Tuesday September 7th, 2010

Twenty years ago, it would have been obvious what Steven Gerrard was. He has boundless energy, a ferocious shot and an extraordinary capacity for bending games to his will.

Think of his goals against Germany in the 2001 World Cup qualifier in Munich, against Olympiakos in the 2005 Champions league quarterfinal and against West Ham United in the 2006 FA Cup final. On each occasion, as the ball dropped to him, there was a magnificent inevitability about the ball flashing from his boot into the net. There was something of the comic book about him, a hero who always did what was needed just when it was needed.

The player he most recalled in style was Bryan Robson -- not the crabby battler Robson became later in his career, but the swashbuckling leader who for much of the 1980s seemed to drag England and Manchester United along single-handedly. If there was a last-ditch challenge needed to be made, he'd be there, and seconds later he'd be clattering through the opposing penalty area to thump a header into the top corner. He seemed to be everywhere, tireless and fearless.

In terms of trophies, Gerrard has actually been more successful than Robson, but he, like Michael Owen before him, has found the evolution of tactics overtaking him. His case is not as severe as that of Owen, who has admitted that he needs another striker alongside him and is finding it difficult to adjust to an era of single-striker formations, but the box-to-box midfielder is in its own way becoming as much of an anachronism as the specialist goal poacher.

The problems are twofold: practical and theoretical. Very simply, box-to-box players are slipping out of fashion for the same reason wingbacks are; because they cover a huge amount of ground, they have to be fitter than everybody else, and with improvements in general fitness and sports nutrition and the increase in the pace of the game, the number of players who can cope with the physical demands of the role is decreasing. Gerrard is one who still can, but there must be a tactical framework to accommodate him.

The liberalization of the offside law has also had a huge impact. Since the interpretation of what constitutes interfering with play was altered in favor of the forward in 2005, it has become harder and harder for teams to play an aggressive offside trap (as a measure of that, the number of offsides per Premier League game fell from 7.9 to 4.9 between the 1998-99 season and 2008-09). That means teams are defending deeper, and that in turn stretches the effective playing area from around 50 yards to about 70 yards, which in turn means that those players whose job is to charge up and down have to cover more ground (in that regard, box-to-box was always something of a misnomer; "defensive-line-to-defensive-line" would have been far more accurate).

Improvements in fitness and the change in the laws have both contributed to tactical changes in the game, but so too has the realization that using two holding midfielders allows a side to include three creators plus a striker in a 4-2-3-1. As the World Cup showed, that setup has replaced 4-4-2 as a near-universal default. In such a system, there is no place for the box-to-box player. Midfield has been split into, broadly speaking, holding and creative roles. Of course, there are variations within that: Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano are about as different as two players could be and yet are both holding midfielders -- which is perhaps why they once formed such a superb partnership for Liverpool.

But where does Gerrard fit? Even in conservative England, the World Cup brought an acceptance that sending out the players in good old 4-4-2 and expecting them to sort it out isn't really enough, and that in turn has led to a slew of debate about Gerrard's "best position." But even that seems an oddly English way of looking at the problem.

"I can't believe that in England they don't teach young players to be multifunctional," Jose Mourinho said during his time at Chelsea. "To them it's just about knowing one position and playing that position."

The temptation, following the paradigm of the late Robson, was always to see Gerrard as a holding midfielder who got forward to score the odd goal, but former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez quickly decided he lacked the tactical discipline for that, and tried to turn him into a goal-scoring midfielder who made the odd tackle.

The decisive game in his thinking was probably Liverpool's Champions League quarterfinal with Juventus in 2005. Liverpool won the first leg at Anfield 2-1 but Gerrard missed the second leg in Turin with a thigh strain. There was much anguish in the media, but Alonso and Igor Biscan were superb in midfield as Liverpool held possession and frustrated Juventus to draw 0-0. It was hard to imagine Gerrard's contributing to such a performance, full of sideways and backward passes designed to draw the sting from the game and keep Juve at arm's length. One of the joys of English soccer is its lack of cynicism, its relentless pursuit of goals, and Gerrard embodies that. This, though, was a night for discretion, and Gerrard's seemingly unbreakable habit of spraying 40-yard passes at every opportunity would have been out of place.

But if Gerrard lacks the tactical discipline to be a holding midfielder, he also lacks the guile to be a playmaker. His game is about power and endeavor, not subtlety. By using Alonso as a holder, Benitez was able to provide enough guile to use Gerrard off a front man in his 4-2-3-1. When Alonso left, though, Liverpool were rendered predictable.

Fabio Capello's solution, during the World Cup qualifiers, was to use Gerrard on the left. He has made clear he prefers to play in the center, and tends to follow the ball, but at first it worked as Wayne Rooney dropped off Emile Heskey and drifted left, creating a neat interplay as Gerrard came inside, opening space on the left for Ashley Cole to overlap from fullback. But when Rooney, perhaps under instruction or perhaps because his role at Manchester United had changed, began playing higher up the pitch during the World Cup, alongside rather than off Heskey, Gerrard's drifts inside simply led to congestion.

Against Bulgaria on Friday, with Capello reverting to a more orthodox 4-4-2, Gerrard was back in the middle alongside Gareth Barry, a natural holder, but that may be because of the absence of the injured Frank Lampard rather than a long-term plan. Four years after the FA Cup final he won almost single-handedly, though, there's the nagging sense that wherever Gerrard plays he'd always be slightly better elsewhere, mainly because he remains a square peg and tactical changes in the game have left only round holes. Gerrard has had a great career, but it might have been even greater if only he'd been born 20 years earlier.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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