The Guardian surprised a few people in 2010 by naming Steven Gerrard alongside Cruyff, Zidane and Maradona in the midfield (four-man, obviously, what self respecting ‘dream team' would eschew the 4-4-2?) of their all-time World XI. Predictably, Gerrard's selection caused some dissent to be oozed over the internet's various media, eliding the stupidity of the exercise as a whole: this uber-11 would lose to a ‘well-drilled unit' like Paul Lamber's Norwich. Nonetheless, Gerrard's inclusion, the resultant unrest and the newspaper's, perfectly reasonable, defence - that the Liverpool and England captain was included on the basis of a public poll - sums up neatly Gerrard's status within the game: he is very popular; he is an incredibly talented player; he is very unpopular; he has a unique set of attributes; he has no tactical acumen and or discipline whatsoever.
Successive England managers (Liverpool managers too, for that) have found the Gerrard luster irresistible, and Euro 2012 will be his third European Championship (having also appeared in 2000 and 2004). While his appearances to goals ratio is most impressive for its symmetry - 91:19 - a goal every 4.5 games is a good return for a midfield player. It is not quite as good, though, as Frank Lampard's (23 goals from 90 caps). And therein, largely, lies the problem; the Lampard-Gerrard Conundrum has dominated, and damaged, England's tactical approach for an entire (Golden) generation. But not this time, the Chelsea man's thigh injury has excused Roy Hodgson from attempting to answer England's eternal question.
Even before Lampard's withdrawal, England's new manager had expressed his preference. By naming Gerrard as captain, and therefore de facto starter for England's opening games against France, Sweden and Ukraine, Hodgson had signaled his intention to build his midfield around the Liverpool legend.
Given his club form this season, and indeed his international form over the last two seasons - Gerrard has scored only once for England since opening the scoring against the USA in the 2010 World Cup, and that was in a friendly against Hungary in August 2010, Stevie Gee's ongoing centrality to the England project is a surprise. Unlike Lampard, he has not really succeeded in reinventing his game to accommodate his declining physicality (and increasing susceptibility to injury). Whereas Lampard has limited box-to-box proclivities to the extent that he became a Champions League winner as a defensive midfielder, Gerrard remains a rampager.
Many people, this column included, expected this to mean that Gerrard would be deployed, in the absence of Wayne Rooney from England's first two fixtures, in a ‘free' or support striker role behind either Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck. In last weekend's friendly in Norway, however, Ashley Young filled this role with Gerrard deployed in a more regimented central-midfield berth alongside Scott Parker. This didn't really work, with Hodgson himself acknowledging that:
A few times we had the opportunity but then we turn out or alternatively Steve is trying to find passes through there that are very, very difficult to find [even] with his passing ability. That's a work in progress and I'm hoping we will get our wide midfielders helping the [central] midfielders out there and get the balls fed into them, into Ashley Young, because the few times we did it looked good.
Gerrard has a serious jones for ‘very, very difficult' passes, or Hollywood Balls. Scott Murray, writing in the Blizzard, has referred to this tendency as symptomatic of English football's obsession with Roy Race (the comic strip striker famous for his ability to single-handedly wrest glorious victory from inevitable defeat). And Gerrard typifies this proclivity. In many ways then, and especially at this moment when Roy Hodgson has not had anything like the time to effect the seismic change in England's approach he seems to know to be necessary, Steven Gerrard is England.
In that sense, then, his inclusion as captain is perhaps less surprising than it initially appeared; who knows, maybe England could even win the thing and Gerrard justify his inclusion in that World XI. That would be a surprise.
National Team: England
Club Team: Steven Gerrard
Role in first team: Central midfield alongside Scott Parker, a departure from his familiar advanced midfield role