a 2-1 win over Serbia & Montenegro in June 2003.
*Doubts in the partnership grew after the 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland in September 2005 and persisted through the 2006 World Cup.
*Since then England's best performances have been the 3-0 home win over Russia last year - when Lampard was missing – and the 4-1 win over Croatia – when Gerrard was out.