Gerrard Unbound

Posted by Yorkykopite on November 30, 2010, 07:50:50 PM

Gerrard Unbound.

If you’re looking for infallible proof that the English school of football punditry doesn’t know enough about football you simply have to consider its tedious consensus about where to play Steven Gerrard. They've got it taped. It’s in central midfield of course. In the ‘engine room’, at ‘the hub’, ‘stoking the boiler’, moving from ‘box to box’. No cliché is worn enough to discourage Jamie Redknapp, Andy Townsend, or Andy Gray from recruiting it to press the case for ‘Stevie G’ starting games in that part of the pitch where - they believe - the real football takes place. To see Lucas playing there for Liverpool instead is therefore pure agony for these men - a slap in the face not just to Gerrard, but all Englishmen. That usurpation has meant one thing for poor Lucas. Nothing he achieves playing in central midfield for the Reds is recognised by the pundits. His failures are exaggerated, his successes overlooked. 

Roy Hodgson seems to share the consensus. As soon as he arrived at Liverpool he reversed Rafa’s policy of playing Gerrard in wider or more advanced positions, kitted him out in dungarees, placed a spanner in his fist and put him back in the engine room . A feeling has grown amongst us that Gerrard himself made this reversal a condition of his support for any new manager, though I’ve never seen convincing evidence of that (perhaps it would be impossible to come by). At any rate 5 years of blissful experimentation now appear to be over with Gerrard returning to his rightful estate in the centre of the park.

Or maybe not.

I, for one, hope not. Gerrard is wasted in central midfield; central midfield is impoverished by his presence. Don’t get me wrong. He’s ok there. Occasionally he is magnificent. But the discipline the role demands does virtually nothing to release his natural dynamism and requires a patience and a speed of thought which he lacks. That seems paradoxical and I want to say more about that in a moment, but first let us bury the other absurd theory about Gerrard that you sometimes hear – this time, incredibly, from certain deluded sections of Liverpool’s support.

Gerrard is not an over-rated player. He is a genius of a footballer – one of Liverpool’s greatest ever and probably the best Liverpool player never to win the title (we hope he soon relinquishes this accolade). We are blessed to have him and as difficult as it can sometimes be to accommodate his unhinged talent, he is a player that any manager in the world in the last 10 years would love to have had. Several top managers tried to buy him. We adored it when he stayed.

But Steve does not belong in central midfield. He lacks the patience and he lacks the speed of thought. His mind is not the mind of Alonso – or Lucas – which contains both these things. The patience to know that a puzzle needn’t be solved with the next touch of the ball, or within the next five seconds, and the speed of thought to see that a first-time pass travelling all of two princely yards can change the state of play in an instance. Gerrard’s problem – which can be a blessing in more advanced parts of the pitch – is that he frequently tries to do too much. He forces play. Faced with an option of a 20-yard pass out to the flanks or a 5-yard pass to the man standing near him he will invariably go for the former. This applies even when the long pass is played entirely in front of the opposition (ie without cutting anyone out). Not a single opponent will have had to readjust his position following such a pass (indeed they may have been given extra time to settle). No extra Liverpool player will have been brought into play. But Steve does it nearly all the time.

Why? I think there are three reasons. The first is that this is the way he was taught to play. We all are in this country. A long accurate ball is better than a short accurate one. It sort of stands to reason doesn’t it? It certainly feels nicer when you do it. I wouldn’t call it showboating exactly, but there’s a certain ‘look at me’ quality to the long ball that finds its man but neither isolates an opposing player nor effectively switches play. A mind like this can find the short pass inconceivable – not just to execute but to receive. I remember a short, apparently superfluous, pass that Mascherano gave to Gerrard minutes into a game away at Porto. Mascher did it to get the Liverpool juices flowing. Gerrard reacted like he’d been shot in the back. He wasn’t expecting and he actually stumbled and lost possession.

