Man with a thunderous right foot

From Liverpool’s midfield cult hero to one of the world’s best second-strikers, Steven Gerrard’s transformation has been truly magnificent. By Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Steven Gerrard has never had a season so good — already 13 league goals, plus seven in the Champions League, including two against Real Madrid that caused Zinedine Zidane to say: “Forget Ronaldo and Messi, the best player in the world is Liverpool star Gerrard.”

Okay, a ‘Daily Mail’ headline said that. Zidane merely said: “Is he the best in the world? He might not get the attention of (Lionel) Messi and Ronaldo but yes, I think he just might be.”

Still, that’s some endorsement.

Somewhere amidst all the adulation for Gerrard — he has been compared since to two bonafide English legends, Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards — lurks a sense that a man vital to Gerrard’s flowering as a footballer has been ignored. His name is Rafael Benitez. He is Liverpool’s manager, and his most important contribution was to move Gerrard out of central midfield.

This was a move criticised widely by a lot of English football pundits, who saw in his athleticism, dynamism and thunderous right foot flashes of Liverpool’s Graeme Souness and Manchester United’s Bryan Robson, archetypes of the all-action, box-to-box central midfielder, a creature so revered in English football that it inspired the comic book hero ‘Roy of the Rovers’.

Here’s Robson himself expressing dismay at Benitez playing Gerrard on the right wing in a match against Manchester United in 2006, which Liverpool lost 2-0: “In central midfield, Gerrard is able to get stuck in, express himself and do what he does best — making those surging runs and chipping in with goals. But he can’t do that when he’s wide on the right.”

This despite Gerrard having scored 23 goals in all competitions from the right wing the previous season.

To understand why Rafael Benitez moved Gerrard out of midfield, we must go back to May 25, 2005 in Istanbul, where, at half-time in the Champions League final, AC Milan led Liverpool 3-0.

In the first half, Milan playmaker Kaka had revelled in the space and time Liverpool’s midfield gave him and conjured the Rossoneri’s second and third goals. He chipped a diagonal pass to Andriy Shevchenko for the Ukranian to cross for Hernan Crespo’s first goal, and then set up Crespo’s second with a 40-yard through ball.

Benitez realised that coming back, or even limiting the damage, would require a major tactical reshuffle.

When Liverpool trotted out for the second half, holding midfielder Dietmar Hamann, instructed to suffocate Kaka, took the place of injured right-back Steve Finnan. Gerrard, who had partnered Xabi Alonso in midfield in the first half, now took position just behind striker Milan Baros.

You know what happened next. In six unreal second-half minutes, Liverpool scored thrice. Gerrard headed in the first goal, and, after Vladimir Smicer rifled in the second, earned the penalty that Alonso converted to equalise. After extra-time ended goalless, Liverpool won on penalties to claim its fifth European Cup, lifted joyously by Gerrard as red confetti rained on his team.

This wasn’t the first time Benitez had tried this tactic that season. He had entrusted the centre of midfield to two from Alonso, Hamann and Igor Biscan in Champions League away legs, playing Gerrard further forward. The former Valencia manager, in his very first season in English football, had realised that central midfield wasn’t Gerrard’s best position.

Where the likes of Robson saw Gerrard getting stuck in, Benitez saw the likelihood of a needless free kick being given away — Gerrard isn’t a bad tackler at all, but prone to impetuosity at times. Where Robson saw Gerrard making a surging run, Benitez saw the space left in Gerrard’s wake, space that could be exploited and not just by canny European sides.

With swathes of foreign talent — players and managers — flowing into England, and tactical battles replacing the old-fashioned, high-tempo English game, the box-to-box central midfielder’s days were numbered, even in the domestic game.

Specialised ‘holding’ midfielders were arriving in England from all over the world. The defining traits of this breed of players: a high percentage of successful passes, and — counter-intuitively for an older school of thought — a not particularly high tackles per game ratio. A clear illustration is provided by John Obi Mikel, who has taken over Makelele’s mantle at Chelsea after the Frenchman left for Paris Saint Germain at the end of last season.

This season, the Nigerian has made, on average, 68.96 passes per league game at a staggering success rate of 89.18 per cent, while he has made only 2.15 successful tackles per game, which shows that the best defensive midfielders now win the ball not through crunching tackles, but through interceptions resulting from maintaining the team’s shape. More importantly, it shows that the best defensive strategy is to not give the opponent the ball.

The two holding midfielders in Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 formation are Javier Mascherano and the deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso, whose gifts of vision and technique are harnessed in a puppet-master role, playing passes long and short as he sees fit, but rarely making runs into goal-scoring positions.

In the current Liverpool side, the role played by these two players and the tireless defensive work performed by wide players Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera have combined to almost entirely liberate Gerrard from defensive duty, leaving him to focus on what he does best.

What does Gerrard do best? What makes him special? Consider the following examples.

Exhibit A: From the 2002-03 season at Anfield. Liverpool, needing to win against Charlton Athletic to keep its hopes of a Champions League place alive, is 1-1 with barely a minute of normal time left. Suddenly, on the left flank, Gerrard turns Charlton centre-half John Robertson the wrong way, then squeezes through the gap between Robertson and right-back Luke Young into the box and fires it across the keeper and into the net.

Exhibit B: Anfield again. Liverpool has four minutes left to score a third against Olympiakos to ensure progress into the 2004-05 Champions League second round. Jamie Carragher has the ball on the left and Gerrard is well outside the penalty area but raises his arms to signal Carragher to play it to him. The centre-half crosses into the box instead, where Neil Mellor rises and heads the ball out towards Gerrard, who runs forward, takes the ball and volleys in from 30 yards. If that didn’t happen, Istanbul wouldn’t have happened.

Exhibit C: Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium, 2006 FA Cup final. West Ham leads Liverpool 3-2. Martin Tyler, in commentary, notes, “Four added minutes, and Ger-” as the ball is cleared out of defence towards Gerrard, 40 yards from goal. Suddenly we realise that Tyler has clipped the first syllable of the Liverpool skipper’s name prematurely and is now in the middle of yelling “raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaaaard!!!!” Liverpool wins the final on penalties.

Has anyone in the history of football scored as many late, vital goals as spectacularly as Gerrard? How does he do it? Certainly his physical and technical attributes — pace on and off the ball, strength, stamina and tremendous striking technique — play a big role, but also important are his less tangible qualities like desire, passion, will to win, an ability to lift his team-mates — qualities that English football has prized for long, combined unfortunately with a rigid tactical mindset that stuck anyone with these attributes into central midfield.

Moving Gerrard to a position that affords him far greater opportunity to turn games around was always going to work. On an average, Gerrard has taken 79 shots this season, which is almost twice as many as Xabi Alonso’s 40. With the right foot Gerrard possesses, you’d want him closer to goal — unless you are supporting the other side.

What made the success of this move complete was the arrival at Anfield of a truly world-class striker, the Spaniard Fernando Torres. He struck an understanding with Gerrard almost instantaneously and their combined success since then, in a way, is what has completed Gerrard’s transformation — from Liverpool’s midfield cult hero to one of the world’s best second-strikers.