In his first decision as the new manager of England, Roy Hodgson announced the identity of his captain for the finals of Euro 2012. So it was interesting to hear him single out Steven Gerrard’s choices of passes for gentle but pointed criticism in the wake of the 1-0 win against Norway in Oslo last weekend. “They were passing the ball quite well,” Hodgson said in his first post-match press conference, discussing the lack of real creativity in midfield, “although at times Steven was looking for the early ball in behind.” Some of those passes, he added, were very difficult to execute, even for a player of Gerrard’s ability.Old problem
Such openness is vastly preferable to the traditional culture of evasion and denial, but his comments did reopen the question of Gerrard’s precise function within the team, one that became more pressing this week following the withdrawal of Lampard and Gareth Barry from Hodgson’s squad and doubts over the fitness of Scott Parker. As well as imposing extra demands on Gerrard’s experience and authority, the absences will affect his tactical deployment within the team.
Although long considered one of Europe’s most influential midfielders, the Liverpool man has suffered throughout his career from the difficulty experienced by successive managers in defining his most effective role. Is he a box-to-box player with a raking stride and a powerful shot? Is he a predominantly defensive midfielder — as he was at the beginning of his career — with a special gift for the long-range diagonal pass? Is he a clever prompter who functions to most damaging effect around the edge of the penalty area, behind a single striker?
Was he at his best in the 2004 Euros, alongside Frank Lampard in the middle of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s conventional 4-4-2? Or is he a player of such originality that he should be spared the restrictions of a tactical straitjacket?
Gerrard led Liverpool in 18 of Hodgson’s 31 matches during the 65-year-old’s troubled spell at Anfield, and the evolution of relationship with the manager under different circumstances will bear watching. As will Hodgson’s ability to create the best setting for a player who could benefit from having participated in no more than two-thirds of the domestic campaign, with none of the European involvement that made demands on others throughout the season. Last Wednesday he turned 32, and this is certain to be his last major tournament. Depleted by injuries and suspension, seldom has the England team offered greater scope for a leader to step forward and impose his authority. We are about to find out if Gerrard, the veteran of five coaching regimes, was that man all along.