James Lawton: Gerrard an enigma and Beckham a taboo in the midfield minefield

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The Independent Football

When a football coach like Sven Goran Eriksson is invaded by a dilemma it is bad enough. But when he imposes upon it a taboo it can be just about impossible.

Eriksson's long-time challenge has been to get the best out of Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard in England's midfield. He perhaps thought he had been given some temporary relief, and maybe the chance of an insight, this week when Lampard missed the game with Uruguay through injury. That gave Gerrard a wide stage in the centre of the midfield, but the nagging problem only deepened. Gerrard was so dysfunctional Lampard might have been playing alongside him.

This brings us to Eriksson's taboo. It is imposed with the rigour of a Polynesian holy man. There can be no serious consideration, he has proclaimed, of excluding his captain David Beckham, even when he performs as tepidly as he did against the Uruguayans.

The fact is that of all England's front-line players in the mostly embarrassing engagement at Anfield, Beckham carried least impact; Gerrard stirred himself but failed to exert any influence, Beckham virtually stayed on his blocks. It meant that even with the promising display of trialist Michael Carrick, whose passing and positional sense at times suggested a genuine throwback to the old days of midfield craft, Eriksson's picture of his midfield had to be as blurred as ever.

The irony was that Joe Cole, impressive against Argentina in England's last outing, had perhaps his best game so far: tricky, persistent, the maker of one goal and scorer of another, he announced himself as a certain starter against Paraguay in the first group game in Germany.

But how does the rest of the midfield take shape? Gerrard and Lampard remain such powerful individual talents for their clubs it is inconceivable that they would be left on the bench, but the reality is that they don't work together in the middle of the pitch. They both do the same thing. They explode on goal with a flair for being at the cutting edge of a move. But they do not initiate in the classic way of a midfielder, like, for supreme examples, Brazil's Ronaldinho and Argentina's Juan Requelme. An essential balance is missing.

So if Lampard and Gerrard cancel each other, it means that Eriksson is compromised in the formative area of a game. Beckham's ability with the deadball and his crossing, if he is afforded the time and space which is not overflowing in World Cup action, remain impressive but in the shaping of a performance his influence dwindles alarmingly. It is here that the Beckham taboo blots out an intriguing possibility, that of an England midfield reading, right to left, Gerrard, Lampard, Carrick, and Cole.

At the very least this would bring into play the insight of the Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who has drawn out some of the best of Gerrard in the past season and a half, not least in a Champions' League final. It is Benitez's view that when you limit the role of Gerrard you intensify his impact. When he first arrived at Anfield, the manager talked long and hard to his key player. He said that he admired his gifts and his ambition, but he wanted to rationalise his talent. First, Gerrard played off the striker, making late and damaging runs. Now he has been given the right side of Liverpool's midfield, where his strength on the ball, his running power and his capacity for the big play have been a steady source of discomfort to rival defences. If Gerrard was to perform that role for England it might just liberate him and Lampard, especially if Carrick is given the chance to build on his promising display against Uruguay in the remaining two warm-up matches.

When Beckham was suspended and Gerrard injured for the qualifying game against Poland, Ledley King came into the team and, while playing well enough himself, highlighted the possibility that Eriksson might be better off not picking the most talented players but the most compatible. If that was a hint of the old Ramsey belief that his challenge was to pick the best team and not simply the best players, the proposition unravelled somewhat in Geneva when Argentina's midfield left King mostly chasing shadows.

The fact that King's natural position is undoubtedly in the centre of defence, the possibility of grooming Carrick at this late hour, and the still inevitable questioning of the potential of Gerrard and Lampard to work together, carry us inexorably to one big question: why is the heart of England's team, the place where its creativity has to be founded, still in such a state of flux? It is because of the taboo and the inaction of Eriksson. He sat on his hands in the anti-climactic moments of England's last World Cup campaign and he has been doing it more or less ever since - and not least after England's European Championship campaign ran out of vital momentum with the injury to Wayne Rooney two years ago. Lampard and Gerrard were together in that campaign and the problem was as apparent as it is now: individually they can be giants; together the sum of them is much less than their parts.

One problem in Japan was Beckham's foot injury; in Euro 2004 he was by his own admission less than fully fit. At Anfield this week it was impossible not to worry again about the possibility of another limp contribution when the action gets most serious in the World Cup. Add that concern to the problem of Gerrard and Lampard and the performance of Cole and the promise of Carrick generate rather less warmth.

It's true that Cole, helped by the brave, intriguing oddity Peter Crouch and the touch of speed and bite along the right provided by Beckham's replacement Shaun Wright-Phillips, rescued England from the worst of embarrassment. But they could not dispel the lack of cohesion once again displayed by more senior team-mates. It is not a question of breaking a mould. There isn't one. The taboo, though, is a different matter.