The second reason is to do with Gerrard having to carry the team in the latter-days of the Houllier regime. You can imagine what was often going through Gerrard’s mind back then: “If I don’t make things happen, they will never happen. If I don’t seize the initiative who will?” Those who now complain about this philosophy in Steven need to be careful of course. They ought, at least, to ask themselves whether we’d have won in Istanbul and Cardiff without it. The stupid run at the heart of the packed Milan defence for the penalty, the absurd effort on goal from 35 yards when he knew he had cramp against the Hammers. On both occasions there were players better positioned than he was. A little bit of patience was missing from his game. Yet without the magisterial ego, the “I’m fucking well gonna do this myself”, we’d have probably lost both matches. No one should forget that.

There are countless other, less celebrated, examples too. Like Fernando Torres, like many special players, Gerrard can be guilty of attempting the outrageous when the mundane seems necessary, of going for the full symphony when the plainsong would suffice. But no team ever won anything substantial without breaking the rules and doing the unexpected. And defences hate it.

The final reason is something to do with the intimidating effect Gerrard can have on teammates. This is controversial ground and wise men will tread carefully. After all, it takes two to tango. Gerrard may be an intimidating presence. But certain players are all too easily intimidated as well. Pennant was in Athens when he burst through the Milan back line in the third minute only to stupidly surrender possession to a stationary Gerrard, so taking all the momentum out of the move and sacrificing a golden chance to take an early lead. I always remember Bellamy in one of his first games pushing Steven out of the way to score his first goal in front of the Kop. That was a great sign. Pennant should have done the same Athens. But, of course, he didn’t have Bellamy’s character.

* * *

Rafa did more for Gerrard’s game than any other coach he’s ever had. After 2005 he uprooted his captain from his favourite spot and told him he was playing on the flanks. Straight away the cream of English punditry spluttered and cursed into their microphones. Flank, to them, meant periphery. It meant the margins. It meant banishment. Gerrard might as well have been plucked from the Forum in Rome and sent to icy Caledonia.

It didn’t matter to them that the world’s best players who, ten years before, may well have been playing ‘box-to-box’ midfield, were now doing their stuff on the flanks, where there was more space and where a lost ball following an irresponsible trick wasn’t so fatal. Zidane, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Messi – all of them were taking up positions on  the wings. None of them were conventional wingers, but it simply didn’t matter outside England. It’s possible that Rafa ministered to Gerrard’s vanity by saying ‘go join them’.  Whatever the method of persuasion that’s where Gerrard played in 2006-07. And he played the best football of his life while amassing 23 goals. Rafa told ‘El Pais’ that those commentators who insisted that the wide role limited Gerrard “didn’t have a clue”. He also said that Andy Gray was a “monumental idiot”.

The last bit isn’t true, but is true if you know what I mean. This is where I’d like to see Gerrard now. There’s really no doubt, is there, who currently belongs in the centre of Liverpool’s midfield? It’s Lucas and Meireles (with Shelvey deputising when one of them isn’t available). They understand what’s required and they understand each other. They ought never to have been on the losing side at White Hart Lane at the weekend. Neither is as good as Alonso, but both are better than Mascherano. They will prosper. They will be good for us.

The remaining question is therefore where to play Steven? I don’t mind him back in the hole supporting Torres, but I’d prefer to see him on the right where he was so good for a while under Rafa. He sort of ended up there against Napoli in the UEFA cup last month and he was superb. Napoli were scared of him and you can’t blame them. With that kind of pace, that sort of power and that level of fearlessness he is a hell of a proposition. It was a beautiful moment – for many reasons – when he stuck in the third. By then the Neapolitans were genuinely scared of him – the goalie and the fans. All those guys in black jackets behind the goal suddenly realised what a brave man is. Our number 8.

Gerrard Unbound. That’s what we want. Not worrying about building play from the back, not overburdened by detail, not in central midfield. Give him a more attacking role. Play him where his raw pace means something. Get him scoring goals again.

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