Midfield misfits? Lampard and Gerrard put case for the defence

One of them is on the cards to be rested - but can they really play together?
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They have played 86 inter-nationals between them, the majority in tandem, yet questions are still being asked about whether Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the country's two outstanding central midfield players, are really compatible.

Had Gerrard joined Chelsea, as seemed certain at one stage last summer, the problem would have been Jose Mourinho's and it would have been fascinating to see how he solved it: probably by using both in an attacking role, with Claude Makelele minding the shop behind them. Sven Goran Eriksson, preferring to use two wider midfield players and two strikers, has continually insisted that the pair are intelligent enough footballers to control the central area between them, one always covering the other or - on the rare occasions when both are forward - ensuring that David Beckham does.

Yesterday, a little disconcerted to learn from the media that one of them may be rested for Tuesday's game against Sweden to avoid any risk of a second yellow card, Gerrard and Lampard sat in different conference rooms a few yards apart singing each other's praises and patiently answering the criticism that they are too attack-minded for England's good.

First Gerrard, in quick-fire Scouse: "I don't see a problem with the relationship at all. I could be sitting here praising Frank for having got three or four goals under his belt, he's been getting into the box really well and had a lot of shots on target. And we've not let a goal in at the other end.

"I think because the team are not playing well, people are looking for excuses in mine and Frank's partnership, but we're doing OK. I hope there are a lot more goals to come from me. I could bomb on a bit against Trinidad, but when we come up against better opposition I might have to be a little more cautious, or maybe the manager will change the system and bring a holding midfield player in."

Then Lampard, an expensive public school education having modulated the natural Essex twang: "With me and Stevie in midfield there's good potential to score. I've had a day when I didn't [against Trinidad & Tobago], then Stevie pops up with his goal. I think we are getting better as a combination, though it's frustrating to both us of that we are probably the second most talked-about thing in the World Cup, behind Wayne Rooney.

"I think we are in danger of looking for negatives in the two of us rather than looking at the positives. We're man enough to say we can get better at it, but I think it works well. We both have responsibilities and we are both intelligent enough and responsible enough to play at times holding, and at times getting forward.

"Another holding midfielder behind us would be easier in terms of not having that respons-ibility, but it brings in other issues. If you take a front man out of it, it brings up a different issue, like one of us has always got to be nearer the front man.

"At the end of the day it's not just about getting different things out of me and Steve - it's about us winning games and playing to the best of our abilities. I think sometimes we home in on the issue of us in midfield because we've both had a successful few seasons with our teams. So when you put us together people say, 'Hang on, can these two personalities go into the same team?' I'm saying that we can."

End of discussion, was the implication. Indeed, as Lampard wishes, the subject is likely to go into abeyance until next weekend, when it will all be raised again with the benefit of hindsight from the Sweden game, once Michael Carrick or Owen Hargreaves have had their oppor-tunity to stake a claim. The debate has effectively been an issue for two years, when Lampard joined Gerrard as the first-choice central midfielder in two friendlies just before Euro 2004.

Oddly, in the present context, it was the Chelsea man who replaced Nicky Butt in the holding role, enjoying so little success in a disappointing draw with Japan that Alan Hansen was prompted to tell the nation: "Frank can't play that position".

Lampard certainly always looks happier in the attacking role, which is much more clearly defined for him at club level. For England, he and Gerrard subsequently tended to play it off the cuff, starting the following Saturday in the 6-1 romp against Iceland. There have been variations on the theme ever since, but few occasions - notably a home victory over Austria last October - when both have played well. At one stage of the tournament in Portugal, senior players convinced Eriksson that a flatter midfield was a better option than his preferred diamond.

More recently, it has been Gerrard who sits deeper, though many would like to see him further forward, wreaking the havoc seen to most dramatic effect at the FA Cup final (albeit from a position to the right of midfield). But the late goal against Trinidad & Tobago, which would have been even more crucial had Peter Crouch's header been ruled out for a push (or hair-pull), showed that his natural instincts need not be entirely curbed.

He is the more assured, and venomous, of the two in the tackle, even if that style is better suited to the more permissive refereeing of the Premiership than international competition. Gerrard's lunging challenges, often with both feet, are not welcomed at the higher level, as was made clear with his early yellow card in the Paraguay game last weekend. Lampard was annoyed with his own card on Thursday, insisting: "I didn't actually touch the fella, and he admitted it afterwards, but the ref was already whipping out the yellow. It's getting harder and harder to make a tackle. I watched it again last night and it's really frustrating and puts a different aspect into the Sweden game that you don't really want."

All the more so now that he might spend his 28th birthday sitting in the dug-out.

With and without: Playing together

Played 25: won 17, lost 3, drawn 5

Goals for: 54

Goals against: 21

Lampard: 8 goals

Gerrard: 5 goals

One or the other

Played 25: won 16, lost 5, drawn 4

Goals for: 49

Goals against: 22

Lampard: 2 goals

Gerrard: 1 goal