As Steven Gerrard approached his 100th England cap, a flood of articles appeared eulogising his career. Journalists across the country took it upon themselves to praise his all-round ability yet there was a twinge of disappointment that he hadn’t quite fulfilled his potential, particularly in regard to his time with England. Even Gerrard himself only rated his international career as a “six or seven” out of ten, while his Premier League and Champions League odds must be getting longer by the game for those interested in football betting.
Gerrard’s a walking paradox. He’s arguably the most talented player to have donned a Liverpool shirt, yet hasn’t added to their many league titles; he may be the finest English player of his generation, yet he’s been one of the major reasons for their failures; he possesses all the attributes a centre-midfielder would need, yet has repeatedly proven himself incapable of playing there; he’s a perfectionist, yet still makes the same mistakes he did when he made his debut; he’s noticeably self-conscious, yet continually puts himself as the centre of attention on the field; he’s the locally born captain of his boyhood team, yet he doesn’t fit the mould of the classic Liverpool player.
When he first burst onto the scene as a scally-haired 18 year-old, Gerrard was a rambunctious ball-winning midfielder. Replacing the injured Jamie Redknapp, Gerrard’s role was primarily defensive – charging around the pitch, diving into tackles to win the ball back – but with a bit more attacking quality than someone like Lee Cattermole today. Although Liverpool’s coaching staff rated him highly, they became worried by his lack of maturity – he had a tendency to be overzealous with his challenges, giving out more than his fair share of lunging challenges, resulting in an alarming flurry of red cards. However, a year alongside Gary McAllister in the centre of midfield did him far more good than his stints on the “graveyard shift” of right midfield ever did, calming down not only his over the top battling but his decision-making when picking out a pass.
As Gerard Houllier’s erratic transfer dealings weakened the squad and Michael Owen’s appearances became less frequent thanks to hamstring trouble, Gerrard’s influence became more important – going forward more as Liverpool’s other attacking options waned, earning him the captain’s armband. By the time Rafa Benitez replaced Houllier at Anfield, Gerrard was head and shoulders above the rest of the squad. Nevertheless, Gerrard was causing Benitez problems: although he was Liverpool’s best player, he didn’t have the footballing intelligence to play in the centre of the midfield.
Under Houllier, they had been counter-attacking and tight in midfield, so Gerrard’s charging about and playing the ball forward every chance he got was encouraged. Benitez’s side was more considered though – when Gerrard charged forward, he left a gap and when he hit an inappropriate long ball it ruined Liverpool’s possession play. Things reached a head in the Champions League final: he may have been the man to spur on Liverpool’s comeback, but that was only after he was pushed forward and Dietmar Hamann took his deeper role. In the first half, Kaka had run riot, gifted space by Gerrard’s ventures forward and Xabi Alonso’s lack of mobility.
Post-Istanbul Gerrard was shifted back out to the right, where he was far more productive this time around. With the acquisition of Fernando Torres however, Gerrard was moved back into the centre, but higher up behind the striker. Forming a telepathic partnership, the pair toyed with opposition defences, almost storming their way to the Premier League title in 2009.
Gerrard was less successful for England. Having Frank Lampard beside him meant they needed someone sitting behind them to play their natural games, yet David Beckham and Michael Owen required them to play in a 4-4-2 to give them the proper support. The failure of the Golden Generation was born in its wealth of talent, leading to an unbalanced, dysfunctional team. Fabio Capello improved this, giving Gerrard a freer role on the left, with the license to come inside, but a more rigid system saw England and Gerrard flop at the 2010 World Cup.
Benitez’s sacking and a string of injuries, that have stolen that burst of energy away from him, have seen Gerrard moved back into the centre of midfield. Pundits, most notably Andy Gray, barracked Benitez for playing Gerrard higher up the pitch, but the occasional performance against weaker sides aside, he’s consistently proven he can’t play deeper. While he has the technical and physical defensive ability in his tackling and harrying to defend properly, an inability to track runners and poor positional sense makes him a defensive liability.
The same poor judgement stunts his attacking. Although on a technical level, Gerrard is one of the world’s best passers and possesses a near-perfect shot, he rarely knows the right time to use them. In closely-fought games a clear head is key, but Gerrard gets nervous, and the more nervous he gets the more desperate he gets. The odd poorly thought out long ball or speculative shot become the only option he chooses when things aren’t going his team’s way. This resulted in the stunning volleys against Olympiakos and West Ham – goals that will burned into Liverpool fans’ minds for eternity – but the ball rolling out of play has been far more frequent.
As Arrigo Sacchi said of Gerrard: “When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks. We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have the subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective. And for many I wasn’t sure they were going to learn. You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater. In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard is a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”
Gerrard is aware of his gifts, and they have made him one of the best players of his generation, but a calmer head on his shoulders could have seen him become even greater.