Making Suarez captain could extend his stay at Anfield beyond the World Cup
Would their best player be keen to leave if he were the captain of a club in the Champions League?
Some time in the course of last week’s documentary with Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, ITV’s Gabriel Clarke asked: “What is the first quality a great captain has to have?” Vieira’s answer was obvious and somewhat abstract: “Leadership.” Keane’s was more specific: “Be the best player.”
Keane’s answer came to mind as you watched Steven Gerrard in the Sky studio analysing Liverpool’s 5-0 win at Spurs. Liverpool’s injured captain seemed as amazed as anybody by his team-mates’ performance. Before the game he had spoken about the importance of Luis Suarez, revealing that he’d spent hours last summer trying to persuade the Uruguayan to stay at Anfield. Regarding Liverpool’s title chances, his tone was cautious verging on defeatist: “If you offered us top four now, we’d take that.”
Liverpool’s recent record at White Hart Lane is terrible, and their task yesterday looked intimidating. Just as he had against Manchester United, Andre Villas-Boas put his trust in power: Dembele, Paulinho, Sandro and Chadli on the pitch, Townsend on the bench. Liverpool’s team looked slight by comparison, especially in the absence of Gerrard.
In the event, stand-in captain Suarez took Spurs apart with a magnificent display, but he had plenty of support from Liverpool’s midfield, who ran rings around the Spurs musclemen.
Cesc Fabregas recently suggested that his departure for Barcelona may have been the key to the dramatic improvement of Aaron Ramsey: no longer toiling in Fabregas’ shadow, Ramsey felt psychologically liberated. Fabregas said he’d felt the same sense of “unblocking” when Thierry Henry had left Arsenal.
The Fabregas theory seemed relevant when you saw how Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson seemed to thrive in Gerrard’s absence. Maybe that was why Gerrard’s mood afterwards seemed curiously downbeat. “I hate to say it,” he warned, “but if [Suarez] keeps performing like this, the big guns will be sniffing.”
It seemed an odd way for the Liverpool captain to respond to one of their best results in years. Gerrard’s tone was redolent of Roy Hodgson when he talked about how it would be difficult for Liverpool to stand in the way of a big club like Manchester United if they tried to sign Fernando Torres. Shouldn’t he at least pretend that he considers Liverpool to be one of the “big guns”?
Gerrard is one of those captains who leads by example, like Patrick Vieira. Throughout his Liverpool career he’s fulfilled Keane’s criterion of what the captain should be: he’s always been their best player.
He’s not any more. Gerrard said yesterday that on current form, Suarez is the best player in the world. But you wonder if Gerrard would ever be prepared to do what Sami Hyypia did for him ten years ago, and step aside so that the best player in the team can assume the captaincy?
How much an armband can mean to players was pinpointed recently by Gerard Houllier, who gave Gerrard the Liverpool captaincy in 2003. Houllier said he once asked Gerrard whether winning the Champions League in Istanbul was the best day of his life. Gerrard said no, the best day of his career was when Houllier made him the captain of Liverpool.
The vote of confidence represented by the armband may have been decisive in persuading Gerrard to stay when Chelsea tried to sign him in 2004 and 2005. Would Suarez be so keen to leave if he were the captain of a club in the Champions League? If Liverpool are serious about keeping him beyond the World Cup, promoting Suarez is an idea they should consider.
Andre Villas-Boas’s response after the game had the dignity of a man who believes that for him, the crisis is nearly over. Even in his humiliation, the Spurs manager demonstrated the capacity to learn. After the 6-0 defeat at Manchester City, he had announced via Twitter that “we have to be ashamed of a result like this”. This time, he was careful to take all the responsibility on himself.
Villas-Boas recently suggested that the criticism he had faced was unduly harsh, when compared to that of other struggling managers – such as David Moyes. Indeed, Spurs are currently two points ahead of Moyes’ team. However, the crucial difference between Moyes and Villas-Boas is Moyes was hand-picked by Alex Ferguson, who remains the most influential voice on Manchester United’s board.
Villas-Boas has no powerful ally on the Spurs board. Instead, there is a debate over who is responsible for the fact that the £100m worth of players who were bought to replace Gareth Bale have not yet performed. Has the director of football, Franco Baldini, spent the Bale money on bad players? Or is it Villas-Boas’s fault that he can’t get the best out of them?
It’s tough to see how that tension can ultimately resolve in Villas-Boas’ favour. Once he is gone, there will be nowhere left for the players to hide, and some of them might even start to play.