England went backwards on Tuesday night as they took a step towards the finals of Euro 2012, and the return of Frank Lampard seemed almost too obvious a symbol of their tactical regression.
After the successful experiment with 4-2-3-1 against Bulgaria on Friday night, Fabio Capello made a significant tactical adjustment for the visit of Wales. Lampard and James Milner, replacing Scott Parker and the injured Theo Walcott, joined Gareth Barry in a central line of three behind the trio of forwards, Stewart Downing, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young.
Did Capello really see Gareth Bale as such a threat that he needed to rejig his formation for a home fixture against a team ranked 117th in the world? In the light of England's performance in Sofia, a gesture of confidence might have been more appropriate. A genuinely formidable team, which is what they aspire to be, possess a shape that everyone can recognise and no one can do anything to counter. Less than a week ago England seemed to have made genuine progress on that front, but on Tuesday night they dredged up a real pre-enlightenment performance.
With a couple of strokes of his pen, Capello forfeited the virtues of security and flexibility England had displayed against Bulgaria, where Parker and Barry screened the defence and Walcott, Young and Downing were able to interchange at will behind Rooney, who was clearly stimulated by the fluid movement around him. Wales, alas but unsurprisingly, were not good enough to take advantage of this more conservative formation, although they were to give the home side plenty of uncomfortable moments as the evening wore on.
In the opening half-hour England were uncertain at the back, stodgy in midfield and suffering from a persistent misfire in attack. Their only threat came from Downing's crosses, although it was significant that he held station on the right flank throughout, with Young anchored to the left. Last Friday the positional interchanging had started early, contributing to the freshness and spontaneity that underpinned a convincing victory.
When a goal came last night it was as a result of another of Downing's crosses, this one hit low with his left foot and swept home by Young from just outside the six-yard box. A neat enough strike, but it could not disguise the overall lack of sharpness and sparkle, precision and invention, particularly from Rooney, whose touch was below the standard of recent weeks.
None of this was remotely Lampard's fault. The 33-year-old did his best with the role he had been given, fetching and carrying while looking for the opportunity to move forward in support of Rooney, but there was none of the smoothness and adventure visible in Sofia.
When Lampard was left out of the starting line-up against Bulgaria and given only 10 minutes as a substitute for Barry, some were tempted to conclude that this might be a sign of his international career drawing to a close. John Terry, his captain with club and country, responded immediately by springing to his defence.
"I certainly don't think Frank's shelf life is over," Terry said. "One hundred per cent, he will bounce back. If anyone wants to write him off, they do it at their own peril. I think it's a bit of a lack of respect towards Frank, given what he's given to the country. He's one of the best midfielders England has ever seen."
This was Lampard's 88th appearance since making his senior debut in October 1999, and only nine men have won more England caps. His first experience of the finals of a major international competition came in Euro 2004, where three goals in four matches earned him a place in Uefa's team of the tournament, but such a strike rate was not to be maintained, and there were no goals in the World Cup finals of 2006 and 2010, although negligent officiating denied him what would have been a famous equaliser against Germany in Bloemfontein.
After an hour of hard-working anonymity last night came the moment when he should have scored his 23rd international goal. Barry carried the ball into the Wales penalty area before nudging a square pass to Lampard, who dug the ball out from between his feet with his first touch before hitting a snap shot narrowly over the bar from 15 yards.
Pushing forward more frequently as England attempted to increase their lead, he twice fed Rooney around the edge of the area, without meaningful response. When he was replaced by Parker in the 73rd minute, at least he had the comfort of warm applause from around the stadium. There were no dissenting noises from the home fans, who were perhaps aware that on this occasion, quite possibly one of last times he will wear the England jersey at Wembley, the totality of this veteran's career warranted something more appropriate and dignified than the jeers he has occasionally been required to endure. But he may also have noticed that the welcome for Parker was twice as loud: a recognition of Friday's excellence rather than Tuesday's return, even in victory, to the bad old ways.