The new season hasn’t even begun and already there are growing concerns on Merseyside as to whether Liverpool’s iconic captain, Steven Gerrard, will be completely free of all injuries and fit in time for the big kick-off. Gerrard missed the back-end of last season with a troublesome groin injury that caused him to undergo a couple of operations. The hope was, by sacrificing the remaining months he would be fit to start Liverpool’s new campaign. Fresh news came this week however when it was announced that Gerrard would be remaining on Merseyside to continue his rehabilitation, whilst the rest of the squad travel to Asia for a pre-season tour and training. Manager Kenny Dalglish admitting his skipper could be in a race to make Liverpool’s season opener: ‘I’m sure there will be supporters disappointed’ before adding: ‘but I’m sure the same people will appreciate the importance of Steven giving himself the best possible opportunity of being fit to play against Sunderland on the opening day of the new campaign. Steven continuing his rehabilitation programme at Melwood is in everybody’s long term interests.’
However, unlike a few years ago Steven Gerrard’s injury spells shouldn’t be the cause of great panic it once was for Liverpool, and a question arises that few people have been willing to mutter, but even fewer are willing to say out loud: Are Liverpool a better team without Steven Gerrard?
There. I’ve said it out loud. It sounds ridiculous I know. After making his debut in 1998 Gerrard has been the club’s saint and saviour for nearly a decade. Captain Fantastic. Liverpool’s real-life ‘Roy of the Rovers’. Legend. His ‘Herculean-like’ feats have rescued the Red’s many times, as well as bringing them glory. However, the above question persists. Coming from Liverpool, asking that question is tantamount to heresy. Coming from Huyton, as is Gerrard, is almost treacherous.
Am I suggesting that Liverpool are better off without him? Not for a second. Let me explain.
Over the years, certain parts of the media have loved nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon in branding Liverpool a one-man (or two, during Torres’ time at the club) team, especially when Gerrard wasn’t available. This media, and many so-called ‘expert-pundits’, loved to try and whip up hysteria every time the two words ‘Gerrard’ and ‘groin’ were mentioned in the same sentence. ‘Liverpool have no chance without their talisman‘, they sneered, or ‘How will they cope?’ they droned. However, on many occasions, they did.
It has been something of a funny paradox but Gerrard’s absence in the team actually seemed to make certain other players perform. This has been particularly evident in midfield and was noticed as far back as 2004 with players like Igor Biscan. The much maligned Croat suffered terrible form more often than not during his time at Anfield, however in Gerrard’s absence Biscan visibly grew in confidence. In fact, a closer look at a few periods of time spent without their captain, Liverpool’s points average actually increased. Fast-forward to last season and again, it was most noticeable that the likes of Lucas, Raul Meireles and even Jay Spearing performed better without Gerrard by their side. Indeed, Liverpool’s form was of a league-winning calibre throughout the second-half of the season. There could be three major explanations for this.
Firstly, Gerrard is a living legend at Liverpool, but at times, his play does have a touch of ‘i’ll do it all myself!’ about it, whilst he always demands the ball – and has been known to take it off team-mates if he doesn’t get it. If you are that good, which Gerrard clearly is, then ‘what’s wrong with that’ you may ask? The problem lies in the negative effects it can have on the others around him, playing in a similar position. It hinders their opportunity to express themselves and knocks their (already fragile) confidence. Without Gerrard in the side, they are free to do this. Secondly, the team may psychologically turn the negative impact of losing their star-man into a positive – inspiring those to fight harder for the cause.
Finally, and much more relevant for today’s team, the explanation is simply Kenny Dalglish. Gerrard maybe a Liverpool legend but Dalglish is the legend. His team-bonding and man-management skills are second-to-none and the current squad were able to benefit from this instantly. Working alongside the coaching expertise of Steve Clarke they were able to instil confidence and inspire the players to perform regardless of who was available. If they can continue this progress alongside Gerrard’s return, Liverpool will be a force to be reckoned with.
Of course Liverpool are a stronger team with a fully-fit Steven Gerrard leading them – any team would be. However, they are far from a one-man team – but you already knew that.