Why Liverpool now control the Premiership midfield - Paul Tomkins

Posted by RAWK Editor on November 23, 2005, 07:15:33 PM

Why Liverpool now control the Premiership midfield

And then there was one. The three finest 'powerhouse' Premiership midfielders from the turn of the millennium have dwindled in number, leaving just Steven Gerrard to carry the baton.

Patrick Vieira is in Italy, while Roy Keane recently completed a symbolic exit from Manchester United, and has no club. The result is a changing of the guard.

While I respected him enormously, I never quite bought into the Roy Keane hype. Was he a superb player? Undoubtedly. Would I have liked to have seen him at Liverpool during his pomp? Of course. He was an out-and-out winner, the kind of player you hate because he's so determined to do well against your team.

He had a great engine, and was a fine passer over short-to-medium distances. He scored a few goals in his early days, but he excelled at being an all-rounder who dominated the middle of the park, and bullied the opposition out of the game.

For all his attributes, I just never felt he had that much in his creative locker, and that it limited the thoughts about the 'complete' player he was supposed to be. He was not a genius with the ball at his feet, and excelled at keeping it simple. An incredibly effective player, but not the perfect player.

Keane's authority was perhaps his greatest asset. No other player has cast such a large shadow over the pitch, certainly since the retirement of Jan Molby - although that was for very different reasons!

Keane was flawed, just as Steven Gerrard is flawed. To put it bluntly, Keane was a headcase, whereas Gerrard has more of a need to be loved. With Keane, you feel he just needed to be fighting. And not necessarily fairly.

Gerrard is a winner, just like Keane, but the Liverpool captain seems more emotionally vulnerable. His focus can be shifted more easily than Keane's ever was.

Just as Gerrard will be distracted by things said about him, and occasionally goes missing, Keane simply missed games because he couldn't control his red mist. It's noticeable how much more responsible Gerrard is in this respect; the wild challenges of his youth are a thing of the past.

He is much stronger in terms of his discipline, a process that began with Houllier, and continued with Benítez, who has made the point much more strongly. A suspended Steven Gerrard is no use to anyone.

The New Guard

The new guard of 'powerhouses' consists of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien. These are the three best box-to-box players.

Meanwhile, Claude Makelele is as good as anyone at the holding role, while Xabi Alonso's defending is far better than he's given credit for, mostly due to a superb reading of the game (he has the best football brain in Britain). Alonso is a thoroughbred.

In his early performances this season, Momo Sissoko looked every bit as good as the young Vieira, but he's just starting out in the game, so it's too early to go overboard. But he has the potential. He certainly covers the ground like the Frenchman in his prime.

If there's one area of Liverpool's team I wouldn't swap with anyone else's it's central midfield, especially when you add Didi Hamann to the equation, as 4th choice. Chelsea have stronger wide players, but the heart of the midfield is where Liverpool rule.

Midfield was where Manchester United were so strong during the 1990s; now they're struggling with an uneven mess. It's also an area – centrally, at least – where Arsenal have lost some of their dominance.

Of course I am biased, but I'd choose Steven Gerrard over Frank Lampard every day of the week. Make no mistake, Lampard has improved beyond recognition in recent seasons, but Gerrard, two years the Chelsea man's junior, is the more complete player. Lampard is now at his peak, while Gerrard still has a couple of seasons before entering the prime of his career.

Lampard has been playing in a better-balanced, more consistent team for the last two and a half seasons. It's easier to shine in those circumstances, in a side that has momentum on its side throughout the season.

Lampard scores a few more goals than Gerrard, although now Gerrard has greater licence to roam, he is scoring at a much better rate than under Gérard Houllier, and doesn't take the amount of penalties Lampard does. Both are excellent finishers.

Gerrard, however, has a superior passing range, is quicker and as such, more dynamic, and far more fierce in the tackle. Frankly, Frank is less versatile.

