England: ‘The Trouble with Gerrard’
“I’ll play anywhere for England, of course. No-one doubts my commitment to my country, but my strength lies in central midfield. No question. Confronting the enemy head on, getting the ball, bombing on, finishing moves off – that’s me.” These were Steven Gerrard’s own words in his autobiography released in 2006, ‘Gerrard, My Autobiography’.
Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier realised back in 1999 that driving forward is where Gerrard could be most effective in hurting the opposition. He bought Dietmar Hamman to protect the back four; in order to unleash Gerrard. Though going on to become one of the better players of his generation, Gerrard’s England career has been at times maligned. As the aforementioned quote shows, Gerrard prefers to play in the centre of the park, a position he has rarely been used in by England managers. So is it really fair the criticism that Gerrard has sometimes taken for his international performances? Did Euro 2012 show England what they have missed out on over the years? Lets evaluate ‘The Trouble with Gerrard’.
In basketball terms, ‘the trouble with Gerrard’ could be easily pigeonholed. He would be labelled a ‘Tweener’, a term, sometimes used derisively, for a player who is able to play two positions, but is not ideally suited to play either position exclusively.
However, ‘the trouble with Gerrard’ goes even further than him being unsuited to one position or another.
He is infact so good in both positions, that it would be a travesty to exclude him from one position or another. However, you can’t have Gerrard in two positions at one time, since by all accounts, twelve men on a pitch is more illegal than a Diego Maradona handball. This point manifests itself in the examples below.
The pre Euro 2012 injuries to Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard meant new England Coach Roy Hodgson would definitely use Gerrard centrally, this arguably helped England’s overall shape and balance. On June 1st, I actually tweeted ‘Lampard out could be a blessing in disguise, it will hopefully allow Stevie G to express himself more’. Without this blessing in disguise, Gerrard would, in all likeliness, have been asked to do a different job. With Lampard and Barry fit, Hodgson may have possibly used five in midfield. Instead after the opening game against France, Hodgson went with two up front, allowing Scott Parker to sit, and Gerrard to operate where he would prefer to. This is in the centre, expressing himself to the fullest, bombing on like the quote stated.
Indeed Gerrard’s driving runs and superb delivery from different areas of the pitch were the most consistent part of any of England’s performances. This was underlined last week when he was the only England player short-listed in the 23-man team of the tournament. Gerrard assisted three of the five goals England scored in the competition. It was only against Italy where Gerrard didn’t stamp any authority on the game, but bar a good first half hour or so, the whole team in general struggled to assert themselves upon the Italians. It was hardly surprising then, that the Italy game was the only game where England failed to score.
If we go back, since missing the World Cup in 2002, after receiving treatment for a recurring back problem, Gerrard’s England career has been occasionally controversial. If it’s not a story about him lacking desire to represent his country, then its complaints that he doesn’t produce for England like he does for Liverpool. Harsh I feel, as he is shifted around when representing his country.
Regardless of who is in charge of England, there seems to be a consistent pattern of picking the best eleven players, rather then actually picking the best team. This has meant that over the years, both Gerrard and Lampard have been used together. With both players being better going forward, this was not always best for the team. This problem was clearly evident during the Sven Goran-Eriksson tenure as England coach.
Gerrard is a dynamic player; at a stage he was considered one of the best midfielders in world football. Even if he wasn’t actually the best, he was certainly the most complete player in the UK. England didn’t boast a player like him that could tackle, dribble, pass well and shoot from distance. This meant England have not known how best to use him, maybe his style has been too continental at times. The Libero has long been deceased in the modern game and at times it seems that there is no defined room for the Gerrard.
If we look at Paul Scholes, he has been England’s most intelligent user of the ball in recent memory. Even he wasn’t used all the time directly in the centre. Sometimes farmed out to the left to accommodate other players. This again alludes to the best players against best team debate, showing England’s project in general has always had problems, profiling why there aren’t as successful as they should be.
A possible irony with the whole Gerrard positional debate is at club level, in the 2005-06 season, Gerrard enjoyed his second best goalscoring campaign when used mainly from the right by then Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.
In England’s last group game of Euro 2012, it was mouth watering watching him bamboozle a Ukrainian player, doing a double step-over and then knocking the ball around his man. The defender ended up dropping to ground as he was mesmerised by Gerrard’s feet. Gerrard then whipped in a superb cross for Wayne Rooney to basically score on the goal line. These kind of incidents make you feel that Gerrard can be comfortable out wide on occasion if needed.
Gerrard recently turned 32, though he is still an excellent player, injuries have meant his usually highly consistent club form has been sporadic in the last couple of seasons. After being rested towards the end of this campaign, he was raring to go. You can add to that, the sheer adrenaline rush and confidence he had flowing through his body after being given the England captain’s armband again. All these things meant Euro 2012 was set-up for Gerrard to show England possibly what they have been missing out on. We saw a player showing why he was so highly regarded throughout the football kingdom.
The ‘trouble with Gerrard’ stems from an overall problem with how England teams operate. The best team is better than grouping the ‘supposed best players’. A great example of this is Spain in Euro 2008. They went with a midfield four of Marcos Senna, Xavi, Andres Iniesta & David Silva. Senna was the critical player here. Though the likes of Xabi Alonso & Cesc Fabregas were better footballers than Senna, his superb positioning meant the others around him could play their game. Therefore he was used to protect the back four.
Gerrard being the most complete midfielder that England have had at their disposal, meant that he has had to be used in different areas. He is a victim of his own qualities to an extent. I feel England has missed an opportunity over the years to use Gerrard where he can be most effective. With only a few years left in Gerrard’s tank, all eyes will be on observing whether Jack Wilshere fulfils his potential. He could be England’s saving grace; otherwise they have definitely missed a ‘tick’ with Gerrard, a player who could have regularly given opponents more to think about.
Daniel Dwamena – @DubulDee