Steven Gerrard and the ‘Top, Top’ Chop

Ken Early on how a line from Alex Ferguson got the world wondering just how good the Liverpool and England midfielder really is

Last October (2013), 500 journalists attended the Institute of Directors on London's Pall Mall to witness history in the making: the launch of Alex Ferguson's second autobiography. The crowd, the imperial setting, and the sense of anticipation spoke of Ferguson's incomparable status in English football. Now retired, no longer constrained by the responsibilities of power, the legendary former manager of Manchester United could speak freely. What would he say?

It turned out Ferguson hadn’t spoken as freely as everyone had hoped, since he hasn’t really retired. As a director at Manchester United, he’s the power behind David Moyes’s throne, and the book had been vetted by the club prior to publication. It therefore elided certain mysteries, such as why Ferguson chose Moyes as his successor, rather than José Mourinho, with whom he had always appeared to be so friendly.

Media interest soon focused on the unpleasant things Ferguson had to say about some of the players who had helped him win all those trophies. Roy Keane was portrayed as a kind of lunatic, Ruud van Nistelrooy as selfish and petulant, David Beckham as a silly boy who wasted his career.

But his most withering assessment came almost as an aside, as Ferguson suggested it was unfair that Michael Carrick hadn't played more games for England: "Michael's handicap was, I feel, that he lacked the bravado of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard … I was one of the few who felt Gerrard was not a top, top player."

"Not a top, top player" might not sound like the most scathing verdict – it allows for being merely "top" – but make no mistake: Ferguson was saying that Gerrard was really nothing special, and coming from someone like Sir Alex, that hurts. Ferguson is above showing his workings; he leaves it to readers to work out why he doesn't rate Gerrard among the elite. The clue is in that word bravado, with its connotation of pretence, of something feigned.

Not everyone shares Ferguson's view. Gerrard's former Liverpool teammate Craig Bellamy wrote in his autobiography: "What makes him so good? Well, there is nothing he can't do. He is clever. He sees the game quicker than anyone else. He sees the picture. He can play the ball first time round corners that aren't even there. He has got intelligence. He has got physical attributes. He can bomb past people. He is quick. He is a proper, powerful athlete. Give him a header, he will score. He can play in behind the front man. He can get the ball off the back four and control the game from the quarterback position. He is just an immense all-round footballer. I have never seen anyone put it all together like him, never seen someone with so many qualities. I have played with a lot of talented players, but he was better than any of them."

Bellamy has hit on what makes Gerrard special: it’s the range of his abilities, rather than the degree. There are stronger, quicker players and more clever, skilful ones, but few combine physical and technical excellence like Gerrard. It might have been easier if he’d had a more conventional blend of qualities; he might not have had to spend so long figuring out what kind of player he was meant to be.

‘The prisoner of the hopes of everybody around him’

Michael Owen was one of the best teenagers in the history of English football. On the Liverpool youth team, his speed destroyed defences. He was famous by the time he was 15. Gerrard is six months younger than Owen but he was 18 months behind in physical development. On another team, Gerrard might have been the main player. On that Liverpool youth team, Owen was the boss and Gerrard was there to serve him.

Gerrard eventually established himself in Liverpool's first team in 1999–2000, two years after Owen. That was the season Manchester United captain Roy Keane was named PFA Player of the Year. At the time, the only other midfielder on Keane's level was Arsenal's captain, Patrick Vieira. Between them, Keane and Vieira set the benchmark for central midfield play in the Premier League, a standard that endures to this day.

Gerrard's respect for these men is evident in his autobiography, which was published seven years ago, in the aftermath of what was supposed to have been England's victorious 2006 World Cup campaign. He writes that at age 20, he was thrilled by a rare compliment from Ferguson: "Gerrard's physically and technically precocious, a good engine, remarkable energy, reads the game and passes quickly … I'd hate to think Liverpool had a player as good as Roy Keane."

