In September 2014, a debate took place between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports, in which they discussed the merits and respective rankings of Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard.
Regardless of Neville’s history as Manchester United’s marauding right back and captain, his second career in analysis has earned him the admiration of his peers and neutrals in the sport.
Carragher on the other hand, for all his blustering and affable camaraderie with his co-hosts, represented the blinkered Anfield faithful, those who might hold the notion of Gerrard being the premier English midfielder close to their hearts.
It would take a magnificent orator to convincingly, persuasively make the argument that Steven Gerrard is and was a better player than Lampard and Scholes, in terms of increasingly potent and relevant stat lines, like goals and assists, and the numerous intangibles.
Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes were the beating hearts of their teams in many ways; Lampard (with many midfield partners, a showcase of his quality) was the crux of many dominant Chelsea squads that were designed to help him flourish. Jose Mourinho hailed the man as, ‘One of my best players ever, one of my best professionals ever’.
Paul Scholes never sought out plaudits because he didn’t have to. Players and personnel alike lined up to comment on his quality. Both men stand out for many reasons, but notably, as they aged and became ravaged by time, they adapted their style to give their teams whatever they needed.
By 2012/13 (even after a brief retirement by Scholes), both men had embraced their roles as Glue Guys, ascending to the rare, paradoxical zenith where they controlled the ebb and flow of any game, never standing out though always dominating proceedings.
The question must be asked: did Gerrard ever raise his game to a standard of this nature? Was he ever consistently the best player on his own team? Pressingly, was he ever the most important player on his own team?
In Liverpool’s best years during the Gerrard era, he was the captain on the pitch for the most part, but he could never truly call himself the lynchpin of the team.
In 2000/01, when Liverpool infamously captured a Treble of their own right, Gerrard was a rotation player in a packed and explosive midfield package, in which Jamie Redknapp, Didi Hamann, Danny Murphy and Gary McAllister fought for the two central midfield roles.
In a far cry from today’s game, where this combination of players would have found more playing time in a more modern 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-3-1-2, the predominant formation at the time was an orthodox 4-4-2, with traditional wingers.
This was before Mourinho, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff popularised the inside forward and the art of cutting inside onto the stronger foot, so wingers that patrolled the flank and whipped crosses into the box over and over again were in still in vogue.
In addition to a loaded midfield, the remarkably secure combination of Hyppia and Henchoz handled most defensive duties, and the prodigious Michael Owen was the superstar, both on the pitch and as a commercial, marketable product.
Gerrard did establish himself as a very important piece of the puzzle for Liverpool’s stellar run under Rafa Benitez, in which they achieved Champions League qualification for five straight years, won the FA Cup in 2006 and attained the crown jewel on that faithful night in Istanbul, winning the Champions League in 2005.
It was under Rafa that Gerrard morphed from being a strictly defensive constituent to an energetic, free-flowing assault weapon; a Swiss knife of a footballer. This is where the misconception began. Gerrard took it upon himself to become the offensive leader of the team; anything in the final third went through him.
He became a highlight reel of outrageous strikes on goal and long range bullet passes. However, for every goal against Olympiakos, there were ten shots that found Row Z.
For every fifty yard assist, there were fifteen passes that took down a low-flying bird. Meanwhile, the criminally under-utilised Xabi Alonso kept Liverpool’s defence reasonably watertight while Gerrard sought the Hollywood moment.
When one saw as much of the ball as Gerrard did, there were always going to be opportunities. The reason he could do so much, however, was because Alonso was watching his back and placing the ball in the best positions.
2007-09 were Gerrard’s best seasons, and the only years in which he achieved Lampard-like numbers, scoring 21 goals in 07/08 and 24 goals in 08/09.
There is a reason why this particular squad is widely considered to be the most dynamic Liverpool team of the 21st century, more so than the powerful 13/14 outfit, and that is down to the arrivals of Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano.
The mercurial Spaniard forged a lethal partnership with Gerrard, and his off-the-ball running complimented Gerrard’s new seek-and-destroy short passing game, influenced by Xabi Alonso.
