"Can Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard play together?" is one of the great old clichés made dull pub conversation made ironic joke made tired ironic joke told by dullards of English football. A "Come on Tim!" for the less openly middle-class, a "Can Lionel Messi do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke?" for those whose football knowledge stops at Lands End. It has now plagued England twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. And here we are in 2014, still earnestly talking about it.
Roy Hodgson will be lucky enough that the stock of the two appears set to expire just in time for the World Cup, thus making it perfectly acceptable for him to drop one of them. Who's he going to replace them with? Well... shut up. England doesn't want to hear about that. That's not the point. The youngsters will come good eventually.
Much was made of the problem during the tenure of Sven-Goran Eriksson, but in truth the Swede was in an impossible position. What was he supposed to do - drop Gerrard or Lampard and face a crucifixion in the press? The only possible alternative was to play with three in the middle, but England had no suitable player for the role.
While looking at England tournament squads over the years, there are two striking things: firstly the rapid decline in numbers and quality of strikers, and secondly that England appear to stop making left wingers after Steve McManaman. Less clearly, and for obvious reasons much less lamented, although just as important, is another type of player England seemed to stop producing: the Rob Lees, the Steve Stones, and the David Batties of the world. In exasperation, Sven hit on a masterstroke - he would instead deploy David Beckham as the deeper of the two, in a 'quarterback' role.
It didn't work.
Mocked for being suggested as a 'quarterback role', today it would be known as the Andrea Pirlo role, and Beckham excelled in it towards the end of his career. Just not behind Gerrard and Lampard. They needed a more solid, disciplined runner and tackler, but England didn't have one. Exeunt Eriksson, enter Fabio Capello. This time, the plan was much simpler - Gerrard would instead be played on the left, where he would be given a free role, also handily solving the left-winger problem.
It didn't work.
Worryingly, it looks like England could face the same problems again. They have a potential embarrassment of riches at central midfield - Jack Wilshere, Nick Powell, Ross Barkley and Will Hughes are the great hopes. James Ward-Prowse, Tom Carroll and Ravel Morrison also fit into that group. Yet it's harder to see who's likely to perform the role that England will require to make it work.
At the moment, there are only two suitable names - Phil Jones has performed the role on occasion well at Manchester United, but he has regressed hugely, is injury-prone and a severely limited player. Nathaniel Chalobah may be better suited, but he too likes to get forward and is untested at the highest level and far from a sure thing. In either case, they may be needed in the back four anyway, where talent is a lot thinner on the ground.
For all the hype of the new generation of English talent, it looks like history is repeating itself again. The same weaknesses look likely to persist, despite the supposed increase in technical quality and creativity that England have long falsely heralded as their Achilles' heel, despite the last two decades seeing Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steve McManaman, Wayne Rooney, Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham, Paul Merson, Teddy Sheringham, and Les Ferdinand, among many others, represent them in international tournaments. A dearth of technique and creativity indeed. England have spent their years dreaming of an Iniesta, a Pirlo or a Zidane when they need a Hargreaves, an Ince, or a Butt. Pele was right after all.
Oh, and they still don't have a left-winger. Andros Townsend? Do me a favour.