The Big 'If': If Gerrard Leaves Liverpool

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 26, 2004, 12:45:56 PM

No player is bigger than Liverpool Football Club (although Jan Molby tried his hardest to be an exception). Purely as an hypothesis - and playing Devil's Advocate (no, not another veiled reference to Peter Kenyon) - how would LFC cope if (and I mean if, as it still is if) Steven Gerrard leaves?

Being realistic, Chelsea can buy and bully their way to success; their financial might will soon make a mockery of the word "competition". In the history of English football they have always been also-rans, but now their money can talk in a way never before seen - this is not the admirable case of a fan like Matthew Harding (or the Moores family) putting a sizable amount into the club he loves, but instead a random bestowment of what could end up as much as a billion-pound "gift" (I would say investment, but so much of Abramovich's money has already gone down the drain on needless signings who will now be off-loaded in a cut-price fire sale). We've already witnessed it with Mourinho's £5m-a-year salary - although happily we got our first choice, in March Mourinho blatantly said he'd much rather manage Liverpool than Chelsea; but a King's Road ransom saw him end up at the Bridge. (Which merely meant he wasn't available to us as our second choice). But how can any team compete with a club that doesn't need to balance its books, or get full value for its investments? Call it sour grapes, but it's clearly not a level playing field. We have the heritage, the world fan-base; Chelsea have the cash.

Press reports about Gerrard leaving aren't going away, "in the know" rumours are rife (some from people I trust), and Gerrard's silence shows that he is at the very least considering his options. I'm still optimistic over the chance he will stay, but now seems the time to assess how his departure would affect us. If it seems premature, I apologise, but I want to rest assured about the silver linings before the gathering storm clouds arrive overhead.

While any side Benitez fashions would be better with the option of having Gerrard in it (if we had limitless cash to spend), we have to realise that Rafa could almost certainly assemble a far better side without Gerrard than the one we've had in the last two years. (Not hard, admittedly!); so there's reason to be at least partially optimistic. Things will still be better than they have been in the last couple of years; what's unclear is if they could still be as good as we hoped. In that respect, it could still go either way.

In truth, it would be nice not to have to rely on Gerrard's brilliance, but have ten outfield players capable of playing their part (instead of looking to Gerrard to do everything). Remember, in 2001 Gerrard was a very fine player indeed, but he was just a cog in a well-oiled, well-balanced machine; he merely played his part - he wasn't carrying the other ten as he had to do last year.

Even if Gerrard stays, his influence on the team could go either way: he could look better with better players around him - but perhaps while still being incredibly influential, he wouldn't shine quite as much as last year as, once Benitez has made signings, he'll have more able assistants to trust the ball to. (In the same way he was merely 'very good' for England this summer as the other midfielders wanted the ball as much as he did, and unlike the Liverpool midfield, they didn't happily leave the ball for him to use at every single opportunity). You also have to wonder why Gerrard would want to go to Chelsea to be merely Frank Lampard's water carrier - as the better goalscorer, Lampard will always be their attacking option, so Gerrard will have to play a more restricted game (as witnessed for England). While he may not see quite as much of the ball next season should he stay at Liverpool, he would at least be guaranteed employment in his favoured capacity - and thus enjoy his football.

Gerrard leaving might affect Owen's desire to stay (understandably, given the telepathy they share, and with Owen likely to grow disillusioned by a team in need of strengthening suddenly losing its best player) - but it does put Owen's time at the club into a new perspective: how he had plenty of chances to do what Gerrard is (alleged to be) doing, but stayed at Liverpool. The Evertonian kid "just passing through and more interested in England" stays despite glorious offers while the "Liverpool through-and-through" captain asks to leave. Owen is two years ahead of Gerrard in his career - his Liverpool debut in early 1997 to Gerrard's late 1998, and his first England bow in early 1998 to Gerrard's mid-2000. But he has never pulled a stunt like this (alleged one).

So if he goes, how do we manage the situation? Having the money in our bank account is one thing; having useful players signed is another. By making one, two or three of Chelsea's better players part of the deal, you are doing two things: first, saying they can't have it all their own way; second, rebuilding our squad (instantaneously) to soften the blow of losing our best player.

Signing Duff for the left (and trying to get Aimar - a long shot - or Rosicky as an attacking midfielder) to supplement Kewell (who would do the Pires role on the right to cut inside and score - he's a better finisher than Duff, who's a better wide-man) would send a message to Owen saying: we'll create more chances for you than ever before; Cisse already clearly lightening Owen's workload and responsibility. The key to keeping Owen will be to get quality in quickly. The longer it takes, the less sure he will be about penning a new deal.

Owen will benefit from a far greater variety to the chances created for him; as devastating as the Gerrard-Owen pass has proved, four or five alternatives would be far more beneficial; we would be far less predictable. Should Owen also opt for pastures new, then you look to pair Cisse - an awesome talent - with Baros, who has been the best out-and-out striker on show at Euro 2004. I can't think of another striker in European football who, having played in excess of 25 games, has a record even close to Baros'. Henry, Raul, Owen, Trezuguet, Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy, Pauletta: all have nigh-on exactly one-in-two ratios; Baros has better than two-in-three (19 in 28 games).

