England confused about 'the real Steve'
Capello's use of Gerrard in different positions against Mexico suggests he is unsure of how best to exploit midfielder's talent
It was late on Monday night, in a deserted Wembley when Fabio Capello floated an interesting concept. He referred to "the real Steve", as in the real Steven Gerrard and in doing so presented that fundamental question: what or who is the real Steve?
We know the answer when it comes to his Liverpool career – Gerrard is arguably the most talented player of his generation. He is the kind of player that the English like to think epitomises their game at its best in that he marries brilliant technical expertise, power and strength with an indefatigable will to win. He is many different types of player in one footballer.
But what is the real Steve for England? It is a question that has followed him around since he made his debut at the old Wembley 10 years ago on Monday and wrote his name into Kevin Keegan's squad for Euro 2000. Now, with Gareth Barry in a desperate struggle to be fit, "the real Steve" could well be as a holding midfielder for England – as a defensive player rather than a creative one.
For England under Capello, Gerrard has been forced into a compromise of his best position. Against Mexico on Monday, as he had done many times for Capello, he started on the left side of midfield, but roamed where he pleased. In the second half he was a holding midfielder in the Barry role and broke up Mexico's neat waves of passing as he once did as a young pup alongside Jamie Redknapp at Liverpool.
The real Steve, according to Capello was the man-of-the-match Gerrard of the second half against Mexico. "He played really well, fast [sic], good tackles," Capello said. "Like a leader. It was the real Steve." Just he was not playing in the real position that Capello has mapped out for him.
To listen to Capello on Monday night you could have been forgiven for thinking that there would be no chance of him playing the Liverpool captain in the role that Barry has fulfilled for 20 of the 23 England games for which the Italian has been in charge. Capello enthused about Gerrard being "really dangerous when he arrives close to the box", that he "preferred this player [Gerrard] to be close to the box".
But when push comes to shove, Capello and his camp are understood to believe that only Gerrard can really do the holding midfield job for them in the absence of Barry and Owen Hargreaves. They rate the likes of Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker and James Milner but they are not sure they trust them enough to perform the role at the World Cup finals.
Nothing is yet certain but if Barry does not make it then Gerrard is the favourite to take up the slack in the centre of midfield. If Barry does recover in time, there are still a variety of options at Capello's disposal.
He could play Gerrard off Wayne Rooney as the main striker but that would mean that England would lose the presence of Peter Crouch who – with 17 goals in 18 starts for England, and 21 in total – is wasted as a substitute. It will require goals to get England through the rounds in South Africa and Crouch scores them.
Should Barry make it to South Africa and be fit to play, Gerrard could yet be deployed on the left side in that free role. Should he play there then it will dictate how they attack and, to a large extent, how opposing teams attack them. Especially if the left-back is left as exposed as Leighton Baines was on Monday night.
In his left-wing position drifting inside to make goals, as he did against Mexico, Gerrard can be devastating, but every time he goes, England have to whisper a quiet prayer that Ashley Cole can cover the entire left flank.
It will not have taken England's World Cup opponents long to see where in Capello's team the weakness lies and, like all good managers, he has to assess what downsides he will suffer by letting his maverick run free. When Gerrard goes on the charge he leaves problems in his wake. Against a team like Mexico they were plain to see; against better sides it will be worse.
It was a sobering thought that even a player like Giovani dos Santos, whose time at Spurs has hardly been a success, could cause such damage down England's left side in tandem with a striker, Carlos Vela, who has not been able to get into the Arsenal team. If Gerrard is unable to support his left-back then someone else will have to.
"You have to understand one thing," Capello said later. "Of all the teams we played against, no one played like [Mexico]. They don't have big players. They are short. They pressed a lot, all the time. They are really good. They are one of the best we have played against."
Mexico were undoubtedly impressive but the competition, providing England make it out of the group stages, is only going to become more intense. Capello talks about looking at different options but in that strangely conservative way – with the exception of James Milner – he shied away from giving relatively inexperienced players a start. Joe Hart and Huddlestone played the second half. Adam Johnson got a brief debut but there was nothing from Parker.
As the time ticks down on Barry and his recovery from injury, so minds are focused on where England will deploy one of their greatest assets. And it is typical of Gerrard's 10 years in the England team that his position will be dictated by the absence or otherwise of a player considered his inferior.
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