Steven Gerrard would play in his best position; the position where his future in the England team lay. He would play in the position he was told to and get on with it. It was time for him to be both disciplined and dominant. Or so Fabio Capello, who knew what that role was, had told us.
Unfortunately, for the first-half, that position appeared to be no man's land. Neither one thing nor the other, Gerrard dropped left, right, and deep and, at times, just dropped out of the game. Not disinterested but certainly disengaged. Oh what to do with Stevie G? Capello had changed his formation, more than his personnel, to accommodate thefit-again midfielder.
It was an awkward match for Gerrard. He must have felt like the gatecrasher at a party after the events in Croatia last month when the team had performed so brilliantly without him. Where Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry had formed the perfect central midfield partnership – the one that Gerrard wanted with Barry, given Liverpool's pursuit of him during the summer, for club and country.
Lampard probably had his best game for England inZagreb while Wayne Rooney was happy and dangerous and Theo Walcott emerged. The balance was right. So why change it? Because Gerrard is, arguably – and it is a strong argument given he is a few years older than Rooney – the most talented player of his generation and one whose ability and reputation jangle nerves in any opposition. It did not happen. Loose in possession, off the pace and often by-passed, he had a poor first half with Lampard faring a little better. Capello had stationed Barry behind the pair but they did not co-ordinate, did not communicate. They were simply too far apart. There were often 40 yards between them, almost as if they were polar opposites, repelled by each other's presence.
They strayed, sometimes offside, sometimes too far away from play. It was both con-gested and barren, and the build-up became painfully slow and painful to watch.
Over the summer, Gerrard had complained he had rarely – in his 68 appearances for his country – been allowed to play in his favourite position. He would argue, perhaps, that for the first period he was denied that chance again yesterday but it would be a weak argument. Good players adapt and it was hardly as if he was being asked to play in goal. This was a very, very important match for him. One that would show that England are better for his presence.
Any complaint would not have cut much ice with Capello. It was clear at half-time, given the dark expression on his face, that he was furious. Off came Barry and on came Shaun Wright-Phillips, pushed across to the left with England reverting to a 4-4-2, which was the other formation and line-up that Capello had mulled over in the last couple of days.
It meant that, without any doubt, Gerrard and Lampard were the central midfield pairing. So, what did that mean for Capello's claim that Gerrard, who he had fleetingly considered for the captaincy, would play in his best position? Suddenly that position was not the one in which he had started.
If anything, England struggled even more. The Kazakhs began to threaten and then through astonishingly bad defending England were gifted a goal from Lampard's corner, but they were not playing any better. Space began to open up for the visitors. Suddenly, with Barry gone, Tanat Nusserbayev, a tricky, skilful No 7, had the chance to run with the ball which meant that Gerrard was forced into back-tracking, twice lunging, a little recklessly, into tackles.
Set-pieces were England's salvation and an own goal added to the score before the sloppiness that had been the home side's malaise was punished following Ashley Cole's appalling error. The Kazakhs tired. England struck to make the game safe, but the arguments rage.