Even the most devout supporter of Chelsea’s free-scoring number eight would find it difficult to argue that Frank Lampard has been at his best for England over the past couple of years. Whilst never deserving of some of the criticism he has received from some ‘fans’ and journalists – and continuing to rack up the goals for his country – he certainly hasn’t replicated the excellent form he has so consistently delivered for his club.
There are surely a number of reasons behind this – not least that he seems to play better when alongside Chelsea’s superior personnel. Key to it though, I suspect, is the way that Fabio Capello has used him in recent years.
The success of England’s World Cup qualifying campaign was based on Lampard and Barry playing holding roles, leaving Gerrard and Rooney free to express themselves further up the pitch. It seemed that, unlike Gerrard, Lampard’s discipline and positional intelligence led Capello to the view that because he could play the role it was necessary to sacrifice his attacking instincts.
England cruised comfortably through qualifying, never really looking stretched, and Lampard’s form was acceptable without generally being scintillating. Certainly there was little evidence of Lampard running games or threatening in and around the box as he might for Chelsea.
But it is true to say he has been asked to play a very withdrawn role for England, and fans have misinterpreted his quiet stitching together of England’s play and absence of real attacking play as ‘going missing’. In reality, the best holding midfielders are usually those players supporters are most likely to ‘miss’, in every sense of the word.
The withdrawn role doesn’t play to any of Lampard’s strengths: getting box to box for 90 minutes and making late forays into the oppositions’ box. He isn’t a Pirlo either, able to rely on stellar passing ability to make it less of a holding role, and more of a quarterback one. Perhaps all this contributed to some average performances, and the occasional lapse in concentration leading to a misplaced pass.
On Wednesday against Slovenia however, Capello allowed Lampard a different role. In the first half in particular, Barry was left to hold on his own (surely one is enough?). We saw something more like the real Lampard, and if the finishing wasn’t quite there the creative passing, bursting runs into the box and tackling back were there in abundance. Not all viewers will agree, but whilst Gerrard, Milner and Defoe grabbed the headlines, for me Lampard was England’s engine room.
I understand the logic of playing Lampard in the holding role: if Capello wants two players there, he’s the only player in the squad aside from Barry who has the discipline to do it. But there’s a logic to counter that argument, too. Lampard is the most consistent performer England have, scoring goals and making important contributions for his club unabated for six years now. When he’s on form, he’s among the best there is.
I’m not arguing to hold Gerrard or any other player back Fabio, but go with a system that lets Frank play his game – to not is to sacrifice too much.