How the absence of Steven Gerrard could benefit England and Liverpool

By Nicholas Kituno

If I could list some of my favourite footballers of all-time, then my selections would include Steven Gerrard almost every time. Even as a Manchester United fan myself, one has to step outside of the proverbial room and actually look beyond their own team before starting to draw comparisons. At times, those comparisons can be ridiculously biased and full under someone reluctant to accept that they are wrong; not necessarily in the sense of their opinion, as everyone does as a fundamental human right, but because it’s so infuriatingly off that it begs the intervention of “No, he is not”. Generally these comparisons are based on recent performances and not the overall achievements of the player himself, and with Steven Gerrard, it is the same thing and as an opinion, I have always believed that during his peak, he could walk into the Manchester United starting eleven without much fuss. And this is just opinion.

Albeit that his cheeky kiss of the camera in our 4-1 home defeat a couple years back still broils deep, it doesn’t change my own perception of him as one of the greatest midfielders of our generation. Not just in Liverpool where he is hailed as a God, but around the world as a leader, a hero and a patron to the English game as a rare player that clubs come across as a rising in their youth academies.

But what also adds to his status as such a legend is the fact that his roots run deep into Liverpool Football Club – despite the loathing I have for the northern neighbours. The autonomous phrase of being “born and bred” governs itself as one of the key elements in what fans love to see in their hero’s biographies. Similarities come in the shapes and forms of Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer, Ray Parlour and Dennis Wise. All of them are cult heroes for the clubs they donned colours for; Manchester United, Newcastle United, Arsenal and Chelsea. That’s why they give them nicknames such as “The Romford Pele”, almost like a present to show their love and affection for them. They love him (Gerrard) and they always will, but as time passes on, it becomes an enemy to the old guard and, unfortunately, it has finally caught up with Gerrard himself.

Fourteen months ago at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa would see ‘Stevie G’ lead the England squadron for quite possibly the last time on the highest level a player could ever compete at professionally. Tactical advances by Fabio Capello led to a 4-4-2 being installed and shifting players into awkward positions; Gerrard was one of them, playing an unfamiliar left winger role at one point before being switched again. The last time he had played as such was at UEFA Euro 2004, when he was emerging as a prominent player for both club and country.

England would continuously deploy the 4-4-2 throughout the World Cup before being humbled by The Old Enemy, Germany, by a 4-1 defeat in Bloemfontein and fly back home with heads dropped low. In all four of those games, Gerrard was the catalyst to the attack upfront whilst Rooney was partnered with Emile Heskey and Jermain Defoe, desperate attempts in creating the perfect striker partner formula to dispose of the rest. Needless to say, that formula went begging and he would not score a goal all tournament, thus becoming a scapegoat from which pointed answers to why we were so dismal.

Subsequently as Gerrard was made the main playmaker of the team in midfield, he would find himself as a central midfielder for the first match against the United States in a partnership alongside Frank Lampard before playing the rest of the tournament as a left winger. Unconventional choice from the Italian and ineffectual from Gerrard just put on show his lacking in pace to become a real threat from the flank, and his inability to come away from the wing to influence a justifiable threat. Potentially enough James Milner and Aaron Lennon would be that threat opposite but yet nevertheless it was to be a total capitulation come match day four in the calendar.

The problem was both explicit and implicit; something I had picked up in English media. Explicitly, as the most obvious of problems, and as detected earlier, was Gerrard’s receding physical pace and acceleration – quickness on and off the ball. This combined with his lack of ability to break his marker in the opposition full back. Watching the games he played against Algeria (where Rooney painted an even bigger target on his back with his scathing reply to the boos from the England faithful), Slovenia and Germany, he seemed invisible and too ineffectual to spark and actual danger. Had it been players such as Aaron Lennon, Stuart Downing and James Milner, perhaps they would have been far more oblivious to team-mates for passes and taking on the ball for a cross, hoping that the receiver would be a forehead and hitting the back of the net.

Implicitly however, was that Capello’s squad and selection, concentrating more to the point on the midfield, was the presence of Gerrard; his influence and his role. Yes, the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick were selected too, but Gerrard was the only real player, out of all, to pull the strings of the England midfield as an advanced playmaker – and by defining ‘advanced playmaker’, I mean the most comfortable in and out of possession as either an attacking midfielder or as a central midfielder but with the duties of being the centre of all things. Moreover, the complications with his choices were of two things:

  1. He had chosen only two players who were adaptable in advanced midfield spots. The other being Joe Cole as his performances for Chelsea exemplified his comfort there, but extraordinary technical abilities.
  2. Barry, Carrick and Lampard are all players that are very well-known in playing best as stationary players, holding midfielders, in the majority. Carrick has operated as a holding midfielder for both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, Barry (although starting as a left back) turned into a mini all-rounder for Aston Villa and then Manchester City en route the arrivals of Nigel de Jong and Yaya Toure whilst having the capabilities to perform defensive duties and also control the midfield to a certain extent.