Incidentally, Alonso had a larger role too, freed from his defensive shackles by the perpetually under-rated Mascherano. This four player core was feared, and they astonishingly passed and tackled Real Madrid out of Anfield in a 4-0 demolition job worthy of Louis Lumiere.
What’s noteworthy is that Gerrard wasn’t the volume scorer (Torres), defensive keystone (Mascherano) or best passer (Alonso). An argument could easily be constructed to support the idea of Alonso being the best overall player on the team.
Even in 2013/14, when Liverpool looked as good as they ever have, and Gerrard embarked on a Renaissance in his new, Andrea Pirlo-like regista role, he was far from the best player.
Suarez and Coutinho, when he played, ran the offence in a lightning manner that Gerrard never showed himself to be capable of, and the emergence of Raheem Sterling as a gifted trequartista meant that Gerrard was largely relegated to defensive duties, and even still, he persisted with impossible pass attempts and wayward strikes, a sign that he was failing to handle his regression with the grace and poise of Messrs Lampard and Scholes.
At the age of 35, Gerrard has only briefly shown flashes of the maturation that has allowed the likes of Pirlo, Alonso – and indeed Scholes and Lampard – to flourish into their later years.
Brendan Rodgers knew what he wanted Gerrard to do, and that’s why he has installed Henderson by his side to do the majority of the running and graft, but one senses that Gerrard always wanted to walk alone in the spotlight, hunting one more ‘OH YOU BEAUTY’ goal.
Gerrard is one of football’s likely candidates for ‘The Ewing Theory’, an idea crafted by sports writer and personality Bill Simmons, which in very brief summary, in his own words, involves:
- ‘A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
- That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season’.
It’s more difficult to follow stats in football than most American sports; one can more easily compare how much better a team is with or without a player in basketball, baseball and so on, due to the monumental volume of stats available for just about everything.
Football is more reliant on the eye test and basic stats, such as wins, losses, positions, goals, assists and so on. It’s difficult to quantify how much better or worse Liverpool were when Gerrard didn’t play, but now that he has moved onto pastures new, Liverpool will be fascinating to watch.
The offense, in broad terms, was balanced by the prodigious Luis Suarez two years ago. Such is his ultimately unselfish nature that other players, like Coutinho, Sterling and, indeed, Gerrard, had plenty of opportunities to carve out their niche in any number of games.
Last season, Gerrard maintained a stranglehold on the flow of the team, almost refusing to lend the wheel to either Coutinho or Sterling, and Liverpool suffered for it.
While it may mean nothing, Gerrard’s last game was a 6-1 drubbing by Stoke, with Gerrard scoring the solitary Liverpool goal. This isn’t to say that this was a microcosm of Gerrard’s entire career, but there’s an essence of poetry to it. It’s almost fitting.
By contrast, Liverpool have looked good-to-mercurial so far this season, with seven points from a possible nine, and while Rodgers’ coaching decisions will be questioned (Lovren and Lallana playing over Sakho and anyone else), and goals have been sparse, comparing their situation to Manchester United, who have the same points and goal difference (and may have their own Ewing Theory candidate in Wayne Rooney), yields optimism.
The Coutinho-led attack looks fluid, snappy and threatening, as opposed to United’s ponderous, methodical efforts. James Milner is the new engine, and in combination with Henderson, Liverpool will never be overrun in midfield, and Milner still provides energy and enthusiasm going forward. Benteke has settled, looking to be in harmony with the team, demanding the ball and making impressions.
Clyne and Gomez will improve, and Rodgers should shortly figure out that Benteke has feet that he is nifty with too, rather than just a towering frame and a forehead.
The performance against Arsenal Monday night has shown glimpses of dominance: that first half was a blitz of aggression and ability, and Liverpool did everything short of actually picking the ball up and throwing it past Cech, who still might have saved it.
It’s hard to imagine that Liverpool won’t be better than last season’s incarnation. Whether it will be proof-positive of The Ewing Theory in effect is very subjective, but is interesting to debate. One thing is for sure; Liverpool have become fun to talk about again.