As Roy Hodgson’s England crashed out of the World Cup after only two games, including a dismal display in a 2-1 loss to Uruguay, is it time for the Three Lions’ captain, Steven Gerrard, to consider his England future?
A promising opening display—albeit during a loss—against Italy provided encouragement to England’s tournament hopes, but a dismal performance against Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay overruled this.
Gerrard’s Liverpool teammate, Luis Suarez, put the 34-year-old and his compatriots to the sword with two world-class finishes, possibly signalling the end of a fruitless England career for the midfielder.
In a press conference following the Uruguay loss, it was speculated that Gerrard would announce his international retirement.
The career-long Liverpool man cut a face of equal parts disappointment and defiance, currently quashing such speculation.
This isn’t to say the midfielder won’t call time on his Three Lions tenure, but the debate remains open.
With England set to test group-leaders Costa Rica in their final World Cup game of the tournament tonight, Hodgson is set to experiment with a host of peripheral figures, in somewhat charitable fashion.
Conspicuous in his absence is Gerrard, replaced by ex-Chelsea man Frank Lampard in the holding midfield role; the former is likely to enter the fray at some point, but this supplanting is somewhat telling.
With his role undermined by England’s dour tournament display, and his future clearly under consideration, would now be the right time for Gerrard to hang up his international boots?
A vast array of World Cup pundits are at loggerheads over the situation.
Firstly, Liverpool legend and BBC commentator Mark Lawrenson, writing for the Liverpool Echo, believes the midfielder should retire from the international game to further his club career.
Retire now and he preserves his Liverpool career even further. Those knocks he will accumulate throughout the season will be given a chance to recover during the international break. He won’t have to travel and won’t have the extra games. It can only mean one thing – more years in his legs.
Former England manager and pundit Glenn Hoddle, speaking to ITV, echoed Lawrenson’s view on extending Gerrard’s club career, but stressed this as a reason to delay an international retirement.
Steven Gerrard, in the role he plays for Liverpool, could play another four years like that, easy. I'd look straight down the camera and say 'please don't hang your international boots up'.
Both still clearly believe that the 34-year-old is a key player for his club—a side which, with Gerrard in his newly tweaked regista role, finished second in the Premier League last season.
It is difficult to ascertain which is taking the more selfish viewpoint.
However, it is clear from Gerrard’s performances for the Reds in 2013/14 that the midfielder can provide the solid foundation from which a progressive, malleable attacking side can be built open.
From Liverpool to England
This is a player who, per Squawka, scored 13 goals and made 13 assists for Liverpool last season, who made 67 chances in total—second only to the effervescent Suarez—and who made on average five defensive actions per game—the most of any Liverpool midfielder.
But this is unfortunately something that hasn’t translated as well to the England cause, culminating in Spanish newspaper AS opting out of a rating for Gerrard for his performance against Uruguay.
Most of this criticism stems from the unfortunate winning of an aerial challenge, leading to Suarez’s second, sumptuously taken goal on 85 minutes; however, this blame is unfounded.
The hapless Phil Jagielka, invisible to the talents of Suarez throughout, can accept much of said blame; unfortunately, it is England’s captain who has become the scapegoat.
Furthermore, Gerrard has been criticised for failing to replicate his finely balanced displays, abundant last season for the Reds, in an England shirt.
Deployed consistently alongside club teammate Jordan Henderson in a midfield two, this is clearly Hodgson’s attempt at transplanting Brendan Rodgers’ success to the international stage; naturally, the pair of Gerrard and Henderson became the nucleus around which a title charge was built.
However, against both Italy and—particularly—Uruguay, Gerrard was unable to utilise his creative talents in tandem with his defensive duties, as England became increasingly overrun.
The keyword in the above criticism is “duo,” and this is arguably the biggest undoing of Hodgson’s World Cup attempts in 2014, and one in which the 66-year-old will need to address immediately.
Under Rodgers at Liverpool, Gerrard is complemented in the regista role by both Henderson and an additional midfielder, usually either Messrs Joe Allen or Philippe Coutinho, who provide the necessary legwork.
Under Hodgson for England, Gerrard was left with only Henderson in the midfield, with a combination of Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling operating in the more advanced roles.
This left the Liverpool men isolated and vulnerable, an issue abundantly clear in Gerrard’s headed mistake.
Furthermore, this is an issue compounded by Tabarez’s tactical isolation of Gerrard, tasking forward Edinson Cavani with somewhat of a man-marking operation, to great effect.
It was Cavani’s pressure that led to Gerrard’s headed "assist" for Suarez, and the PSG man terrorised the midfielder throughout proceedings.
This tactical masterstroke worked in tandem with Hodgson’s tactical deficiency, working to embarrass an admittedly poor Gerrard and conjure immense speculation over the future of one of England’s few genuine greats amongst the current crop.
Therefore, Lawrenson may be far from selfless in his wanting Gerrard to retire for the sake of his club career, but the discrepancies between the midfielder under Rodgers and under Hodgson are clear.
Perhaps the time is right for Gerrard to call it quits and end a veritable misery.
Barney Ronay, writing for The Guardian, suggested that Gerrard’s inclusion in the England midfield came mainly down to a lack of options for Hodgson.
[R]ecently 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.
However, there are at least three options in the current England squad who have a chance of fulfilling Gerrard’s role in the future for the Three Lions, albeit likely in a tweaked formation.
Firstly, former England player Stan Collymore opted for Arsenal dynamo Jack Wilshere, as he wrote for the Mirror, “If Jack can rise to the occasion at least we might be able to take a positive from it and have a platform to build on.”
The 22-year-old certainly has the creative abilities capable of commanding a central role, but he would need to grow into the responsibilities of consistency that the England shirt demands.
Elsewhere, Gerrard’s current Liverpool colleague Henderson could have his sights set on the 34-year-old’s role for both club and country in the near future.
Furthermore, with his game based on boundless energy, Henderson’s pressing game—along with a growing influence and experience—would suit this replacement adeptly.
Finally, away from Anfield and across Stanley Park shines a recently unearthed diamond in Everton’s Ross Barkley.
The 20-year-old’s game bears all the hallmarks, of fearlessness and immeasurable quality, of a younger Gerrard, and with the right management he could tailor his game to assume this role in the future.
On to the future, with Roy Hodgson (h/t BBC Sport) desperate for Gerrard to prolong his international career, both captain and manager have come to a crossroads.
It is clear that, having developed his game at Liverpool to great effect, the midfielder can still contribute massively in the deep-lying role for his country, but this would require a tactical shift from Hodgson.
A shift into a midfield three is paramount, without this switch Gerrard will be without the necessary support needed to thrive.
If this isn’t to be, then the 34-year-old may well be best taking Lawrenson’s advice and focus on the Premier League with the Reds, in a role which can last for the foreseeable future yet.
Players such as Wilshere, Henderson and Barkley should provide Hodgson with bountiful options in the future, suggesting this could be a profitable decision either way.
One thing remains clear: If Gerrard is to announce his retirement at some point in the near future, and despite a disappointing tournament, the England captain has been misused and scapegoated.