Gerrard proves he can deliver from deep - but Italian intelligence the real test
Roy Hodgson has based his England side around organisation, discipline and a good shape without the ball. ItÃ¢ÂÂs not a system that brings the best out of individuals, particularly flair players, and as a result, itÃ¢ÂÂs been difficult to name a standout man of the match in any of England's three Euro 2012 matches so far Ã¢ÂÂ despite England topping their group comfortably with seven points.
But over the three games, Steven Gerrard has been EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs star performer, from his deep midfield role alongside Scott Parker.
Many have questioned GerrardÃ¢ÂÂs discipline to play in that position, and while England have often looked vulnerable between the lines of defence and midfield Ã¢ÂÂ summed up by Samir NasriÃ¢ÂÂs equaliser in the opening game Ã¢ÂÂ itÃ¢ÂÂs hardly been a disaster.
Despite his deep role, Gerrard struggles to have a constant attacking influence on games within this system. ItÃ¢ÂÂs simply not possible, as England spend long periods without the ball Ã¢ÂÂ only Ireland and Portugal have averaged less than EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs 42% possession over the three games - and Gerrard has completed just under 50 passes per game, only the 35th most of the competing players. He thrives in the opposition half, but spends more time getting back behind the ball.
But Gerrard has been able to provide important balls into the box Ã¢ÂÂ three of them, in fact. He assisted Joleon LescottÃ¢ÂÂs opener against France with a brilliant long free-kick from the right, played a similar cross to Andy Carroll against Sweden, then provided the ball that was deflected three times before being headed in by Wayne Rooney against Ukraine. Gerrard isnÃ¢ÂÂt seeing as much of the ball as he would like, but heÃ¢ÂÂs still providing decisive moments.
HeÃ¢ÂÂs turned in a different type of performance in all three games. Against France, in addition to his excellent assist for Lescott, he also contributed heavily without the ball. There were five successful tackles, and three crucial blocks as France continually attempted long-range shots. In open play, his passing was slightly wayward Ã¢ÂÂ a few too many unsuccessful diagonal balls, as England struggled to turn defence into attack quickly, offering little threat from open play.
Against Sweden, there was a different pattern to his passing. Although Gerrard still misplaced a couple of long balls into the box, EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs gameplan was different because of the introduction of Carroll, an aerial force. CarrollÃ¢ÂÂs opener proved the approach was correct, and as such, these ambitious balls can be excused. Besides, GerrardÃ¢ÂÂs performance in deeper positions was impressive. He played careful, reliable passes out to the flanks, and England were more comfortable on the ball than in their other two games.
However, Gerrard contributed little without the ball. Amazingly, he managed to go the entire game without even attempting a tackle, although he did make two interceptions. Sweden scored from two long free-kicks, and therefore GerrardÃ¢ÂÂs lack of defensive work in midfield wasnÃ¢ÂÂt the primary reason for the concessions Ã¢ÂÂ but England might have relieved the pressure if theyÃ¢ÂÂd won the ball more frequently.
Finally, there was GerrardÃ¢ÂÂs performance against Ukraine, his best of the tournament so far. He wasnÃ¢ÂÂt officially credited with the assist Ã¢ÂÂ because of the deflections on his cross Ã¢ÂÂ but his passing display was his most reliable of the competition so far. Balls from deep positions were rarely wasted, with possession generally only conceded when trying a killer pass or a cross.
GerrardÃ¢ÂÂs defensive presence returned, too Ã¢ÂÂ two interceptions, and five out of six successful tackles.
Bigger tests will come in this tournament Ã¢ÂÂ first, against an Italy side that possesses plenty of intelligent ball-playing midfielders. Gerrard will have to show patience and intelligence on the ball, and also make some important tackles. For now, his greatest impact is with his delivery from the right Ã¢ÂÂ for as long as he provides one superb cross per match, England are starting with a one-goal head start.