Gerrard carries heavy weight of expectation
To watch Gerrard grimace and frown through an England press conference is to know the pressure of playing in one of world football's most talented midfields without ever feeling that your best attributes are being used. The 25-year-old, substituted in Belfast, was ruthless in his assessment of his own form, of the challenge that faces him and Frank Lampard in making themselves compatible and the imperative of making next summer's World Cup a better experience for him than Euro 2004.
Sitting in the Windsor Park dressing-rooms after the match on 7 September, Gerrard said that he felt that "embarrassing defeat" could have serious repercussions for his career. "I think I felt I could be dropped, I think it was in every player's mind and it was definitely in mine," he said. "I have been a little bit worried about my form at international level but I am confident in my ability and confident I can produce."
One month on, with Austria on Saturday, and there is no question that Eriksson will dispense with either of his midfield maestros so the two of them will be left once again to interpret yet another new formation - the more familiar 4-4-2 system this time. Under the 4-5-1 system - with David Beckham striking long passes out towards Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Rooney - Gerrard and Lampard were left as little more than bystanders at the scene of one of England's worst defeats.
"It is strange, me and Frank have been kicking lumps out of each other for the past week and now we have got to be best of mates and improve this relationship in the middle," Gerrard said. "But there is no friction. Liverpool versus Chelsea are massive games and you know the tackles are going to be flying in and the tempo is going to be quick but when you meet up everything is forgotten.
"The most important thing is getting the points but it would be nice to entertain as well and pay the fans back for that embarrassing defeat in Belfast. I think the partnership can definitely improve. I don't think we have set the world alight but you are talking about two fantastic players who will be able to adapt and who will be able to make it work. I have spoken to Frank about it a lot and we will work on the partnership and are confident we can make it work.
"I am a little bit more naturally defensive than Frank and he is more forward thinking. That is how it will work but what the manager does want if one of us breaks forward is for the other one to be disciplined and stay. I will be a little bit more defensive than Frank. It worked well at times in Euro 2004. Frank's form was really good in the tournament."
The question of who stays back and who goes forward when England attack was supposed to be answered in that infamous meeting between Eriksson, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard before the Wales match last month in which the 4-5-1 formation was first floated. Gerrard defended his manager - "He asked for our opinions. We gave them" - and the resolution now seems to be that with Beckham pushed back to the right Gerrard will occupy the role of holding midfielder.
That is a job that Dietmar Hamann generally performs for Gerrard at club level while the Liverpool captain often plays one step ahead of his club's midfield in support of the lone striker. It was with a degree of understatement that Gerrard admitted it would be "a bit difficult" to adapt to his new role. "It's difficult to play five or six games as an attacking midfielder for Liverpool and then come in to the holding role," he said. "But I do feel I have the ability to adapt."
Despite the knotted brow, and the prospect of an unfamiliar role on Saturday, Gerrard said that he still enjoyed playing in a national team that three years ago was trying to make a left-sided midfielder of him. He said he had not been able to watch the video of the defeat to Northern Ireland and he had been thankful that Eriksson had not deployed the kind of shock therapy that saw the player watch a replay of the 4-1 defeat to Denmark.
"Pressure to perform," was how Gerrard described the expectation on him and Lampard with the acknowledgement that two players considered the best at their clubs should be able to play together. It is almost unthinkable to consider an England team without either of them but of late it has been equally hard to imagine them thriving in one another's company.
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