And lastly, Lampard, although has a knack for getting forward as a club player for Chelsea, is far more comfortably sitting alongside one or two fellow central players, rather than venturing out as an attacking midfielder behind the striker. Times of which this has been experimented has not resulted well and eventually had him criticised rather than praised.

Did Capello purposely overlook Jack Wilshere in favour of arguably England’s best midfielder to-date? At the time, Arsenal’s Wilshere was starting to break out of his shell as a potential suitor to replace Cesc Fabregas – if/when he would return to Spain and Barcelona in particular after much-reported interest from the Catalans. And being English, Wilshere is upheld as the next ‘rare’ commodity of a midfielder to have a future in the game, but also as one of the most exciting English prospects since, well, Gerrard quite possibly.

But it is the exclusion of him from the final 23-man squad that would raise eyebrows. Not just from the Arsenal support, but from neutral fans too and perhaps Bolton fans. After breaking into the Arsenal side as their youngest-ever debutant at 16, and completing his first full campaign under Arsene Wenger, his performances rewarded him with a place in the PFA Team of the Year, win the PFA Young Player of the Year award and be voted the club’s best player of the season last year.

Or maybe it was to not throw him head-first into an international competition without properly integrating him slowly, but surely enough, in the qualifying games as the run-up to the World Cup came closer. Maybe he feared that had he played below-par, then heads would turn and point fingers at him for “bringing him in too early” – especially at 18 years old. It was a wise choice, and a bullet dodged that could have cost him his England post. Besides, despite Germany’s Thomas Müller being a huge prospect, his time with Bayern Munich was far more controlled and observed that Wilshere’s – perhaps.

And it also brings us onto the next debate about what formation should have been played instead of the 4-4-2 that clearly did not gain much other than a win and two draws against opponents England should be winning. That was only just emphasised more when England took on Germany in the last sixteen of the tournament in Bloemfontein, which is still regarded as a shameful memory and beating at the hands of Die Mannschaft. Joachim Löw and his 4-2-3-1 just showed how much greater a three-man midfield is as opposed to the two-man and the evolution of tactics within the modern game. At international level, usually it is seen as a foundation, and a base, to be used in club football. During the 1990’s, clubs had temporarily adopted five-man defences after seeing similar formations in the 1994 FIFA World Cup – it was only then that they would revert back to the most common in the classical 4-4-2.

Capello’s reliance on the partnership and co-operation of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry in the centre against the trio of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller didn’t bode well, and neither did the reactions of the England support. What could have been done and should’ve been done is now in the past, but it is the future we look up to now as a footing for England’s youngsters. Successors to the Italian must not follow the same pathway. Clearly.

I had read an article somewhere that had the title bluntly written as “Why Michael Ballack should never play for Germany again”. As eye-catching as it was, it did have points about it and did make sense. Although Ballack is a hero in German football as he had ‘carried’ the national team during the early 2000’s, he is now at a stage, despite the German Football Association (DFB) owing a lot back to him, where he must step aside for other prominent players to make their mark, just like they had done at the World Cup last year – Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Marko Marin will have impressed but yet the lingering figure of Ballack will remain until he opts to bow out from the international scene, and thus eliminating himself from selection.

The same can be done with Gerrard – he has played for the national team since 2000 and stands amongst one of the most capped players to pull on the white shirt and navy blue shorts. Ten years of service and forever grateful are England fans. The Football Association are, like the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, of his work but it would be beneficial for him to start making his descent. Not immediately of course as he is still a player that can make the England squad regularly, whether it be for for a friendly or an international competition, and also to the fact that he is not at the stage Ballack is at in his career. Yes he has fallen a little lower down the pecking order due to injuries and summer signings but he can still make an impact.

What the conclusion is to this article, after wrapping my head around how to finalise my point, is that; Gerrard is a world class player, will be going down into the books as one of the greatest midfielders to have ever played for Liverpool and England when he retires and deserves everything that he has won, the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup and other individual awards that have trudged along with those that are most notable. He may well still win the league with Liverpool but that remains to be seen. He is one of my favourite players, personally and always will be.

But as they say “All good things must come to an end“. Eventually and quite inevitably, he will have to make that step down and leave the younger players coming through to have their shot, especially with the ones coming through at Liverpool with Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey for example. The persistence of his injuries have nullified his chances of playing on a regular basis to a considerable level and, be it unfortunate, has shortened his longevity of maintaining fitness at the highest level. By the 2014 World Cup, I would propose that, the likelihood of him making the final cut is low – that is when he will have possibly won the league eventually with his club and hopefully the European Championship in 2012.

The bowing out of Captain Marvel.

You can read more from Nick at The Tireless Midfielder or follow him on Twitter.

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