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Page last updated at 15:25 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 16:25 UK

What now for England's midfield?

By Alistair Magowan

'Back to square one' might not seem a thoroughly accurate way of describing England's 5-1 win over Kazakhstan on Saturday, but answers to how to combine Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in midfield yet again failed to show up on the dial.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard

The phrase, used by radio commentators of yesteryear to explain where the ball was, could even prove to be useful on the training pitch before England head to Minsk to face Belarus.

Perverse as it may seem to be picking faults in a 5-1 victory, in the first half England boss Fabio Capello's attempts to play the midfield duo in a 4-3-3 formation made him revert to a more predictable solution after the break.

Granted, it paid dividends with England scoring five goals in a 4-4-2 system, but it also exposed the defence to several surging attacks from a country ranked 131st in the world.

The result and the overall performance were perfectly adequate and, importantly, it gave the new manager the chance to find an original solution to a long-standing problem.

And according to former England boss Graham Taylor, it also showed that Capello has the ability to see a problem and immediately rectify it, as all good coaches do.

"I dare say he got it wrong in the first half," said Taylor. "He didn't get the flow he was after and once that happened he made the necessary changes. And if they work then you have to give him credit."

Alistair M - BBC Sport

So if the alterations were an admission of a mistake, how do England, now without the injured Ashley Cole and John Terry, play against Belarus on Wednesday?

The second half at Wembley showed that a stronger team than the Kazakhs would have little trouble slicing through the midfield, and then there is the 4-1 win over Croatia where, without Gerrard, England engineered their most complete display for years.

Despite the lack of goals, former England midfielder Steve Hodge, who now works at the Nottingham Forest academy, thinks the first half was not a forlorn exercise.

"Capello will have learned that against lesser teams he won't need that holding midfield player, certainly at home," Hodge told BBC Sport.

"Offensively, I don't think the [4-3-3] formation worked but when the opposition are still physically strong, wound up for the game, getting men behind the ball and working damn hard it is difficult to create things, as happened on Saturday."

England were largely criticised for lacking width on the left with Gareth Barry, Gerrard and Lampard working as a midfield three and then Wayne Rooney playing as a left-sided attacker.

England's potential 4-3-3 against Belarus
England's potential 4-3-3 against Belarus

The Manchester United man has been tried as a wide player for his club without much success this season and his central link-up play, with a striker like Emile Heskey, is further evidence of where he does most damage.

But Hodge says he can understand what plans Capello is trying to implement, although he concedes there are still improvements to be made.

"If you think of France over the last few years with Zinedine Zidane, or even Robinho playing for Brazil this week, they both start wide on the left and wander inside a lot," Hodge said. "Ronaldinho did the same when he was playing with Barcelona.

"It seems to be where your most creative player gets the most room. He can wander off and the right-back will be reluctant to follow him inside as it leaves space down the flank.

"Rooney does create things from that area although he probably prefers being tucked inside with Heskey. Certainly, he caused problems in the hole against Croatia, but I think the manager will persist with this [4-3-3] system."

Although they were backed up by Barry, Hodge also says the system failed to eke out the best in Lampard or Gerrard because Heskey alone was unable to safeguard possession.

"As a midfield player you want to see spaces to run into and there weren't that many so there's no point wasting energy running into blind alleys," said Hodge.

"Most midfielders like to gamble on a near-certainty rather than a possibility, when it comes to getting possession. With Heskey being up front on his own it wasn't always the case so in that regard there are things to work on."

The second half on Saturday offered further causes for concern when England switched to a 4-4-2 formation.

England's potential 4-4-2 against Belarus
England's potential 4-4-2 against Belarus

With Shaun Wright-Phillips wide left and Theo Walcott patrolling the right flank, neither Gerrard nor Lampard sought to marshal the area between the defence and midfield.

"The second-half formation did expose England and Kazakhstan should have scored within the first minute of the re-start," said Hodge.

"They are both great going forward and they both defend well but they are not defensively minded like Barry or Owen Hargreaves or a Claude Makelele whose sole thing is to destroy the opposition in and around the 18-yard box."

"Against a better side [Gerrard and Lampard's pairing] becomes an issue," added Taylor. "Will you need a third midfield player or a holding midfield player?

"At the highest level the top sides play through their team and control the middle of the park."

So is the obvious answer to stick with a similar formation to the one England used in Croatia when Walcott scored an emphatic hat-trick?

That would mean relegating Gerrard or Lampard to the bench with Barry behind them or, if not, moving Gerrard to the left to accommodate the other pair in the centre.

Hodge believes all three will play and, echoing the thoughts of former England team-mate Chris Waddle who called for Walcott to be dropped against Kazakhstan, thinks that David Beckham could be used in the first half on Wednesday.

"There were some excellent goals by England against Croatia and it was a fantastic result but the last half-hour was played against 10 men," Hodge said.

"That night Walcott was going forward a lot but I think on Wednesday he will be going backwards quite a bit more than he would like to because Belarus will attack at home.

"Great as the game was against Croatia he did cash in during the second half when things were in our favour heavily. Beckham will help keep the ball and keep it tight."

see also
Pick your England XI
31 Aug 07 |  Internationals
England's problem midfield
09 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Terry & Cole out of Belarus match
13 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Gerrard prepared for Belarus test
13 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Capello's game of two halves
11 Oct 08 |  Internationals
England 5-1 Kazakhstan
11 Oct 08 |  Internationals

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