When Steven Gerrard finally returns for England next month – assuming he is fit – it will be a year since his last cap, which is a long time to go without arguably one of the country's two most talented players. And has it really been more than 11 months without anyone having to ask themselves: what is Gerrard's best position for England?
Left out of the squad to play Montenegro this Friday having played a total of just 60 minutes for Liverpool since his comeback from injury, he will return next month to a squad that has changed considerably in the preceding 12 months. As ever Gerrard will be like the grand piano in a one-bedroom flat: a fantastic asset, no doubt about that, but where to put it?
There is no other major footballer of the modern age who has fitted less simply into the England team, and yet none whom, on the face of it, has so much to offer.
As he talked after the decent away performance last month against Bulgaria, and later after the subsequent poor showing against Wales, Fabio Capello drifted back to the subject of Gerrard occasionally. "We missed Steve," the England manager said in Sofia. Someone asked him where he would fit Gerrard into the new 4-2-3-1 formation. "I don't know," he replied.
Left midfield, holding midfielder, just off the striker: Gerrard has done them all for England. The consensus is that a player of his varied and unique combination of talents has to play, but where? With Jack Wilshere out until the March friendly, Capello has more room for manoeuvre but once Wilshere comes back, who knows? After five caps, Wilshere already has his established position: one of two holding midfielders. After 89 caps, Gerrard still does not have his. The worry is that one day we will look back on Gerrard as a player – his achievements as well as his reputation in the game – and wonder why the national team did not get more from him.
As has become the norm in Gerrard's peripatetic journey around the England team, he may well come back in a different role to the one he last played. We last saw him playing against France in the centre of the three in the 4-2-3-1 formation, although Ashley Young has occupied that role with distinction in the last two games and Capello could be tempted to keep him there.
Gerrard is 31, and he is just coming back after six months from a serious groin injury that, at his career stage, will have given him reason to reassess what he considers most important. His observations last week that he was not yet ready for England duty suggested that now, more than ever, he is taking no risks.
It is hard to see Gerrard playing for England past Euro 2012, as is the case for so many of the 30-somethings in this current England team. His first major tournament was more than 11 years ago and he has a good record for England. Before missing the last seven games he had played 54 out of the previous 66 stretching back to August 2005.
He will always be remembered in grand, evocative terms – as a man for the big occasion and a player capable of changing a game through sheer force of will. He is characterised by those qualities, the capacity for the dramatic intervention in a game rather than associated with a specific role on the pitch. In the modern game, where "midfielder" is not a sufficiently narrow definition, Gerrard is not easy to categorise.
At the World Cup finals last year, Capello wasted Gerrard by asking him to start on the left side of a four-man midfield but drift inside. In many ways it was the ultimate managerial fudge and it epitomised the way in which Gerrard has been shoved around the team like the spare chair – often to accommodate much less talented team-mates.
The other question will be what kind of player Gerrard will be when he comes back from this injury. He is getting older and the energy and power that is part of his game will inevitably diminish over time. It is a fair question to ask whether he will still be the same player capable of covering the pitch as relentlessly as he does at his best.
There was a time when every team wanted a Gerrard-style midfielder, and Chelsea, then the wealthiest club in England, did their best to sign him. He is that rare prototype: a freakishly gifted athlete who can score goals, tackle and pass. He can rough it up, he can create and at his best he still had enough in the tank to do the mundane stuff from box to box.
Gerrard was the last of that Superman generation of midfielders like Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane – and he scored more goals than both – but fashions have changed. Now, the taste is for a Xavi Hernandez, Luka Modric or a Wilshere to dictate play. The current trait most prized in a midfielder is the ability to pass the opposition to death rather than cover every blade of grass and overwhelm them.
The phasing out of Frank Lampard from the England first XI will help Gerrard in this, probably the last nine months of his international career. They never worked effectively together over a long period of time and yet no England manager was ever truly brave enough to drop one of them. It has taken too long to resolve.
Since Gerrard last played, there have been other big changes with England, most notably John Terry's reinstatement as captain at the start of the year. Rio Ferdinand's hurt feelings at being demoted are well-documented but Gerrard also dropped down the pecking order from No 2. He is yet to say what he thinks of that episode.
Capello, in his own weird way, has made no attempt to hide the fact that he does not think Gerrard is captaincy material. Given that Gerrard took over the captaincy for the entire World Cup finals last summer, and was not injured when Terry got it back, the whole saga said as much about Capello's feelings towards Gerrard as it did about his feelings towards Ferdinand.
There are reasons on both sides why this relationship should not work. But Gerrard keeps coming back for more. As for the managers he has played under, they remain besotted with his powers. His CV will always say "match-winner" on it but 89 caps and 11 years in, he is coming back into an England team that still does not know how best to deploy him.
The strange case of Crouch's stagnating international career
There was no place for Peter Crouch in Fabio Capello's England squad last night as the manager continues his inexplicable campaign to alienate one of the country's most prolific goalscorers in order to pick Bobby Zamora (0 goals for England).
Crouch's international record of 22 goals in 42 caps stands comparison with any current English striker. In European club football he has 27 in 51 games, including one against Besiktas last week. He dominated Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones, and scored against Manchester United, when Stoke drew with them last month.
Yet Capello has given him 75 minutes over two games since the World Cup last year. The last time he played he scored within two minutes of coming on as a substitute against France to rescue some pride in a woeful England defeat at Wembley. Anyone would think it was personal.
Lampard hat-trick is vindication for canny Villas-Boas
Frank Lampard's hat-trick yesterday has launched the usual indignant barrage of "He's not finished yet" responses. Of course he's not finished, no one sensible ever suggested that, just he does not merit playing every game for Chelsea.
Andre Villas-Boas has already won one of his most crucial early battles at the club. By dictating to Lampard that he will no longer play every game, he can now point to the Bolton game as vindication of his policy. If Lampard struggles, Villas-Boas can rest him with the minimum of fuss. Not daft, is he?Reuse content