I'd be tempted to ask Chelsea for Parker too - who will surely be fourth choice behind Gerrard, Lampard and Makalele in central midfield at Stamford Bridge (and Deco, if he goes there). Parker isn't as good as Gerrard (who is?), but he has the ability to be part of a Benitez team: eleven talented players working hard for one and other and able to pass the ball. Remember: Steve McMahon wasn't as good as Graeme Souness, whom he succeeded, and John Aldridge wasn't as talented as Ian Rush; but both were hugely effective replacements in the teams they represented. That's the key. In the case of losing Keegan, the replacement - Dalglish - was even better.

Of course, Chelsea have so much money they don't have to be interested in player swaps; but if they are desperate for Gerrard, we have to play our trump cards, and it's not asking for £31m (getting roughly the same amount in cash as United paid for Rio Ferdinand would frankly be an insult). I'd rather have Duff and Parker and a substantial amount of cash (to add to the Thai money, and that generated from sales), as we'll have guaranteed quality added to our squad, and money to still spend; how easy will it be to find players of Duff's quality elsewhere? (Chelsea having just signed Robben means one less in the shopping window; but it could also leave Duff marginalised). The trouble with just taking the money, however great the sum, is that any player we want to buy suddenly doubles in value, and you go through the whole cat-and-mouse process that can take weeks to months. So to get Duff and Parker at a reasonable price would suit me; all the negotiations are done in one go, and you can move on and assess other areas. Chelsea clearly don't want to lose these players; however, if they want Gerrard more, then we might be in business.

There's a third Chelsea player I covet. At the end of last season, there were three pressing areas in our first team that needed addressing. The first two of these were a replacement for Emile Heskey (achieved, with Cisse far superior) and another wide midfielder to replace Diouf on the right (and if Duff could be procured, that would mean he and Kewell could alternate wings; otherwise Rafa could look at Vicente who was his star man at Valencia). Losing Gerrard would mean a new problem, a new space to fill. But the final problem from last season was the lack of a top-quality quick centre back - and I can think of no-one better to partner Sami Hyypia in a perfectly balanced pairing than William Gallas, who is as quick as Thierry Henry. Again, I don't see Chelsea wanting to let him go (but then again, they were trying to partner John Terry with Walter Samuel). So if losing Gerrard creates one big problem, it could also go a long way to solving three or four other ones: either in swaps, or with Benitez finding replacements elsewhere.

The problem with losing Gerrard (and possibly Owen thereafter) is that it immediately affects Benitez's timescale for success. From needing to add to our best components (Gerrard and Owen individually, and their understanding), he will be forced to restructure the entire side, including key positions – and that will take longer to gel. And John Welsh aside, there aren't many players waiting in the wings to move into the first team: Welsh doesn't have Gerrard's pace and perhaps doesn't pass quite as well, but he has the potential to become an excellent first-teamer. He's certainly in the Gerrard mould. Partridge, Mellor, Potter and Warnock are talented enough, and maybe they'll fit in more with Benitez's style of play, but they may fall just short of what's required. Time will tell. In a way they represent a greater hope as capable reserves than the older, expensive signings who have fallen short, and need to be off-loaded.

One thing Gerrard leaving will do is lessen the legacy of Gerard Houllier - by removing the greatest bequeathment to his successor; Benitez will have to work a lot harder to achieve his success (while it could generate cash, it would be how Benitez spends it that would lead to success). Also, had Gerard Houllier managed to forge a title-challenging side in the last two years, this could have been avoided.

While not wanting to start any personal attacks on Gerrard, if he leaves via a transfer request it would undoubtedly be a huge betrayal. (Whereas if Liverpool decided to cash in on a massive Chelsea bid against Gerrard's wishes - however unlikely - Gerrard could perhaps be exonerated: if a club accepts an offer, you are effectively forced out). It will hurt, as we know in our hearts that he is not overrated. (Although if he puts in a transfer request under the circumstances being mentioned, I will feel we will have overrated him as a person). While I don't prescribe to the idea of publishing bile (on a website, or sprayed on a wall), I can only imagine the outpouring of hate and disgust from disgruntled fans. He was happy to be revered and adored by the Kop; so he needs to think hard about jilting them. It's only the ones you love who can hurt you.

The worrying signal selling Gerrard would send out is that any future gems we have will be up for grabs; for instance, if Cisse does even half as well as I expect him to, then he will be coveted, legally or otherwise. Fortunately for us, he seems to be as good as his word: he wanted to join Liverpool ahead of richer clubs looking to gazump the deal, as our club appealed to him most.

So while it'll be tough if Gerrard leaves (the toughest departure ever, given the circumstances), it's not hard to see that the closer we get to eleven top-quality players playing as a team (with capable players in reserve) then the better our future will be. If Gerrard's sale leads us to land four new players (and I don't mean squad players but first-team quality) - players we'd not have been able to sign by keeping him - then as immense as Gerrard is, that could easily lead to greater things. As brilliant as Gerrard was last season, we will do far better if the whole team can pass and move and play on the same wavelength, rather than relying on Gerrard to bust a gut and charge everywhere. The easiest way to get around an opponent is to pass the ball to a colleague; the quickest way to get the ball from A to B is not to run it there, but pass it. What Gerrard struggled to do on his own, we could do far better with a team. Ideally that team would include him; if not, we look elsewhere.

Gerrard leaving - if it comes to pass - will not be the end. Merely a new beginning.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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