Steven Gerrard ought to be the Bryan Robson de nos jours. Instead he is in danger of becoming a new Paul Madeley who, with Don Revie’s Leeds and England, was so proficient in a number of positions that he never settled in the one he wanted. The Liverpool captain regards himself as a central midfielder, full stop, and has come to regret the versatility that has seen him shunted into different roles, for club and country. He offers a startling statistic: in 68 appearances for England he has patrolled his preferred beat just five times. He could not recall Robson or Paul Ince playing wide on the left.
After undergoing groin surgery that has put him out of the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Croatia, Gerrard had time on his hands and was happy to chew the fat on a broad range of subjects, from the effect of Croesus-rich owners on the Premier League to Liverpool’s need for more “bottle” against Manchester United and Chelsea, his disappointment that the planned new stadium to replace Anfield had been delayed and his unavailability for England.
We met on the day the Arab takeover at Manchester City dominated the sports agenda. Such is the new-found wealth at Eastlands that the Daily Telegraph printed a stellar team that Mark Hughes could now afford to buy, featuring Gerrard in central midfield, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Lionel Messi. He loved that, particularly because he was in his “proper” position, and said: “Can I keep your paper?”
On a more serious note, he felt more competition at the top would enrich the Premier League but that there were worrying implications for English football. “For the past few years we’ve had the established top four, then a middle league, then the teams fighting relegation,” he said. “More wealthy owners coming in will make things more exciting because more teams will get stronger, but the other side is that foreign owners are going to buy even more foreign players, which will give the English lads less chance.”
Liverpool have overseas owners in George Gillett and Tom Hicks, but the transatlantic takeover has hardly been an unbridled success, with enmity between the two partners leading to damaging divisions between the manager, Rafa Benitez, and the chief executive, Rick Parry, and leaving the new stadium on the back burner. Gerrard said: “We’ve been taken over by the Americans and it hasn’t all been rosy. It’s important foreign owners coming into our game realise it’s not all about them. The club is the priority, and our clubs are going to be here when they have gone. If they don’t understand that, there will be problems. There was a stage when it was worrying here, and when the infighting carries on for such a long time it affects players. You can’t help but worry about your club and think, ‘What if this or that happens?’ For the moment, the owners have put their differences behind them. The manager has been given money to spend, and the situation is better than it was a while ago. We’ll have to wait and see if the bad days are behind us.”
Benitez bought Robbie Keane (Tottenham), Albert Riera (Espanyol), Andrea Dossena (Udinese), Diego Cavalieri (Palmei-ras) and David Ngog (Paris St Germain) this summer for a total of more than £40m. Was it enough to improve on last season’s fourth place? “Time will tell,” Gerrard said, having experienced too many false dawns to be anything other than noncommittal. “The performances so far haven’t been that good, we’re still only in second or third gear. A few of the lads haven’t been 100% and I’ve been nowhere near it myself. We played well in preseason, but come the real deal we weren’t at the level we wanted. The promising thing is that the results have been good [Liverpool lie second with seven points from three games, and scraped past Standard Liege in the Champions League].”
By his own admission, Gerrard had not been at his best. Was the problem entirely physical? “I had a good rest in the summer and felt great when I came back,” he said. “Then, as soon as I went into training, the groin started niggling. One day it would be the right, then the left, and over a month’s preseason, it started to be a real worry. I strained both sides, which is a separate injury from the main groin problem I’ve got. The strains came about because I was training and playing differently to reduce the pain further up the pelvic bone.
“The decision about surgery was taken after our game against Standard Liege. I had a meeting with the club doctor on the day of the game and said the discomfort was getting to the stage where I couldn’t continue. I’d had to double, then treble, my dose of painkillers to train and play, and I was having to take them during games. You get to the stage where you can’t grind it out any longer. I told the doctor, ‘I can’t find my level, I can’t get to 100% because I’m missing training sessions and I don’t feel right in games. I don’t feel I can go to the max’. I couldn’t sprint flat out, couldn’t pass more than 30 yards and couldn’t shoot properly and, as much as you want to be out there for every game, there are times when you have got to forget about England and Liverpool and get yourself right.”
Benitez says he expects Gerrard to be fit in time for Manchester United’s visit next weekend, but the player doesn’t agree. “That’s a bit soon,” he said. “I’ve a decent chance for the Champions League game in Marseilles [September 16]. I’ve spoken to the manager and told him I’d like to do a certain amount of training before I come back. I don’t want to go into a big game only having had one session with the boys.”
