What is leadership? Is it leadership through example? Is it through personal skill or magnetism? Is it about delegation, taking responsibility, encouragement or punishment? The easy answer is to say it's a mixture of all those things and more. An easy and correct answer, but not much of a discussion. If it's a mixture, which qualities are more important? Do some qualities have potentially negative consequences? A better answer is to say I don't know. I don't know and I'm not sure how anyone could know, not for sure. But I know what I admire and respect in a leader, and I know of leaders in all kinds of fields who I admire and respect, and who had a measurably positive influence on those they led, an influence going way beyond the instant - an influence that lived long after they did, and didn't necessarily need their close presence when they were alive. To me there is an ideal leader at this club already. One who I think exemplifies all the qualities I want in a Liverpool captain, on and off the pitch. He is not the captain, or even the vice-captain. He is our number 21, Lucas Leiva.
Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are, without doubt, the two most influential players at the club. Their collective influence over the last decade has been almost incalculable. Whatever the atmosphere, team spirit and mentality of the club is now, those two have at least as much, probably more, responsibility for it than any single manager we've had in that time. In fact, to the media, these two don't just represent the club. They are the club. More damagingly, this isn't just true of the media but some of our own fans, players and perhaps even managers. A lot has been said about their influence on young players in particular, about the good they do, and the great example they set. But to what extent is this true?
Are Carragher and Gerrard really perfect or near-perfect examples of leadership on and off the pitch, and of role-models to young players? I know they do spend a lot of time watching academy games and it's obvious that they care a great deal about the club and the youth system in particular. However, the amount you care about something is sadly not actually the same as how good you are at it. My ideal is Lucas, someone who for me leads the young players both by example and by actual tutoring on the pitch. In terms of his professionalism on and off the pitch, and his behaviour upon it, Lucas is essentially the perfect player, regardless of how you rate him is a leader. it's hard to think of anywhere he can improve. He is my benchmark, so how do our actual leaders measure up?
Let's start with their professional example. Two questions here: How do they train and respond to setbacks? Next, what kind of example do they set on the pitch?
Lucas is pretty much the ultimate professional. He has never moaned about any aspect of his treatment as a player or by fans, never going further than to talk about difficulties having made him stronger. He is vocal on the pitch, but never aggressive. There is never a team-mate he doesn't stand up for, or a shitty decision he doesn't calmly dispute. Compare that to Carragher who has verbally and occasionally even physically confronted other players on the field of play, for mistakes that were in fact his. Arbeloa can testify to that. Skrtel and his jaw, now that it's working again, can also testify to the lack of trust Carragher has, on occasion, shown his team-mates. Though it never seems to be team mates of comparable stature and influence to himself. On the other hand we have Gerrard who who also shows clear displeasure at team mates - but again never at 'senior' team mates. I've seen him shout at Lucas - again for his own mistakes at times - yet I've never once seen him have a go at Carragher, nor Carragher him. He sometimes stands up for team-mates, or up to the referee, but not always, or even that often. He rarely seems to be around if, for example, one of ours gets scythed down, where you can guarantee that, if possible, Lucas and Reina will be there to have a word. He will always stand up for himself, and the club in general, but does he always stand up for his colleagues on the pitch?
What about the way they play?
Well, Lucas is relentless in his quest for self-improvement, seemingly seeing it much like the poem 'If...' in that he sees mistakes and successes both the same way, and tries his best to learn from both. Carragher and Gerrard are both incredibly hard and driven workers, but neither can say they've always done the job asked of them without complaint. Neither can say they've worked on their weaknesses and sought to improve in every way possible in the way that Lucas has.
Now look at Lucas' style of play. He is the ultimate team player. Completely unselfish. He doesn't care who he's playing with, the pass he gives is the pass he thinks is best. He doesn't see other players, he sees red shirts and the position they're in. The ball goes to the red shirt in the best position. He will never go for an awkward shot if he can play in a team-mate. If anything, he is almost too unselfish at times, one of few remaining weaknesses he could work on, albeit one that is also linked to confidence and where his attacking opportunities are limited by his position, a position whose principle responsibilities he never, ever shirks, not for a second, whoever the opposition.
Compare that to Gerrard and Carragher. Carragher doesn't see positions. He see two things: 'danger' and 'clear'. There is very little he can do without dwelling on the ball first, even at his best. He barely passed the ball to Lucas for the Brazilian's first two or three seasons. Gerrard is supremely skilled and can be a good team player but the fact is that he has his favourites. How often have we seen Gerrard drift completely out of position in order to take the ball from the toes of players like Traore or Dosenna? How often does he drop deeper than even the centre-backs because he doesn't trust them to supply him? How big was his drop in form after losing a trusted companion in Alonso? Bigger than it should have been, even accounting for Alonso's ability. Is his decision-making honestly the best? Yes, it's hard pressed to find a better player but if you were telling someone to pick a role-model in football would it really be Gerrard? If Gerrard had the brain and leadership to match his talent he'd be the best player in history by an absolute mile. As it is those aren't exactly huge weaknesses but they are there, and now that he's losing some of his pace, now that he's losing some of his once unstoppable power, those slight weaknesses are clearer than they have ever been before.
By extension, both players also neglect responsibilities required of top footballers in their position. Carragher can't fulfill his responsibilities in attack because he dwells on the ball and rarely keeps it on the floor (or at least pass long with reasonable pace and accuracy), plus he has favourites. Gerrard through generally poor defensive positioning and occasionally switching off when it comes to tracking runners, and he too has had favourites - players he won't pass too, players he will nearly always look for even if they're in poor positions.
So what evidence do we have for how they act with, and how they are seen by the young players?
