For the better part of the last decade, the combination of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard has been supremely vexing to England fans. Why is it that two of the finest midfielders the country has ever produced cannot seem to play alongside one another? Using both Lampard and Gerrard in the centre has never produced the desired impact on the attack, and worse, tends to result in gigantic holes opening up between midfield and defence. The typical solution in England's recent history has been to use Gerrard on the left, exploiting Ashley Cole's ability to provide extra width down that flank. However, that's not a real solution, especially as it denies England Gerrard's defensive abilities.
So, how do we combine two box to box midfielders with a proclivity for attack? Lampard and Gerrard can both defend, but not enough to be used a central midfield pairing in a 4-4-2, especially since both have a habit of being near the oposition penalty area when they might better served in a more withdrawn role. Using them in a 4-4-2 would either involve curtailing some attacking instincts or leaving the defence horrendously exposed. So we can't use Gerrard and Lampard as central midfielders in England's traditional shape. However, there's no reason not to have both of them in one side. Both are incredibly potent offensive weapons and the key to very good attacking teams at the club level; losing either would be a blow to England's potential prowess in front of goal. If either Lampard or Gerrard is dropped, England are a weaker side - but how do we avoid the imbalance caused by the presence of both in the centre?
Enter Michael Essien.
No, I don't mean kidnapping the Ghanaian and forcing English citizenship upon him. What's interesting about Essien in this case is how his presence in the Chelsea lineup can help shed light on ways to combine Lampard with other elite attacking midfielders. Obviously, the key word here is 'attacking'. Essien is often regarded as a pure holding player, and yes, he can easily handle that role if push comes to shove. However, with that position occupied by Jon Obi Mikel in Chelsea's ideal starting XI, Essien has been liberated to move forward and lend his considerable skills to the Chelsea attack.
Frank Lampard is normally considered the more attacking of the pair, but that's only because he enjoys sneaking into the box to poach goals more than one would expect from a midfielder. This year, Essien has been played in a role just as advanced as Lampard's usual position, and his drives straight through the midfield have been the foundation for attack upon attack. While Essien still helps out on defence, he's not really getting back any more than Lampard does - he's just more effective at it. Essentially, the middle band of Chelsea's 4-3-3 can be split up into one defensive midfielder and two attackers. It wouldn't be at all inaccurate to portray the 2010/11 version of Essien as a midfield playmaker with some defensive capability thrown in. In other words, and at the risk of insulting Liverpool fans, like a better version of Steven Gerrard.
Therein lies the key. Frank Lampard is already playing very capably alongside Michael Essien, and so it stands to reason that England should at least attempt to copy Chelsea's system if they really want to see their two best midfielders at their best at the same time. By deploying Gerrard and Lampard as shuttlers in the midfield in front of a defensive shield, you're getting a three-man central midfield, which would help retain posession and give the players ore time on the ball. This has the knock-on effect of pushing Wayne Rooney up the pitch rather than having him play as the most withdrawn striker the world has ever seen, presumably resulting in more goals for the United hitman. In Ashley Young, Theo Walcott, James Milner, and Adam Johnson, England have a variety of options to go for as the wide pair in a 4-3-3, and the defence wouldn't need to change aside from Glen Johnson being replaced with a player less likely to lose his bearings. Having both Lampard and Gerrard in the centre might even help England play a more solid defence - neither of them is that good at being a box to box midfielder, but both of them are at least competent enough to help out.
There is one major problem with this arrangement, however: England do not have Jon Obi Mikel, or anything like him. What they do have is Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, and Owen Hargreaves, all of whom are undesireable for a number of reasons - Barry's lack of discipline and poor distribtion, Carrick's form and seeming inability to tackle, and Owen Hargreaves's calamitous injury issues. Were Hargreaves fit, one would have to imagine that Capello would have tried to array his midfielders in something approximating the Chelsea-style 4-3-3. As it is, I can see the system not quite working with the personnel available... but surely it's worth a try with Barry or Carrick in the Mikel role. Getting the most out of your best players is rather the whole point of tinkering with formations and systems, and I'm surprised it that England have yet to at least try to copy Chelsea's attack.