Gerrard found it necessary to spell out such things to Benitez without equivocation. His position in the team, for example. “In the summer I looked him in the eye and told him where I want to play, which is centre midfield,” he said. “I told him that the way I like to play, you get the most out of me when I’m box-to-box, defending at one end, throwing in tackles, then getting my passing game going and getting to the edge of the box for shots. I find it difficult to play how I want to in the other positions.
“I love it when a manager says to me, ‘You’re playing in the middle, I want you to go and run this game’. That’s music to my ears. Rafa told me, when the Robbie Keane deal went through, that his plan was to play Keane behind [Fernando] Torres and to drop me back to play centrally. I know Rafa Benitez better than most people now and in some games he’ll ask me to play different roles, but he knows what I prefer.”
England, to his frustration, played him right or left, but rarely in the centre, and Gerrard believes this is because in the middle he requires a more defensive partner than Frank Lampard – a Didi Hamann or Nicky Butt type. He said: “When I played for Liverpool with Jamie Redknapp, I was the more defensive of the two, but when Didi came here he was an absolute dream for me. He helped take my game to the next level because he gave me the licence to go and express myself. You get the best out of me when I’m playing with a disciplined midfielder who gives me that freedom to play box-to-box. I can operate in a deeper role - I did it for England against Brazil at Wembley and got man of the match - but it’s not something I really enjoy.”
Ideally, he would have a Butt-type figure, rather than a Lampard as his partner. He explained: “Nicky’s strength wasn’t getting into the box and scoring goals, it was breaking up play. He was a stopper. He suits the type of player I am - as it would suit Frank Lampard or Paul Scholes.”
For England, and to a lesser extent with Liverpool, he had become resigned to playing everywhere but where he wants. “I’ve paid the price for being able to do a decent job in other positions,” he said. “Other players don’t get shunted around because they can’t do it. I can’t go and play on the right or the left and become Kaka or Robinho, I just go out there, give 100% and do a steady job. I’ll work hard, do my bit defensively and help the team. That’s why managers do it to me, but it is affecting me. My game suffers when my position is changed. I’m a central midfielder and in the big games I want to play in the middle and show that I’m one of the very best in that position.
“For Liverpool, I’ve played everywhere bar in goal: centre-half at Coventry, left-back at Maine Road and right-back nearly 40 times. Five or six years ago, I used to hate playing on the right or the left with a passion, so much so that I couldn’t prepare properly for the game. It really used to destroy me but as the years have gone by, because it has happened to me so many times under different managers, I’ve got to the stage where I block it out and do the best I can. There are two options: you can go out there and give it your best shot or go up against the manager, in which case there’s only going to be one winner.”
He estimates that 65% of his 400 appearances for Liverpool have come in the centre of midfield. And England? “Much less. I’ve played in my favourite position for England five times in 68 games. What can you do? I go into training with England and try to prove myself every day. Every England manager I’ve worked under knows where I want to play, but they pick the formations and I play where I’m told.”
Of Liverpool’s prospects for the season, their captain said: “This time we’ve got to be in the title race with 10 games to go. Rafa knows that this is a big season for us, as far as the league is concerned. The fans are screaming out for it, the players want it and we need to deliver. If we’re out of the race again come January or February, there will be a lot of unhappy people around here, myself included.”
Winning the league would mean even more to Gerrard than the European Cup triumph of 2005. “The memories of Istanbul will go to the grave with me,” he said. “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about it, but I want more memories. I want to get on another open-top bus and see another million people on the streets of Liverpool, acclaiming the league title. The city will explode if we win the league, and I don’t want it to happen when I’m retired. I’m 28 and realise the years are flying by. In November I’ll have been a first-teamer for 10 years and yet it seems like I only made my debut two or three months ago, I’ve enjoyed it that much. I want from 28 to 35 to be even better, and I feel my best years are ahead of me. I don’t want to retire and have just Istanbul and a couple of FA Cups to remember. It will be a disaster, personally, if I don’t win the league here.”
To do it, Liverpool have to be more positive, he felt. Manchester United and Chelsea had been afforded too much respect. “When we play them,” he said, “we’ve got to get the right balance between being organised and strong defensively, yet having the bottle to go and win. Going into these games negatively and too defensively, you can still lose, as we have done.
“Against Chelsea in the cups, we’ve ‘done’ them more than they’ve ‘done’ us, but in the league we have to be a bit more attack-minded to win. Over the last couple of years we’ve gone into games against United and Chelsea very organised tactically - defensive if you like - and still lost 1-0. Have the same sound defence and show more bollocks going forward, and it could be 1-0 to us. In these matches the first goal is massive; if you concede it, nine times out of 10 you don’t get back. It’s important a few risks are taken to try to score that goal against these teams because it gives you such a psychological boost.”
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