Lampard now the linchpin of Eriksson's tactical plans

England's everyman is no teenage prodigy or global icon but domestic football's great success story of recent years has become an international force. Sam Wallace reports
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The Independent Football

Or, you might argue, the Lampard way. England's midfield has undergone some profound changes over the last two years, and not all of them permanent - from the flat four, to the diamond, to just three and now the latest initiative of five. What has been evident in all the changes that have taken place since the end of the last World Cup is that they have been increasingly tailored to the abilities of Chelsea's No 8.

Lampard is English football's great success story of the last three years: a player who seems impervious to the demands of the gruelling 38-game Premiership season, to the pressure of domestic cups and European competition, unfazed by even - on recent evidence at least - the sleepless nights of early fatherhood. We have wondered at how far a West Ham junior has come, but on the strength of Eriksson's latest changes perhaps the real question is how long it will be before he is recognised as the main man of England's midfield.

For his entire international career, and he only really became a regular one year before Euro 2004, Lampard has, in the mind's eye, played courtier to the princes of Gerrard and Beckham. Now he seems more like the England midfield's most important player. Twelve months ago Eriksson would have interpreted the hierarchy of the team to mean that Lampard would have to take the role of the defensive midfielder on behalf of Gerrard and Beckham. Not any more. When Paul Scholes still played it was often Lampard who was dispatched to the dreaded left side of the diamond. He does not have to budge up any longer.

Lampard joked this week that he now feels like one of the old men of the England squad and then, glancing around him, he calculated that he was, in fact, the "third oldest" in training that particular day. At 27 this has been no easy rise to seniority, he has been obliged to defeat the challenge of Scholes and Nicky Butt along the way and see off a range of less obvious pretenders in Owen Hargreaves, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas and Scott Parker.

"It's been a great two years for me - a couple of years ago I spent a lot of time talking about being on the verge of the team," Lampard said. "Now I feel that I'm an important member of the team. That's something I'm really proud of, because I feel I worked really hard to get there. Now I'm enjoying every minute of it. Having got here, I don't want anything else than staying here and being part of a successful team."

Lampard made his England debut in October 1999 seven months before Gerrard, but there was no doubting that the more obvious, extravagant talents, and bigger club stage, put the Liverpool captain in an early lead between the two. That has changed. Currently, Eriksson has not had to ask either of them to curb their attacking instincts and assume the midfield's defensive role but, once England switch back to 4-4-2, there is no guarantee that Lampard will be the automatic choice to do that. His four goals at Euro 2004 remain a potent case for him being the one allowed to surge forward.

This week Lampard was understandably resistant to the theory, given added weight by the defeat to Denmark, that he and Gerrard do not quite complement each other. "It wasn't because of who was worried about holding and who wasn't," he said. "We just didn't play well. If you don't play well at this level you won't get good results or good performances.

"We know that. We've both got the experience of playing in midfield to know that we have to complement each other. That's for us to show and there have been many times in the England team when we have shown that."

So much of how this England team is selected, however, depends on Eriksson's loyalty to his players' record of service and distinction - and Lampard is climbing to the peak fast. There are the added elements to his character that it is impossible not to admire: the appetite for self-improvement, the immunity to injury, his even temper - he may have broken Xabi Alonso's ankle last season but he never tackles with malice. And there are always, of course, his goals.

There is no reason why we should place the judgement of Real Madrid's fans above any other, but when they were polled at the end of last season on which player they would like their club to buy the most they ignored Andrei Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Thierry Henry and instead went for Lampard. It is possible at times to take him for granted - he seems to have been around forever - but in Europe they feel differently.

"Scary" was how Lampard described the prospect of becoming one of the England squad's old men but then in the next breath he was talking about the responsibility he felt and how it mattered to him that he offered advice to the young players. The success sits easily upon him and it does not always go his way. In his recent book about Chelsea's Premiership triumph last season, John Terry describes how desperately he and Lampard both wanted to be made club captain by Jose Mourinho and how graciously his mate accepted it when he lost out.

Terry beat him to the Professional Footballers' Association player of the year award, too, but Lampard won the Football Writers' Award and made the best acceptance speech that many of those who have been attending for years said they had ever heard. He will not be remembered in years to come as a teenage prodigy or a global icon but more as an everyman who kept raising the bar beyond all expectations. And the latest tactical tinkering from Eriksson suggests it could go even higher.