There seems to be a tactical assumption that pace is absolutely integral for an attacking player. And in many cases, it is.
Generally, football as a whole has evolved to the point where pace is mandatory in pretty much every position – even in goal, where a sweeper-keeper is deemed necessary to support a high defensive line.
Yet rewind ten years and strikers like Robbie Fowler were the deadliest goalscorers in the league; he wasn’t fast, he wasn’t strong, he wasn’t mobile and he wasn’t tall, but he could score. By the time he was 34, he was warming the bench for North Queensland Fury.
Still, pace is a crucial facet to an ongoing tactical jigzaw puzzle that has gone through a series of trends in years gone by – and Steven Gerrard’s loss of it is relevant to it.
Go back to Euro 2000, one of the most attacking tournaments in modern memory, and the semi-finalists all lined up with wonderfully creative playmakers – enganches, if you will. Dennis Bergkamp for Holland, Zinedine Zidane for France, Rui Costa for Portugal and Francesco Totti for Italy. These players, in the tactical spheres, were known as ‘classic’ no.10s because they generally lacked the mobility and dynamism of the best footballers at that time, but had the tactical and technical excellence to make themselves the most influential players on the pitch.
Circa 2010, and many tactical commentators had announced the death of the classic no. 10. The over-riding comment again was the need for pace, and the go-to-example was to refer to South American playmakers, where brought up in a different football culture, could dictate a game purely through technique and sheer genius. When these playmakers came to Europe, all hot potential i.e. the Maradonas of this world, they all failed to live up to the excessive South American hype that had seen them lofted into the footballing stratosphere as celebrities. The European game was too physical to allow them to shine.
Javier Saviola was a let down, Diego at Juventus was a huge waste of £21.5m while Pablo Aimar and Juan Riquelme were supposed world beaters condemned to Iberia, away from the spotlight of European excellence, having shorter careers than many thought. Messi only managed to break that mould, supposedly, because his footballing education started at the age of 13 at Barcelona, making him a bi-continent hybrid and essentially an anomaly.
Of the old style no.10s existing today, how many are there? Well none really, they’ve all been replaced by more dynamic and mobile, busier players. Tactics expert Jonathan Wilson comments that Riquleme was ‘the last’ of the old no.10s and Luka Modric is the first of ‘the new’. Look at the Premier League now, and Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Juan Mata, all the subject of huge transfer fees, are now the export you want – nimble technicians.
So where does Gerrard fit in all of this? Well, the usual rebuttal to reject playing someone of Gerrard’s ilk that far forward is that they can be dominated by a designated holding midfielder who’s faster and stronger than them.
But how many dynamic, designated holding midfielders are there in the Premier League at the moment? Perhaps the only four, at the top, are Nemanja Matic, Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Alex Song. Is it a surprise that Chelsea, West Ham and Southampton have done so well this season?
Fernandinho and Yaya Toure both like to get forward and neither ‘sit’ in front of their defence in a designated manner. Mikel Arteta is a passing player and Mathiu Flamini is hardly a physical specimen. Michael Carrick and Daley Blind are hardly imposing. Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason…just don’t. Everton have looked significantly worse with Gareth Barry out of form.
The decline of the classic no.10 was accredited to the rise of the Claude Makelele, the holder. But with England clearly lacking this type of imposing defensive midfielder, there’s space for Gerrard to prosper again in between the lines.
Arguably, Gerrard’s best season in a Liverpool shirt was in 2008 – that’s when Zidane proclaimed him to be the best player in the world. That season he had Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano working in tandem behind him, as he played behind Fernando Torres in Rafa Benitez’ best domestic Liverpool season. There’s no reason why Lucas Levia and Jordan Henderson – two physically adept players – cannot sit behind him and feed him to the final third, where he’s at his most dangerous and most influential.
Technical ability, of the highest brand, is indispensable at the top. Gerrard has been gifted with that, and it’s about time he’s allowed to take credit for his team’s attacking brilliance instead of taking blame for their defensive inadequacies.