A tale of two midfielders

At roughly five minutes to three on Saturday afternoon, two of the Premier League’s most distinguished players took to the benches at their respective home grounds. For one, the afternoon marked the next step in a careful and cautious recovery programme. For the other, the occasion signalled another reminder of his slide from indispensability.

If the fortunes of the two players differed at 2.55pm, they could not have contrasted more greatly at 4.45pm. Steven Gerrard’s return to Anfield action unsurprisingly prompted a thunderous ovation, with the captain’s characteristically dynamic ten-minute cameo galvanising a flagging Liverpool display. Over in SW6, Frank Lampard failed to make his way onto the pitch, with the Daily Mail reporting that the 33-year-old stormed down the tunnel after the ignominy of remaining on the bench.

Of course, it would be wildly premature to declare the demise of Frank Lampard – it is still less than two years since he contributed 28 goals to Chelsea’s double-winning campaign of 2009/10 –  but there is no doubt that his importance to both club and country has diminished significantly over the last six months.  Irrespective of his advancing years, Lampard’s recent omissions have served to highlight his relative lack of versatility and tactical flexibility.

With 4-2-3-1 seemingly the formation de rigueur at club and international level, the 33-year-old has yet to show his ability to slot into the combative berths at the base of the midfield, nor at the creative apex position behind the lone striker. And with Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas primarily enlisted to stamp his entertaining mark on a functional side, the exclusion of one of the components which has encapsulated the team’s approach over the last seven years appears to be a necessary evil.

His bold decision to afford the effervescent Juan Mata a floating role, coupled with the deployment of the energetic and intelligent pairing of Ramires and Raul Meireles, has helped to provide Fernando Torres with the speed of movement and build-up play that he outspokenly craves. These tweaks have undoubtedly benefitted the forward, with the Iberian ending his recent drought by netting on his last two outings. With Torres displaying form vaguely reminiscent of his Anfield heyday, Villas-Boas will surely be keen to ensure the continued development and progress of the side’s new system.

After the early season optimism at Anfield was punctured by back-to-back defeats at Stoke and Tottenham, the return to fitness of Steven Gerrard could not have arrived at a more timely and opportune juncture. Manager Kenny Dalglish has already likened Gerrard’s re-emergence to that of a “new signing”, and team-mate Martin Kelly admitted that his inclusion on Saturday provided a lift. Dalglish’s recent plea for England to use Gerrard “intelligently” would imply that Fabio Capello and his backroom staff still see the 31-year-old as a key player in the national team set-up.

Although Dalglish’s summer recruitment drive yielded three new midfielders, the thought of a full-strength Liverpool side appearing without its talismanic captain is still unthinkable. Whilst Dalglish has tinkered with the side’s shape since his return in January, there is no suggestion that Gerrard will be unable to fit into a continually evolving system.

Whether right or wrong, the best part of the last decade has been synonymous with the tiresome ‘Gerrard-Lampard’ debate. A succession of England managers all failed in their bids to successfully utilise the duo as a pairing, and arguments have been raged in pubs and forums nationwide as to the identity of the superior player. With both players reaching intriguing points in their respective careers, the events of the next ten months could help to settle those debates once and for all.

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