England’s captain was terrible against Uruguay but he is only playing at this World Cup because no one better has come along
As the disappointment of England’s strangely enervating, strangely frantic exit from Brazil 2014 starts to fade into resignation, there will no doubt be an urge to clutch at any lingering positives. And England do at least have one thing to cling to after Friday’s clinching Group D victory for Costa Rica in Recife. The prospect of another catastrophic defeat in Belo Horizonte to match the fabled 1-0 humbling by USA in 1950 has at least been successfully avoided. Too late, old son. We’re way ahead of you this time around.
Instead, it is the defeats in Manaus and São Paulo that will remain the dominant images of England’s tournament. And as is the way of these things, no sooner had Luis Suárez’s knife-between-the-ribs second goal zipped past Joe Hart in the Arena Corinthians than the hunt was on for an instant repository of blame, a conveniently placed chief England miscreant after a pair of narrow, tightly fought defeats to fine and deserving opponents.
At which point: enter, shuffling on and then shuffling off, Steven Gerrard. So fierce is the tide of ambient opinion on these things that Gerrard had already been fixed in the sniper’s sights by the final whistle on Thursday night. And it is true: Gerrard had a horrible match in São Paulo, a match so poor that the Spanish newspaper AS simply refused to give him a mark out of 10 at the end of it. He was bypassed with chastening ease by Edinson Cavani in the buildup to Uruguay’s opener. He flicked on a long punt for Suárez’s second. And, as he had in Manaus, he looked always stretched, always engaged in some scrabbling, lunging attempt to patch the holes in England’s defensive roof.
And yet with England’s active interest in this World Cup now extinguished it is time to change tack a little here, to lift the burden of shared exasperation from those shoulders. It is no secret, and also no bad thing, that Liverpool’s captain will retire from international football at the end of this tournament. It is even possible Gerrard may have started his last match for the national team, with plenty of unused options in that 23-man squad for the bloodless final group match against Costa Rica.
With this in mind it seems depressingly punitive that there are those who will now seek to characterise Gerrard’s season, perhaps even his late playing career, as a tale of two slips: the man who lost his footing against Chelsea; the man who lost his man against Uruguay. Sport has always loved this kind of hammy narrative but it is a temptation that should be resisted here. Gerrard deserves better than this at the end of a venerable England career that, true to his own adrenal style in his prime – a player of good bits, bad bits and brilliant bits – is perhaps best defined by its own best bits.
Gerrard, lest we forget, was once a droolingly coveted youngster, more exciting than any of the current Barkley-Sterling-Wilshere brigade, a player who announced himself with a gorgeously precocious competitive England debut at Euro 2000 marked by that nutmeg of Dietmar Hamann in Charleroi, and seemed briefly and misleadingly to represent English football’s triumph of youthful riches compared with poor old backward-facing Germany. Aged 19 he looked like a player who could do anything, on any pitch, for any team, and whose talent, with some nurture, some reining in, had no obvious upper limits.
In the event Gerrard’s best single moment with England came just eight caps later against the same opponents, with his brilliantly influential role in central midfield in the 5-1 defeat of Germany in Munich. There were other highs: a guiding hand in the most impressive England team of his era at Euro 2004; important goals at the last two World Cups; four controlled performances at Euro 2012 when he made Uefa’s team of the tournament.
And yet it seems fair to say we never did get to see the best of Gerrard with England. The sustained, galvanising run of performances his youthful talents promised never quite materialised. In his late career he never looked like dictating a match in the manner of his contemporary Andrea Pirlo who just seems to be playing at a different pace, with more space around him, a full set of rear-view mirrors, a sense always of where the pieces are moving.
In many ways Gerrard has been unlucky in that his real pomp came before FA scientists made the dramatic discovery, buried deep in their laboratory, that it isn’t actually compulsory for England to play 4-4-2 in every match. Just as a Liverpool-style three-man midfield would have helped him in Brazil, it seems obvious now the spell is broken – oh Sven, and your rigid lines – that the most liberating position for the younger, more explosive Gerrard would have been as an inside forward in a 4-2-3-1, probably to the right given his contribution from that side in Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool teams. Of all the roles he has played for England in between Charleroi and São Paulo – defensive midfield, right midfield, attacking midfield, left midfield, right-back, No10 – it is the last of these that came closest to this role, albeit in unconvincing fashion (for one reason: he’s not a No10).
More recently defensive midfield was always a compromise, a last wringing-out of what remains. And with this in mind, Gerrard has been a little harshly picked out in Brazil. Let’s face it, he is playing for England now only because no one better has come along. With Michael Carrick coming off a poor season and never really settled as an England player for whatever reason, there is a talent vacuum below that older generation, no sign of any thrusting young players in the central positions.
Jack Wilshere, if he can improve his mobility and stay fit, is a man to build a midfield around. This might have been Jack Rodwell’s World Cup in a parallel world where his development (and fitness) kept pace with his salary. James Milner was excellent for Aston Villa in central midfield and could yet be an option for England.
Beyond that, what are we left with? Tom Cleverley looks like the right kind of idea, a kind of own-brand Xavi, but without the required quality. After which it’s Gareth Barry, Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Lee Cattermole: a miscellany of the tried and the unlikely to be tried.
And so Gerrard has not been quietly relocated to the fringes in the natural way. And he has looked genuinely tired for three months now. Why wouldn’t he too? To criticise his lack of vim in these circumstances is a bit like forcing a single athlete to run every leg of the 4x400m relay and then jeering from the sidelines when he starts slipping down the field in the final bend, arms pumping, eyes boggled with pain. The cavalry never came for Gerrard. And so has lingered on, a little raggedly, to the final cut.
At the end of which Gerrard deserves better than to be hoisted as an emblem of English ineptitude, the skipper who let it slip and all the rest of it. If anything has been exposed at Brazil 2014 it is more the simple lack of alternatives, of budding midfield talent in the system, and beyond that the lack of a game-plan to shield that ageing shield, England’s own game, grizzled but departing midfield factotum.