Sooner or later, if you ask often enough, you get hold of even the most elusive of answers and here tonight the question is raised again when Steven Gerrard plays his 51st game for England. Maybe the real problem is not the underperforming Gerrard but the enquiry. Perhaps it needs to be re-cast, asking not where does he play but when? For Steve McClaren, emerging shakily from the trauma of wretched performances against Macedonia and Croatia, the brutal response is hard to avoid: rarely, if ever, for the national team.
Despite his accumulation of caps, Gerrard remains a potentially huge talent - second only to Wayne Rooney in terms of raw ability- in search of a coherent role, even a clear sense of purpose. Indeed, in England's recent meltdown and Liverpool's dismaying slide from title contention, even that basic requirement of an effective, let alone great, player appears to have gone missing. His body language has recently been so short of conviction that one admirer this week suggested he should take a break.
But from what? Great players do not take time off. They confront the issue of drastically failing performance. So far most of the blame has been heaped upon his club manager, Rafael Benitez. Play Gerrard in the centre of midfield, say some critics, and all will be resolved. It is a solution of sweet simplicity, a mere stroke of chalk on the blackboard, but unfortunately it begs too many questions. The most unavoidable one asks why it is that so far four managers, Benitez, his Anfield predecessor Gérard Houllier, former England head coach Sven Goran Eriksson and McClaren have all failed to satisfactorily exploit a player who from time to time, as we saw in the last FA Cup final, can erupt as a force of football nature? Benitez came closest last season when he insisted Gerrard operate on the right. Result: 23 goals.
Has it been the managers - or has it been him? The growing evidence is that at the heart of the paradox is a misnomer. It is the one that declares that Gerrard has the wit and the instinct to be a great midfielder, someone to run into the footsteps of legends like Johnny Haynes and Bobby Charlton and occasionally touch the sublime perception of the tragically wayward Paul Gascoigne. But then you have to ask when it was we ever saw authentic examples of the play of a master midfielder? Yes, there have been the explosions, but not enough of them to rest comfortably alongside the vast reach of the expectations he has created. Ten goals in 50 internationals, one every five games against radically different levels of opposition, is not the tally of a major talent so often granted the freedom to make an impact wherever he chooses. Charlton's strike rate was more than 400 per cent better, and this is just to talk of goals, not insight, not an endlessly inflicted natural intelligence about where to be and where to pass the ball.
The fact that the debate over where Gerrard plays has become so pervasive makes its own comment about the crisis of his career. Great players do not need to be accommodated. Coaches do not sweat out the dilemma of where to play them. Great players claim their own terrain; selection is not a gift but a right, and one taken on their terms.
Here tonight the obligation on Gerrard is as intense as the one facing McClaren. Gerrard has to make the kind of impact against Marco van Basten's businesslike young team which will dispel the fears of those who believe that he is not so much a grand work in progress as denial. McClaren has to reinvent himself as a man of conviction, someone who has a reasonably clear idea of what he wants from the team with whom he was so closely associated in the ultimately futile years of Eriksson.
By exposing himself to the criticism which has been washing over Benitez recently, by saying again that Gerrard will play on the right flank rather than the central role he apparently craves, McClaren is certainly making something of a stand against the force of celebrity, one that in Gerrard's case is reflected in his best-selling autobiography, a piece of work which confronted issues on the page much more bracingly than we have recently seen on the field. McClaren showed a degree of self-belief when he drew the curtain down on David Beckham and now, by resisting the clamour for Gerrard's repositioning, he is doing something of the same, albeit less dramatically.
It is at least something to suggest a possible difference between the coach's current strivings, however frustrated, and Eriksson's riding of the whims of his chosen elite, a policy which reached an absurd level when he had Beckham playing in front of the back four.
For Gerrard the resulting imperative is simple enough. He has to do what he does best. It is producing all that latent power to run by defenders, to do those dramatic things which are uniquely within his gift.
Running a team from central midfield is, all the evidence says, not one of them. It is time, surely, for Gerrard, and England, to move on.Reuse content