Gerrard: Saga Concluded. Where Now for the Midfield?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on July 10, 2005, 07:58:51 PM

So he's staying, and staying for good. Thank God. For a start, I can (happily) stop writing about the hoopla surrounding Steven Gerrard, and hopefully stick to him sticking his foot in, and sticking the ball in the net.

But where does that leave Liverpool? Better or worse off?

Like most Reds, I've had my doubts about Gerrard these past 13 months: torn between the unique qualities he offers and the sour-faced, troubled soul who seemed unsure if he still wanted to represent the only club who should ever matter to him.

He was in danger of doing more harm than good; as it was, 2004/05 was too heavily overshadowed by the Gerrard Circus (similar to the Gerry Cottle version, only with less dancing elephants), and it could not be allowed to happen again this coming season.

But his admission last week was all I wanted to hear; in fact, it went beyond what I was expecting. It was utterly unequivocal. In his usual way, he was open and honest, and left absolutely no room for backtracking.

The key wasn't that he merely stay, but that he wanted to stay 末 and play for the club with every ounce of passion. As I said before, I'd rather be shot of him than have to watch a player so talented going through the motions.

"I'd also like it known there are no clauses in that contract. This won't be happening again next summer or ever again, so far as I'm concerned. I've committed my long-term future to the club and I want all the speculation to end now."

That's pretty clear.

"I have learnt a hell of a lot from the past few days and more than anything, I have learnt that Liverpool is me 末 no-one else 末 and that winning things here would mean more to me than winning them anywhere else."

And so is that. He was also right to suggest that Liverpool 末 and not another club 末 deserve to see the impending 'prime years' of his career.

It seems to have humbled him, unlike last summer, where the issue was left open, and as such, dragged him and the team down. And he needed humbling: he needed to totally re-evaluate his life and his footballing career, and to discover what mattered to him.

The summer of 2004 was about Steven Gerrard deciding not to leave Liverpool; the summer of 2005 has been about him choosing to stay at Liverpool.

The way he pledged his future to the club last week means so much, as he did so knowing what it was like to come close to playing his football elsewhere. If Steven Gerrard could not bring himself to leave this summer, he never will. There was nothing half-hearted about his press statements.

It was the declaration of love to us, the fans, from a man who had recently been only prepared to avoid eye-contact in mumbling "ditto".

Last season took its toll. His form suffered. Still, it's not bad if you can score 13 goals from midfield, with no penalties or direct free-kicks, and lift the European Cup, when having a poor season.


Future benefits

If the first half in Istanbul was a shocking reminder of how even Alonso and the alarmingly anaemic Gerrard can be overrun by an awesome attacking side (thankfully, you don't come up against players like those every week!), the second half showed Gerrard at his best: powering forward, and suddenly responsible for two of the Reds' three goals. A legendary defence cracked at his promptings. Then, in injury time, Gerrard was utterly sublime at right-back.

That he played at right-back for the cause was a good sign, from a player who can be excellent on either flank, and who would be by far and away the best right-back in the world, if it wasn't a waste of his talent to leave him there on a regular basis. Doing so to win the European Cup is one thing; to get a result at Wigan is another.

Under G駻ard Houllier, Steven Gerrard was still a malleable young player, (relatively) happy to play wherever he was asked to. But we are now talking about an experienced pro who has been at the top of the game for half a decade. Even though his form occasionally suffered when played at right midfield for too many consecutive games in the past, it is a position where he remains hugely effective. I was getting the sense that Bentez would have his work cut out getting him to play anywhere other than centre midfield, and that's never a good situation for a manager.

It's no surprise to hear that the relationship between manager and captain is a little strained, even frosty. There is no outright hostility, but Bentez is someone who was seen as cold and calculating at Valencia 末 and that without the barriers of language and culture that exist between Spaniard and Scouser.