Well, we know Gerrard and Carragher are heroes to youngsters coming through the system. To an extent they would be that anyway, but again there is no doubting the time they spend with the reserves and academy, nor is their any questioning their commitment to the youth system in General. Or to numerous individuals within the sytem. Neither could do more to promote the idea of youth promotion. But that could be said of Lucas too. More importantly, we've seen how Lucas has guided players like Spearing, like Flanagan and Robinson. With hard, unstinting work. With complete unselfishness. With vocal, encouraging support, on the pitch, where I think it counts most, though of course the only place we can see it happen and so try to judge it.
Can we say the same for Carra and Gerrard? Did they give that type of support to, say, Lucas himself when he came through? No. Spearing got it, but not Lucas. Not Insua. Lucas, in fact, has been on the end of plenty of unjustified outbursts or shows of emotion from both those players, and has had to watch Carra bypass him in good positions to a point that it seemed deliberate, or at least very obstinate. Is this a good example to set? Is this likely to encourage all the young players at the club to do their best, to emulate their heroes, regardless of nationality or level of skill? Does it even set the best example to the players who they do favour, and who they do encourage? I don't think so.
Yet, for the number of times they've helped mentor a young player through a game, or talked a new signing through his Liverpool baby steps, how often have you seen one shrink before them? A Traore after the ball being taken off his toes, a Lucas receiving an earful because they miscontrolled his pass? Can we honestly say that our captain and vice-captain acted fairly in terms of the praise and/or punishment they dole out to others on the pitch? Or do some have to endure quite a lot of discouragement at their hands while others seem to have little but support and encouragement? Of course, we can't know what happens off the pitch. So again we have to go by what's on the pitch. We know Flanagan has given a lot of credit to them, and we've seen them guiding many individuals through games. But what about the rest of the team? Is it possible to encourage everyone? Is that even a captain's job? I think Lucas does a very good try at it, but beyond him I think Agger and Reina both seem more consistent in their approach, more fair in their criticisms, and work better in terms of helping others improve themselves.
On balance, Gerrard and Carragher have without doubt done more good than harm to the development of young players at this club. But they are also more responsible than any other players for the general culture at the club over the last ten years.
As a club, have we honestly been good for young players? In terms of that transition from reserves to the hard realities of the first team? Can we look at examples of teams that do it right, or teams we think do it better (in terms of introducing youngsters into the team) and say we're as good? If a youth comes through at Arsenal or Manchester United they get support and encouragement. Look at how Giggs, Scholes, Neville and others before them treated young players - at least at first. With positivity, with understanding of mistakes when they first came through. You have to have established yourself at least a little bit at those clubs before you get shouted at by the senior players. In contrast, when you are senior, and especially at Manchester United, it doesn't matter if you're Giggs or Scholes or Hernandez or you've got the captain's armband on or not, if you make a basic mistake, the kind of mistake you should have learned from when you were young and had the encouragement, then one of those other seniors will have a go. The manager doesn't even have to transmit this to the team anymore, the players do it and know what's expected, and pass that on to the young players in turn (as long as they're willing to learn, not all are or ever will be).
Does that sound like 'The Liverpool Way' with youngsters over the last ten years or so? Not to me it doesn't. For every encouraging word I've seen a shout or an exasperated gesture. For every well done I've seen a pass ignored or a move bypassed. For every player I've seen boosted by Carra and Gerrard's leadership, I've seen another one visibly shrink after a misplaced word, pass, shout or gesture. It's by no means just them either, and we've had far worse (Ruddock anyone?), but is that enough, now or in the longer term? The kind of examples Gerrard and Carragher set on the pitch, for me, are incredibly positive when they are on form. When they are off form, or out of the team, what has their leadership taught those around them? If you lead through encouragement and delegation as well as, or instead of, the force of your personality and skill, you give your team-mates something that can build, that can grow when even when you aren't around. If you lead through personality alone when all personalities are flawed then you might have a big problem when things aren't going your way. Personality based leadership doesn't work regardless of circumstance, no matter how powerful it can be.
Now you can say strong players should deal with it anyway, and the very strong, like Lucas - who in my view is a good example of not only of how to be a great leader but also in how Carra and Gerrard have failed to measure up in their treatment of him - but not every player is that strong, or can be like that, though some can develop into it given the right environment. There are a lot of players who are quite strong, but need encouragement, need support, need the feeling of responsibility, rather than having it taken from them. So many squad players and young players seem to do a come in and do a job for Utd that defies their talent, sometimes for years, yet get a similar talent, similar mentality here and they seem to shrink and drift away into obscurity. How good would John O'Shea be if he'd come through here rather than our rivals?
I don't think that transition from reserves to the first team, or from another club to the first team, is all down to the management team. With us there are also decades worth of structural problems, but I still think the players have a real impact, especially when they've been here so long, and have the added power of that local connection. In shaping the team spirit and atmosphere, in creating the best possible environment for others to flourish - not just the other world class players but the solid professionals, squad players and all those who, for whatever reason, have a cameo to play, do our players do enough to help each other flourish?
That's not to say we're the worst, in fact I don't even think we're bad, and in many ways our team spirit is incredible - no one can question our (or their) work-ethic, or dedication, or determination, or commitment, or love of the club, community and city. Certainly on those last three points Carragher and Gerrard stand among the very greatest of Liverpool legends. Players who represent not just a club but a city and even a culture every bit as much as the likes of Baresi or Guardiola. They have an abundance incredibly fine and useful qualities. But are they the ideal on-pitch leaders for this football club? Who is the ideal leader? I don't know for sure. No-one does. But I know what someone we all trust had to say on the subject, and I know that, for me, whoever our leader is should be the player who comes closest to embodying, on the pitch, what that someone said:
"The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life"