Despite the obvious qualities and iconic status of Stevie G, I’ve long held the belief that Rafa Benitez would be glad to see the back of him – well, until the arrival of Fernando Torres that is.
Gerrard has always posed something of a problem for the Spaniard. Undoubtedly Liverpool’s best player for the past several years, Gerrard’s tactical indiscipline allied with a need to maintain a hero’s standing has often upset Rafa’s tactical tinkering.
A peculiarity of the English view is that to be a world-class midfield player, you must play in central midfield (never mind that the likes of Zidane, Figo and others did their best work notionally to the left or the right). In England, you must be the fulcrum – the general. Gerrard and David Beckham are the two most recent English players of genuine quality to suffer from this general outlook.
Take Becks. Despite being a truly world-class operator on the right – the conventional wisdom was that Golden Balls would eventually make the move to the middle where his genuine class would properly flourish. It was if this was a step forward – a natural progression.
But Becks’ move inside was a failure for him and for Madrid where he was playing at the time. Lacking the guile and quick thinking required to play that role, Beckham suffered a serious dip in form. The team malfunctioned and so did he.
Gerrard has posed a similar problem for Benitez. Gerrard has many of the qualities required to be successful in that position. He has the engine, he has the power and the skill – but he does not have the game sense. Compare Gerrard’s distribution to that of Alonso (at his best) or Xavi at Barcelona. It is not that Gerrard cannot make a pass – we know he can. But his timing and decision-making are questionable.
When Gerrard plays in the middle, Liverpool are laboured, ponderous and predictable. Driven by his urge to be in control, Gerrard drops deep – crowding his defensive midfield partner – demanding the ball from the back. By and large, opponents are happy to see him do this. The odd 60-yard ball apart, Gerrard does not really hurt opponents from such a deep position. His immediate reaction is to look long or cross-field. Spectacular when it works – easier to defend the more you do it in a game.
Watch Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas – quick feet, quicker minds. They tend not to dwell, they move the ball – and move again in support. Every ball is not the killer ball – more often that not, their passing is used to create the foundations for a goal – keeping possession, probing, stretching opponents – eeking out openings.
Gerrard lacks patience – he needs to make an impact. And he is well aware of the media – a media that insists that his best position is in the middle. Hence, Stevie’s pre-season grumbles on where he’d like to be playing.
Don’t get me wrong, Gerrard is better than most in this position, but it is not the best use of his talents. Finally, it seems that Rafa Benitez has found a position and a formation to allow Gerrard to make the kind of impression that feeds his ego. Playing a free role behind the excellent Torres, Gerrard is becoming a more constant menace to opponents.
It is easy to wonder how it has taken Rafa so long to hit upon this formula – the answer lies in Torres himself. The young Spaniard’s pace, skill, and movement create space for Gerrard to operate where he is most dangerous – in the opposition’s last third. Gerrard’s new role, and Torres’s brilliance, also allow Benitez to field both Alonso and Mascherano – while getting width from the likes of Babel and Pennant. The results have been striking.
And so Gerrard gets to ply his trade in the middle – his ego sated. And Rafa gets the midfield rigour he craves. Now the only question is how long the local hero will stand for playing second fiddle to Fernando?