Given how much Houllier indulged Gerrard (as was understandable, at the time), it is clear to see how the captain could conclude that his new boss might be 'under-whelmed'. Bentez inherited a more complex character than the one Houllier plucked from the Academy.

Bentez has his favourite players, like any manager: those he likes to pick, and those he picks only when he has to. But he has no favourites. He cares only about the team, not individuals.

Alonso is a player whose style Rafa clearly admires, with a personality the boss cannot speak more highly of, but the Spanish playmaker sat out games last season; Gerrard tended to play whenever fit. Bentez does not appear to indulge players like some other managers, and while some players need the 'arm around the shoulder' approach, Rafa's methods clearly work. He doesn't have to be their best mate.

Gerrard has had to learn that Rafa has his own approach, and that it is not intended to undermine.

I read one report suggest that Bentez prefers the thoughtful approach of Alonso over the hell-for-leather style of Gerrard. But it was presented as a very narrow-minded view 末 i.e. Gerrard is flawed and Alonso is perfect.

It's daft, as they are totally different types of players who, together, should form the perfect blend. They can both do things the other cannot. It's like saying you love the wheels of your car, and would be happy to discard the engine. Wheels without an engine are just stationary lumps of rubber, and an engine without wheels can pump its pistons all it wants, but it won't get you anywhere.

Alonso is a different personality to Gerrard: apparently more 'modest' and studious. Less excitable. Xabi is the son of Periko, a Barcelona player and Spanish international, and as such, will have grown up with ultra-intelligent guidance from his father. He will have learned lessons that other players would not have had to fortune to be privy to.

Much of Gerrard's game is about being the centre of attention, but let's not forget, we relied for a long time on him being the only one to get hold of the ball and damn-well do something positive with it. Often he was left to do it all on his own. While it took Hamann's introduction and Xabi's increasing composure to get a foothold in the Champions League final, it would have meant nothing without Gerrard's cutting edge; and it needed Gerrard's versatility in extra-time.

Now the captain has to adapt his game 末 and last season he was trying to do so while under great pressure, much of it internal. His role was altered, and his importance to the team lessened by the arrival of Alonso. Gerrard had become less crucial 末 still a key component, of course, but no longer the team's fulcrum. He will adapt to being one of many players capable of winning a game.

Momo Sissoko's arrival will lift a little of the burden on Gerrard in terms of energy and power.

In fact, the Liverpool midfield is starting to look rather phenomenal. While the defence still has a worrying lack of cover, and the strikers, while possessing the quality, have yet to all deliver (I trust they will), the midfield looks simply awesome 末 and will look all the stronger if Figo arrives, too.

In Gerrard, Hamann, Alonso, Sissoko, Gonzales, Luis Garcia, Kewell, Riise, Zenden and Figo (if...if), as well as others like Nunez and Welsh, there is a bit of everything for Rafa to choose from, and no little versatility, should the manager wish to deploy at least half of them in other positions. With that array, it seems Rafa's favoured 4-2-3-1 formation will be the logical way forward.

There are super-quick players; wonderful passers and crossers; box-to-boxers; those with sublime skill on the ball; experience and potential; destructive and creative types; stoppers and scorers. Quite frankly, it puts Manchester United's to shame: and five years ago they were the byword in midfield supremacy. Even Chelsea and Arsenal don't have greater depth in the middle of the park.

Midfield could be the base on which Liverpool's title challenge is based. All the better to have a fully-committed Steven Gerrard as a key part of it.

ゥ Paul Tomkins, 2005

Special news update:
As of tomorrow, Monday 11th July, I will be commencing a new regular 'exclusive' column at www.ynwa.tv, in addition to my current one here. It will start with an extract of "Golden Past, Red Future", focusing on Xabi Alonso.

As part of the union, it will also be the cheapest place to buy "Golden Past, Red Future", with a saving of between 」2-」4 末 in that postage will be free to anywhere in the world.

Already in the HJC shop, the book is currently winging its way to various stores on Merseyside 末 see www.paultomkins.com for details.





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