Gerrard: Midfield Powerhouse and 20-Goal 'striker'

Posted by Paul Tomkins on December 29, 2005, 11:12:20 AM

If you want to know why Liverpool have the upper hand in the Mersey derby, you need to look at Everton's attitude. They battled, and battled hard. But they must have made 20 late tackles in the game. None were outrageously bad, but their players lost their discipline; players on yellow cards continued to fly into the kind of tackles that leave referees no choice but to reach for their book.

Liverpool possess only one such player: Momo Sissoko. But at 20, he has an excuse. The rest of the side exhibits control in their tackling. While Everton players dived in time and time again, a fraction late on numerous occasions (I lost count of the times a Red got to the ball first before being clattered), Liverpool tend to stay on their feet.

Gérard Houllier's name has been besmirched of late, partly down the stark revelation of his shortcomings in his final two seasons. But it was his attitude to the Mersey derby that gave the Reds regular control in the fixture. He achieved a lot as Liverpool manager, from four major trophies (and two minor ones) to three Champions League qualifications, and a collection of players his successor could make exceptional use of. In addition, his Indian sign over the Bluenoses should not be forgotten.

It's slightly ironic that Roy Evans, a Red through-and-through, suffered heavily at the hands of Everton, while Houllier and Benítez (where's the 'Rafa Beneath Us' now, lads?), both from the continent, have the upper hand.

From the youth academy, Houllier promoted a Steven Gerrard with amazing talent but a propensity to explode. One such occasion was when he got sent off in one of his first derbies for a high and reckless challenge. It was one of Houllier's first derbies too, and Sander Westerveld walked for clubbing Francis 'next big thing' Jeffers across the ear (of course, he was aiming for the ribs but the ear got in the way).

I get sick of hearing excuses for battling players prone to the 'red mist' and how, if you were to take away that aggression, you'd lose what makes them special.

What about controlled aggression? Surely that's what the best players possess?  Once a player is out of control, he's no longer thinking straight. Suspended players are no use to any team, and nor are those taking an early bath.

Gerrard's transformation into a controlled midfielder who uses his energy wisely began with Houllier, who worked hard at channelling that aggression and making sure the player matured. Benítez has taken it one step further, having Gerrard use his boundless energy in the right way. Gerrard no longer flies into tackles he cannot win; he stays on his feet and looks to win the ball at the next opportunity.

Early last season I was suspicious at how Gerrard seemed to be inhibited by the new manager's instructions, as the Spaniard re-programmed the player's game. It seemed a hugely dangerous thing to do. For a while Gerrard stopped shining (perhaps due to the uncertainties surrounding his future), and as the team played better possession football, looking to players like Alonso and Luis Garcia to take the initiative, Gerrard seemed less important.

The Reds were suddenly a team, not a one-man show. In fact, it was annoying when Gerrard still won headlines and Man of the Match awards when he clearly hadn't been the best Red on the pitch.

This season, however, he's been the outstanding performer in a side where you could happily pick four or five other shining lights. He is using his talent at the right time, in the right way, to win games; trusting his teammates with the ball when they are in a position to use it better, rather than trying to do it all himself; bursting forward at the right time, rather than bursting all over the pitch.

As with Zonal Marking, we saw teething problems with Benítez's re-making of Gerrard: a backwards step, followed by several forward leaps. Steven Gerrard is head and shoulders above any other player in the league this year. He makes Frank Lampard look distinctly limited. I rate Lampard highly, but up to a point. Gerrard has no limits. He is quicker, stronger and more skilful than Lampard, and also a better passer. He is also not yet in his prime, unlike Lampard.

In fact, goals were what separated the two. Gerrard, with 14 goals to his name this season, has now scored 20 in 2005. Am I the only person noticing how the quality and regularity of his goals are starting to mirror those of a top-class striker?

With Peter Crouch on the same wavelength (witness the beautiful, inch-perfect harmony between them for the Reds' first goals against Newcastle and Everton), Gerrard can be a 20-goal-a-season man from midfield. If you can get 20 in a calendar year, you can get 20 in a season, seeing as it's the same amount of games. In fact, if he continues like this Gerrard could get nearer to 30. Unlikely, but not unreasonable.

And unlike Frank Lampard, whose goals won the title for Chelsea, he doesn't regularly take penalties, has to share free-kick duties with other specialists, and knows how to beat a keeper without the aid of a massive deflection (although Yobo's nose kindly helped him out last night). Chelsea set a record points tally last season without a 25-goal striker, and are on course to beat it with the same system.

It's hard to not wonder 'what if?' with regard to Chelsea's money. Had they not been so fortunate with outside finances, pumping in crazy amount of cash, they wouldn't have assembled such a strong squad. Perhaps their emergence dented the confidence of Man Utd and Arsenal – it certainly unhinged the latter, who up till then appeared unstoppable – and without Abramovich's arrival in England, Wenger's side surely would not have been put under the pressure that has seen them fall apart a little.

But that's life. Any other year, this Liverpool side would be hot contenders for the title. Nine-game winning streaks don't come along all the time, and it's hugely frustrating that at the same time Chelsea have won seven on the spin themselves. But the good thing about life under Benítez is that you feel it's not a fluke in the slightest. Chelsea are a great side, but every week we look more and more on a par.

Should the Reds lose a game, this side can go on and put together a succession of winning streaks, just as it had achieved so many clean sheets this season before the record-breaking sequence. And unlike Chelsea, there are areas of the team that Benítez hasn't had the chance to attend to, but soon will.

Beating Everton will always be the victory, in isolation, that means most to all Kopites. But Chelsea are the Blues the Reds need to topple.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" now available as PDF for £2.50 from www.paultomkins.com

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