12 April 2012

Steven Gerrard, Loss of Form and Shankly’s Tenets

Last Monday, I was in a discussion with one of my former players about Liverpool FC’s current miserable run of form. Since the turn of the year, that run of form reads like this: LDLLWDLLLWLLLDW. From a possible 45 points, the Reds have only managed a pitiable 12.

The last time a Liverpool squad performed this badly was back in the fifties when the club was still in the old Division II of the English League. As of this writing, the club sits at eighth in the table, having been overtaken by its neighbours and bitter rivals Everton FC.  Liverpool hovered near the top four all the way to December.

Were it not for the points accumulated in the first half of the season, Liverpool would presently be in direr straits. The record once 2012 started is not of the sort one associates with a club that has such an illustrious history. In fact, the run of form is the sort one associates more with clubs fighting relegation.

In my discussion with my former player, I pointed out that the poor run was probably due to a confluence of many factors. It also coincided, I theorized, with the return to the squad of two iconic players: Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard.

Carragher, it must be said, is somebody even hardcore Liverpool fans will agree is well past his prime. An injury to him early this season, in fact, led to the blossoming of a partnership between the Slovak Martin Skrtel and Dane Daniel Agger.

The Skrtel-Agger partnership was so effective that the Liverpool defence was among the stingiest in the entire Premiership. Agger, an intelligent player and composed on the ball, reminds me in many ways of Alan Hansen during the club’s golden years. However, as every Liverpool fan knows, he has also been remarkably injury prone.

He is now back playing for the squad; and the sooner that his partnership with Skrtel is restored, the better for the club. That said, the damage has already been done; albeit, it must be pointed out that it was no fault of Carragher that he was called on to play during Agger’s prolonged absence.

Of more concern to me has been the return of Gerrard. The captain has simply been so off-colour of late. The television long passes that he completes may be deceiving for the sheer vision of these; but it is those that are not completed that are alarming.

Those who have been watching Liverpool games of late and who can watch with a critical and honest eye will know that I am right in saying that Gerrard has been giving away possession too often lately with ill-advised passes.

Many fans simply take for granted the club’s pass-and-move philosophy. Lost in the context of oversimplification is that what Shankly really used to preach was for players to pass the ball ‘to the nearest red shirt.’ This is where Gerrard frequently is culpable.

If Gerrard’s long passes are completed, they are gushed upon as ‘vision.’ He is always looking for the killer pass; and distance is seldom a consideration for him. However, if the passes are not completed, then possession is wasted.

In my own teams, God knows I used to preach often enough for players to delay the ‘killer pass’ unless the probability of completion favours a teammate. Not easy for high school players since maturity is a prerequisite for patience.

In a manner of speaking, thus, Gerrard has not really matured in that he can still be remarkably impatient in seeking the killer pass. I have lost count of the number of times I pounded the arm rest of my sofa because Gerrard tried a long pass when a short square pass to an open teammate would have been the obvious choice.

Play it simple but quick. This was another Shankly tenet.

The management dilemma facing Reds’ manager Kenny Dalglish regarding Gerrard is pretty straightforward: keep playing him despite the miserable run of form with the hope that he will play himself back to it; or keep him out of the team and on the bench.

More alarming than Gerrard’s own form has been his return’s impact on his teammates, many of whom are relatively new to the club. I will not be pretentious by saying that I know what really goes on inside the pitch.

However, I know from my own teams how unnerving senior players can be for youngsters to play with. Both Gerrard and Carragher are Liverpool natives and naturally have more affinity for the club.

Of the players, these two are the ones frequently barking at teammates. Some players take that sort of ongoing criticism on the field well; and some, well, just don’t. Carragher has been guilty of giving away silly goals of late and not has been fiery as he used to be.

Not that Gerrard as captain has no right to bark at teammates. However, sometimes teammates defer to him just because he is Steven Gerrard.

Take Charlie Adam, who is by no means a youngster but is new to the club. When Gerrard is not on the pitch, Adam takes responsibility both on the offensive and defensive ends of the pitch. When Gerrard is on, Adam plays short to the former even when somebody has made a run upfront and Adam himself has the ability to deliver the through pass.

If the older Adam defers to Gerrard, how much more the younger Jordan Henderson? Leaving it all for Gerrard to do is not a bad thing in itself. That is, if Gerrard is playing well. But he has not; and therein lays the problem.

Take the FA Cup clash with Manchester United late in January. That game was won; but on the basis of play, Liverpool was simply overrun by a United midfield anchored on Paul Scholes.

The Liverpool midfield started getting back a semblance of control once Dirk Kuyt and Charlie Adam were sent in; and more so when Craig Bellamy came in for Gerrard. I do not know about everyone else – and I do not really care – but I really think Liverpool has played better this season without Gerrard.

It will be foolhardy to suggest that Liverpool gets rid of Gerrard. On the contrary, even at 32, he is still a world class player. He takes a while to recover position after possession is lost; but that is a matter of fitness.

What needs to be done is for it to be pointed out to the other players that nobody needs to pass to Gerrard just because he is Gerrard. No player is greater than the team; or the team has to come first. This is another Shankly tenet.

This is where Dalglish comes in. What for is a manager if he cannot iron out these little kinks that impact a football game so much?

To be perfectly fair to Gerrard, there are many other factors that can be blamed for the club’s miserable run of form. Injuries have taken their toll: Lucas Leiva, Glen Johnson, Agger, Bellamy and now Adam.

Even Dalglish will have to take responsibility. Flash back to that 0-2 loss to Newcastle United at St. James’ Park just the other week. It took him until the 76th minute to realize that Jonjo Shelvey was being a headless chicken; and the impact twin substitution of Kuyt and Henderson was not made until the 80th minute.

Somebody please translate this piece of Filipino wisdom for him: Aan’hin pa ang damo ‘pag patay na ang kabayo!

I think that the entire squad has gone into Cup mode. That is, there is little motivation to do well in the league. While I gain little satisfaction from watching Liverpool on television, I still do because I have been a supporter since I was a boy.

Some of the performances, I am sure, had Shankly spinning in his grave. Abjectly poor and pathetic is putting it lightly.

‘The league is your bread and butter.’ This was also another of Shankly’s tenets.

[Curiously, a couple of days after my discussion with my former player, this article of the same theme came out in the Guardian, an online UK news site: The Question: is Steven Gerrard good for Liverpool?.]


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