Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The tactic that dare not speak its name

The mischievous little shaver in me still obsessed with lighting a match in front of action-trigger-squeezed aerosol cans was left just a tad disappointed by the news yesterday that Steven Gerrard will not face disciplinary action for his double-elbow smash attack on Portsmouth's resident Roger Daltrey look-alike, Michael Brown. A post-match review that resulted in, say, a three-match ban would've set up something I'd be interested in seeing: Liverpool at United on Sunday without their captain.

Anonymous United sources have expressed the club's collective unhappiness with the fact Gerrard didn't get banned for his elbow attack while something similar had earlier landed Rio Ferdinand a four-match ban. (Gerrard probably does deserve it, but that's besides the point.) Well, who would've thunk it? Me and Fergie – uh, anonymous sources – in agreement on something. My twisted curiosity also wants to see Gerrard on the sidelines come Sunday. I'm not sure United's anonymous sources have seen Gerrard play much recently. Must be preoccupied with the ponies. Sitting Gerrard could just be the tactical masterstroke Liverpool needs to make it four in a row against United.

Allow me to explain: Steven Gerrard, at present, is back in his "man without a home" form for Liverpool. You might remember this Gerrard from such appearances as Liverpool's right winger. He wants to be in the center of the 3 in Rafa's 4-2-3-1, with Xabi Alonso behind him doing all the possession winning and connecting-defense-to-attack stuff. That Gerrard was a very thrilling, destructive Gerrard. That Gerrard also is really sad about his form signing with Real Madrid last summer in a £30 million deal.

Lately, Gerrard's position sense is all cocked up because he's either in the 2 of the 4-2-3-1, or he's back in that center 3 spot, but he's dealing with service from Mascherano or Lucas. Mascherano, who on the defensive end makes the Tasmanian Devil look like Droopy Dog, can be found all too often strolling the ball into the opponent's half. He wants to start the attack, and he's being given plenty of space, but he kind of takes on the look of a man from small-town North Dakota emerging from the subway and realizing he's exited in Harlem. It's not Mascherano's fault. Aquilani's on the bench/sick/injured/not picked. Liverpool's midfield, always a picture of calculated play in recent years, now resembles someone scrambling to run away from the grenade they just dropped – only they're not sure where it bounced. Is it under their feet? Did it go left? Don't run left if the grenade went left!

Look, I walk a fine line of Liverpool fandom when it comes to Gerrard. On many matchdays you can spot an expression of this at in the occasional references to the Steven Gerrard Give-A-Shit-O-Meter™. In more honest moments, you can catch me talking about how I don't really trust him. I'm a fan of Gerrard while also regularly being unhappy with Gerrard, if that makes any sense. For one, I can't get over the corner kicks. Why someone else doesn't stroll up to Stevie and say, "Let me try, just this once. If I beat the first man, maybe I can try again? If I hit the first man, you can resume your duties." Watching the Portsmouth match Monday, I actually became convinced I could get it past the first man if I was allowed the opportunity – and I've never played a competitive match while my age was in double digits. It's beyond aggravating. It smacks of undeserved deference. I can't believe nobody else takes them for Liverpool. Lucas would be better at corners. I guess Mascherano stays back out of concern for a quickly sprung counter, but if that's not an issue, he should give it a shot. Just let anybody else do it for one match and see what happens.

But why stop at just the corners for the match against United? What if they just let somebody else play for him? Aquilani apparently has another virus/knack/disease/adjustment problem and won't play against Lille on Thursday. I hope like hell Aquilani will be available against United. It would present options. It would present a change of pace. It would set up Liverpool to work the ball smoothly from defense to attack – and Rafa could play a few guys in that center 3 behind Torres, not just Gerrard. The Talisman didn't play in the first match this season, and that one didn't exactly end with misery and dread pounding Liverpool supporters into deep depression. The match at Fratton Park did that.

In the end, Gerrard's going to play come Sunday's kickoff. The unimaginative/sane nook of my brain understands having him in the lineup is part of Liverpool's "best-possible" team these days, but I'm not enthused about the possibilities for a great performance from him. If Liverpool win, it'll be thanks to something Torres did to re-create this event. If Liverpool lose, it'll likely happen because Torres didn't do anything, or Wayne Rooney ate Daniel Agger whole before heading in three Antonio Valencia crosses.

For Gerrard, I'll start my expectations at a corner that clears the first man and work up from there. Heavens to Betsy if he actually scores.


Mark said...

Hey Jim, Mark from the Highbury. I was reading through the posts by yourself and Colin. I found your opinions on Gerrard particularly interesting. I agree that he is having a rather poor season but form is temporary and class is permenant. I can honestly say Steven Gerrard would be my first pick if i could have any central midfielder in the world. Have you forgetten how many times Steven Gerrard has saved Liverpool's blushes and won games single handedly? The guy is a legend. I have seen AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus et al at Parkhead and watching Gerrard was one of the best things I have ever seen. His movement, passing and vision is out of this world.

I agree that Xabi Alonso was pivotal to Liverpool's success and at times didn't get the credit he was due but no player was more important than Gerrard. Aquilani hasn't lived up to his billing and while Lucas is ever improving they have not filled the void left by Xabi. I think the problem at the moment is that Gerrard is not getting the service he needs in the more advanced role he now plays. Moreover, I think carrying the team year on year has taken its toll. I think it is time for change at Liverpool and hopefully Rafa will move on. But they need to hang on to Gerrard. Selling him would be a bigger mistake than selling Xabi. In my opinion Gerrard needs to return to his central midfield role and Liverpool desperately need to sign another top striker so they can play someone up top alongside Torres. Then again football is all about opinions and you may disagree with every word I say. I would be intersted to hear more on this!! Speak to you soon. Cheers Mark

Jim said...

Really appreciate the expansive comment about Gerrard. I agree that as fans, we have Gerrard to thank for many outstanding memories and moments. But it's like even he said publicly the other day, he's not having a good season.

I don't think they should sell him, but he is 30 years old. It's not unreasonable to say that sparking the Istanbul comeback and his brilliant FA Cup final a year later could well prove to be his career highlights. For those remarkable victories, I am grateful. Champions League and FA Cup winner's medals are his rewards for that. Both sides win.

But both sides want more. I don't know what's the matter with Gerrard this season, but it's a disappointing slide for a 30-year-old footballer. He's not going to become a better player next year or the year after. And what happens when he's gone – however it comes to be? Does Liverpool just vanish because he's not playing anymore?

The man is an icon, but he shouldn't be allowed to coast now on legendary moments from 4 and 5 years ago.