It seems almost heretical to say it, but could it be that Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard is not the solution but the problem?Jonathan Wilson
Wednesday April 11 2012, guardian.co.uk
When Steven Gerrard came off the bench against Newcastle United on 30 December and transformed a 1-1 draw into a 3-1 win, the assumption was that, with their talisman back after an ankle injury, Liverpool would kick on. That win took them to fifth and with Chelsea and Arsenal faltering, Newcastle seemingly beginning to feel the effects of their comparatively slender squad and Tottenham being Tottenham, a challenge for Champions League qualification, perhaps even third place, seemed probable.
Liverpool have won only two of their 13 league games since then. Going into Tuesday’s game against Blackburn Rovers they lie eighth, level on points with Fulham and Norwich City, the two sides below them, and risk finishing outside the top eight for the first time since they returned to the top flight in 1962. They need 15 points from the six games that remain to avoid their worst points tally in a 20-team Premier League (in 2005, a failure that was mitigated by their European Cup win that year).
A Carling Cup and possible FA Cup, of course, provide some mitigation ? and it is actually slightly depressing that league position apparently means so much more than trophies ? but it is still reasonable to ask what on earth has gone wrong since the turn of the year. Take a cohesive team, add Gerrard, and the result has been a shambles.
It seems almost heretical to say it, but could it be that Gerrard is not the solution but the problem; that, fine player though he is, he has destroyed the balance of the side? When Gerrard has not started this season, Liverpool have won 48% of games played; when he has started, that drops to 9%.
In the 11 games Gerrard has started, Liverpool have scored an average of 1.00 goal per game while conceding 1.36; without him it is goals for 1.24, goals against 0.90. They have taken 1.67 points per game without him, just 0.73 with. Project that over a season: without Gerrard, Liverpool would get 63 points, which last season would have seen them finish fifth; with Gerrard, they would get 28, certain relegation form.
Those figures include six games in which Gerrard has come off the bench. In two of those, against Everton away in October and against Newcastle, he helped turn draws into wins. In the other four, the result has remained unchanged, although Manchester City did increase a 2-0 lead to 3-0.
It was apparent even under Rafael Ben?tez that Gerrard was at his best when he could be let off the leash, when the situation was so desperate that he could be released from responsibility and told simply to swash buckles and storm barns all over the pitch ? as he did against Olympiakos in December 2004, against Milan in the 2005 European Cup final and against West Ham in the FA Cup final the following year. In that regard, he fitted perfectly the Roy of the Rovers template and, as Scott Murray argued in The Blizzard [http://www.theblizzard.co.uk/” title=”] (a piece reproduced here [http://www.sabotagetimes.com/football-sport/roy-of-the-rovers-ruined-the-english-game/” title=”]), there has been no figure so pernicious in English football history as Roy Race.
“While little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta,” he wrote, “thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.
“Such was the sermon preached from the Melchester pulpit. In the big games, Rovers were perfectly happy to wing it, knowing Racey would amble along to the rescue at some point. As a result, nobody would bother preparing for anything. More often than not, Melchester would yawn on to the pitch, and end up a goal or two down not long after kick-off. A Race-inspired comeback was nearly always on the cards.”
Nobody ever mentions it but in terms of control, Liverpool’s best performance in their 2004-05 run in the Champions League was the 0-0 draw at Juventus, where Gerrard was absent and Liverpool’s midfield comprised Xabi Alonso, Igor Biscan and Antonio N??ez.
Gerrard’s penchant for Hollywood passes and his tactical indiscipline are well-known, but the Opta statistics present a more nuanced picture. Shots on target and shots to goal are virtually unchanged with and without Gerrard while possession (55.22% to 56.50%) and pass completion (80.79% to 81.06%) improve marginally with him in the side.
Cross completion drops from 21.21% to 15.19% when Gerrard comes into the side, while the number of tackles won falls from 75.49% to 71.90%. That latter figure perhaps hints at what he does in terms of disrupting the shape of the midfield. That said, the injury to Lucas Leiva who, remarkably, has still made more tackles than anybody else in the Liverpool squad this season despite having been injured since November, partly accounts for that fall-off and has clearly been a significant factor in Liverpool’s stumble.
But what is really telling is the impact Gerrard has on other players. All six of Charlie Adam’s assists and both his goals have come when Gerrard has not started. Jordan Henderson’s tackle success rate drops from 92.59% when Gerrard does not start to only 63.64% when he does. Jay Spearing wins 60.71% of duels when Gerrard does not start; only 54.76% when he does. When Gerrard is there, they have to adjust to different roles and, so far, that seems to have had a detrimental effect.
The phenomenon of a big player dwarfing those around him, particularly when, as in the case of Henderson and Adam, they are low on confidence, is well-known. The tendency, understandably, is to give the ball to the star, to try to feed him at every opportunity: Cesc F?bregas described it happening at Arsenal in Thierry Henry’s last full season, while an overreliance on Samuel Eto’o has clearly hampered Cameroon. Gerrard offers an excuse, an easy way for his team-mates to dodge responsibility.
It is not that he is a bad player, far from it ? and Lucas’s absence is almost certainly a bigger reason for Liverpool’s slide than Gerrard’s return ? but it could be that his impact is detrimental. That is the problem with building up individuals in football: no matter how gifted he is, it is never just about one man.
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