For anybody interested in seeing what I had written to the Guardian a full week before Jonathan Wilson's piece came out, here it is:
8 Facts Steven Gerrard Would Rather Not Hear
If you’re a fan of Steven Gerrard, or someone who believes he should play in the centre of England’s midfield at Euro 2012 this Summer, you may want to look away now. While the Liverpool skipper’s talent and contribution over the years cannot be questioned, his current form and influence suggest there’s a case to be made for club and country planning a future without him...
• First there’s the simple, natural truth – Steven Gerrard will celebrate his 32nd birthday next month. Michel Platini retired as soon as he turned the same age. Other all-time greats like Cantona and Van Basten had already given up the game by this point in their lives. Of course in this era of England’s top team employing a 37 year-old midfield general, 32 is possibly not the pensionable age it once was. Still, for someone whose game has so often depended on pace and dynamism, the twilight years of his career will surely mean a dwindling of these key attributes.
• And with the age comes injuries. A lot of them. Plagued by back problems in his younger days, lately Gerrard’s issues have been mainly with his troublesome groin, which caused him to go under the knife again last year. After only a couple of games back, an infection in his ankle served to delay his return by another few months. Only making 24 appearances in all competitions last season was worrying, and it was the first time he had failed to make more than 30 since his breakthrough in 1999. He’s on course to beat that number this term, but the spectre of another trip to the treatment table looms constantly.
• While Kenny Dalglish (and possibly the player himself) seems to believe that Gerrard’s best position is in the centre of midfield, the numbers appear to refute this. Rafa Benitez was the manager with whom Gerrard had the most success in terms of team competitiveness and personal statistics. However, Benitez’ ability to bring the best out of the player came from a realisation that the centre of the pitch was not necessarily the best place for him to be. As this article by Jonathan Wilson (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/jonathan_wilson/09/06/gerrard.position/index.html
) pointed out, the manager realised some way through his first season (the decisive game possibly being a Gerrard-less, tactically astute away draw against Juventus) that while his skipper had superb pace and finishing ability, not to mention the intermittent ability to hit a great pass, he was often wasteful in possession and tactically lacking. It was thus deduced that he was more useful to him away from the central midfield positions. In the Summer, Benitez moved quickly to sign a midfield destroyer in Momo Sissoko to sit alongside Xabi Alonso and a year and a half later upgraded him to Javier Mascherano. With Alonso entrenched as Liverpool’s deep playmaker, Benitez thus shifted Gerrard either to the right hand side or in a free role behind the striker, turning him into more of a weapon and leaving him unhindered by such responsibilities as defending and dictating play. Research of Liverpool’s line-ups and formations for the four years from the Summer of 2005 until Alonso was sold to Real Madrid bear this out: During these four seasons, Gerrard played as part of a central midfield pair in only 72 out of 197 appearances. Further investigation reveals that nearly half of these appearances in the centre could be seen as a direct result of extended injuries to other players (Sissoko in 06/07 and Alonso in 07/08).
• As well as giving him the European Cup, FA Cup, and 2006 PFA Player of the Year Award, this period also bore witness to Gerrard’s greatest goal-scoring feats. He netted a total of 77 in all competitions and finished with more than 20 in three of the four years, numbers a prolific striker – something that Liverpool could do with at the moment – would be proud of. Contrast this with his total of 28 goals over the past three seasons. Not a terrible total by any stretch, but aside from his brilliant hat-trick against Everton in March, it’s worth pointing out he’s only scored 10 league goals from open play since August 2009.
• Although he scored a respectable 9 goals in 33 league appearances in Liverpool’s disappointing 09/10 campaign, a point of note is that two of the five games Gerrard was absent for that season were Liverpool’s only two wins against top four opposition – home victories against Man Utd and Spurs.
• Taking this further, one can look at the effect his absence has on results over the past two league campaigns. Although some feel his movement into a deeper role – playing more often as part of a midfield two – is a necessary step for both him and the club to take in his advancing years, the numbers seem to indicate that Liverpool are in fact a weaker team when he plays. Last season, Liverpool earned an average of 1.33 points per game whenever Gerrard started in the league. By contrast they earned 1.66 points on average when Gerrard was absent. While of course a purely theoretical measurement, that difference of 0.33 points per game, when extrapolated over an entire season, would mean a difference of between 12 and 13 points. Let’s not forget that Liverpool’s impressive run of results in the second half of last season were achieved largely without Gerrard after his groin injury.
• The contrast is even more glaring this season, albeit from a smaller sample size. The same injury that caused Gerrard to miss much of the second half of 2010/2011 has meant he has been absent for most of Liverpool’s decent opening half of this season. Without him in the starting line-up, Liverpool have picked up a respectable 1.69 points per game on average. When he has started, this drops to a paltry 0.7 points per game. Over a whole season, the difference in the two figures would yield 37-38 points more. While Liverpool’s second half struggles can in part be attributed to the destabilising effect of Lucas Leiva’s knee injury in November, the downturn in performances and results since the captain’s return is stark.
• To finish, here’s a stat from Liverpool’s insipid defeat to Newcastle that perhaps won’t surprise Gerrard’s detractors: Out of nine long balls attempted, he only found teammates with two of them.