“DON’T TURN YOUR BACK…” is what I mouthed as Steven Gerrard sprinted towards Samir Nasri after 39 minutes of last night’s Euro 2012 game between England and France. But turn his back he did, and Nasri - looking more like a Birkenstock-wearing lesbian than ever - curled a shot into the bottom corner beyond a sprawling Joe Hart.
You may think it is harsh to start with a negative after a fine rearguard performance, but I’ve used it as it was pretty much the only thing Gerrard did wrong all night. The turning of the back is endemic in footballers from pub to Premier League standard. Nobobdy wants to get smacked in the face, it is a human reaction. So in that sense Gerrard can be forgiven. And for his mature, controlled, captain’s performance he should be exalted.
When I went on the FA Level 2 course last year, I spent hours in the bar every evening discussing the deficiencies of current players with a collection of UEFA Pro License coaches. These men might not be household names or work in the Premier League, but they hold the highest coaching certificate available to an English coach and severely know their onions.
After a day of working on delayed and one-on-one defending, I asked a coach about Steven Gerrard. “Fantastic player,” he replied. “Best technique for 10-20 yard passes in the world and a player you’d always want on your side.” As opening gambits go, it was pretty conclusive, but he wasn’t finished. “But he’s only half the player he could have been,” he said, “Gerrard is the classic case, the poster boy even, for a player who has only been coached on his strengths. All through his development he would have been encouraged to hit chipped or driven passes over the top to Michael Owen and then told to follow up. His left foot is average, he’s hasn’t been schooled to play as a pair in midfield and his decision making has been allowed to continue as instinctive rather than intelligent.”
Nasri is looking more like a Birkenstock-wearing lesbian than ever
I must say I was taken aback. Not because I disagreed, but because it hit several nails so firmly on the head that I could’ve built a fence. This is not a dig at Gerrard, a player who has given me goosebumps more than any since Robbie Fowler, it is merely a statement of fact.
Of course that side of his game has gone. The dynamism is not there and Roy Hodgson could’ve dropped a huge rick by making him the captain. Yet Hodgson, whatever his problems when he managed Liverpool, knows much more about football than you or I and has seen enough of Gerrard to surmise that he can play a disciplined role in an England midfield if he is made to feel special and accompanied by the right players.
No-one can argue that he was proved right.
Where in the past Gerrard would have burst from midfield to try and close everything down, against France he was content to anchor and let Parker, Young and Welbeck go and close and throw their bodies on the line. One misplaced pass aside, his passing was crisp and intelligent and he tackled with discipline.
All of his career he has been most effective when deployed as a 3D version of Roy of the Rovers. "Give me the ball and I’ll score, let him go and I’ll smash him." It is a position that holds a particular place in the hearts of English supporters but also one that is as outdated as the number 10 with a cigar on. And this, more than anything, is why in his own way he was England’s man of the match last night.
Gerrard's left foot is average, he’s hasn’t been schooled to play as a pair in midfield and his decision making has been allowed to continue as instinctive rather than intelligent
When you play a system that is essentially set up to make the team more than the sum of its parts you need the players to buy into it irrespective or reputation or wage. If that can’t happen, as it did with Torres and a few others at Liverpool, the manager’s goose has an apple up its arse. Yet if the Captain buys into it, a man who has won everything at club-level but the league and has decimated teams on force of personality alone, then the other players will surely follow.
90 minutes into a tournament is a silly time to extrapolate, and I’m not about to make grandiose claims. Yet what Roy Hodgson has done with Gerrard augers well for what lies ahead. He’s made him the full-time captain, he’s playing him alongside a midfielder who complements him perfectly, he’s letting him take every free-kick and corner and has essentially massaged his ego with intelligence.
As ever, the real work starts here. Gerrard had no choice but to play with this discipline in the face of technically superior opponents. England will be expected to tear into Sweden from the off and the layman will expect Gerrard to be in the faces of opponents, winning tackles high up the pitch and screaming in shots from 30 yards. With a fair wind and a good shape behind him he can, in fits and starts, still do that, but I’ll be far more impressed if he continues where he left off against France. Next season will be huge for Gerrard at Liverpool, as Brendan Rodgers will ask questions of him tactically with an eye on making him the deep-lying fulcrum of the team for the next three to five years. If he can lead England out of the group and restore a bit of national pride along the way, there is no reason why he can’t remain England captain until the next World Cup and change his role for Liverpool. At 31, it seems that Steven Gerrad will finally get the individual coaching he deserves for club and country. Even if he'll probably still turn his back occasionally, only the hardest of hearts would deny him that.
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