It's hard to see Frank Lampard dragging Chelsea back into a game in the way Gerrard did in Istanbul, before a phenomenal extra-time stint at right-back to see off the opposition's newly-introduced quick and skilful Brazilian winger.

All Change

It's weird how quickly the Premiership midfield landscape appears to have changed.

As with Keane's exit, it is the symbolic departure of Patrick Vieira that has cost Arsenal some consistency this season – although they've at last had a good group stage in the Champions League. But they'll miss Vieira when they need someone to drag them back into games, something at which they were always so good.

Vieira was an immense player; less intimidating than Keane, but quicker and able to get the ball from end of the pitch to the other in double-quick time. You could argue that Arsenal were wise to offload him at such a high price when he was past his best, but he wasn't that far past his best.

Given players like Pires and Bergkamp are nearing the very end of their careers, and uncertainty in other areas of the pitch, it might have been wiser to keep Vieira to avoid too sharp a transition, but as is always the case, it's hard to know what goes on behind the scenes in these situations.

I can't get too excited about Gilberto at Arsenal, although I appreciate he's one of those simple-but-effective defensive midfielders you may not notice unless you are paying him close attention. He's obviously a very good player, and Arsenal's results seem to suggest they suffer without him.

Cesc Fabregas looks a terrific little player, but his stature doesn't suggest he'll dominate games unless he's well protected. But in a couple of years he'll be sublime. A very clever player indeed, and while not yet ready to fill Vieira's boots, the learning curve of playing every week could help speed him to that kind of level.

Where Liverpool Rule

So while it's hard to argue that Liverpool are the best in the league in other areas in the pitch – as individuals, at least – to my mind only Chelsea can come close to matching Liverpool in the middle of the park, especially when the Reds' midfield contains Gerrard, Alonso and Sissoko. What's more, their average age evens out at just 22.

The stature and 'presence' of Gerrard is why Liverpool were lucky to hold onto him this summer. He gives more to the team than any replacement could, symbolically at least. He's not yet at Keane's level in terms of intimidating both teammates and opposition, but he offers more variety than Keane ever could.

In Guillem Balague's excellent book, 'A Season on the Brink', there are a number of insights into the summer's shenanigans – 'Gerrardgate' MkII, if you will – that highlight just how much Rafa rates him, but also how singling players out for special treatment is not something that sits comfortably with the boss.

Balague states that Rafa had earmarked Essien (later to join Chelsea) and Sissoko in a bid to replace Gerrard. While many fans have criticised the Liverpool hierarchy for the lack of summer at centre back and right midfield, it's clear that much of the work the club faced was a) persuading Gerrard to stay, and b) looking for a replacement should he leave, as seemed likely.

Had Gerrard left, then central midfield would have been the club's no.1 priority, not right midfield, especially as both Alonso and Hamann prefer to sit deep. As it transpired, Gerrard stayed and Sissoko arrived anyway: doubly-good news. As Rafa's budget was dependent on what Gerrard did, that tied his hands somewhat.

It's also clear from Balague's book how much Rafa tests his players. He is not an 'arm around the shoulder' kind of manager. His staff take care of that side of things, while he remains a little distant and aloof, careful not to get emotionally involved with people he prefers to have a professional relationship with.

Rafa is like the parent who withholds love, only for his children to try harder to win his approval. Steven Gerrard isn't the only Liverpool player to have to adapt.

Both Gerrard and Djibril Cissé were almost treated as sons in the season before Benítez arrived – Gerrard by Gérard Houllier, Cissé by Guy Roux at Auxerre – and it must have been a culture shock to experience a manager who plays a different role. Thankfully Gerrard realised this before he signed on the dotted at Stamford Bridge.

Man Utd without Keane, Arsenal without Vieira, but also Liverpool without Gerrard, all in the space of four months?

Now that would have been unthinkable.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

http://www.paultomkins.com - last 300 copies of 'Golden Past, Red Future' available for £6.99.

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