Gerrard’s reaction: “I couldn’t believe my eyes … fuck me. I knew how much Keane meant to the United fans, and to Ferguson. For Ferguson to compare me with his captain was some accolade.”

Keane and Vieira were often called defensive midfielders, but that’s not really what they were. They were generals. They directed play from the base of their team’s attack. They kept it simple. They covered the ground. They passed it short.

They didn't do tricks or score a lot of goals. They left that to the stars: Giggs, Beckham, Dwight Yorke, Van Nistelrooy, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès. The job of the generals was to win the battle in the centre, to dominate the opposition, to drive them back, to break their hearts, so the stars could pick them off.

It had been years since Liverpool have had a player like Keane or Vieira. They signed Paul Ince hoping he'd be that man, but by the time they got him, he was in decline. Liverpool's last real general had been Graeme Souness, who left the club in 1984.

When Gerrard came along, Liverpool’s manager and supporters looked at this big, tough all-rounder who could shoot and slide-tackle and run all day and decided he was going to be for them what Keane was for Manchester United, what Vieira was for Arsenal, what Souness had been for them years before. And the manager and supporters of the English national team felt the same way. Before Gerrard had time to discover himself as a footballer, he was the prisoner of the hopes and expectations of everybody around him.

‘He wasn’t Liverpool’s Makélélé; he was their Zidane’

Gerrard was never really a general. Deep down, he's always been a star. In 2009, he scored twice as Liverpool beat Real Madrid 4-0, prompting Zinedine Zidane to comment: "Is he the best in the world? He might not get the attention of Messi and Ronaldo, but yes, I think he just might be. If you don't have a player like Steven Gerrard, who is the engine room, it can affect the whole team. When we were winning league titles and European Cups at Real, I always said Claude Makélélé was our most important player. There is no way myself, Figo, or Raúl would have been able to do what we did without Claude. The same goes for Liverpool and Gerrard."

Zidane’s praise inadvertently betrayed that he actually knew very little about Gerrard. Sure, Gerrard ran more than most players and had a dynamic energy, but he was not the “engine room” in the way that Makélélé was at Real Madrid. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a midfielder less like Gerrard than Makélélé.

Here, for instance, is Gerrard on the subject of tackling: “I was put on this earth to steam into tackles. For most professionals, tackling is a technique. For me, it’s an adrenaline rush … the sight of the other team with the ball makes me sick … I have to claim it back. It’s my ball, and I’m going for it. Tackling is a collision which sorts out the cowards from the brave.”

You can imagine Ferguson nodding significantly at the unmistakable bluster and – yes – bravado. Almost as striking is the naivety. A guy who is supposed to be one of the great midfield players of his generation talking about tackling like an amateur.

Real ball winners – guys like Makélélé – don’t “steam in” to tackles. Makélélé was small. He had to learn how to tackle properly. It had nothing to do with adrenaline; it was all about timing and efficiency: “When you are small,” he said, “you have to tackle at the right moment. He might be tall, he might be strong, but if you tackle at the right moment, you win the ball.” Collisions are preferably avoided; all they do is transform energy into pain. If you can nudge the ball away from the opponent with a poke of the toe, great. If you can nip in front of him and intercept, even better. If you slide in, you take yourself out of the game for a second or two: inefficient.

Makélélé was the guy who gets the ball and gives it to someone with more ability. Gerrard was the guy with more ability. He wasn’t Liverpool’s Makélélé; he was their Zidane.

Gerrard probably didn't spend much time deconstructing what Zidane said: if Zidane liked him, great, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Gerrard appreciates other great players. His trophy room at home is full of famous opponents' shirts. Here is what he says about Patrick Vieira's outplaying him in the 2001 FA Cup final: "Patrick moved to a different, faster rhythm. He took the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated. I wanted his shirt. Badly."

“I wanted his shirt?” That thought might have crossed Roy Keane’s mind at some point, but he would never have admitted it. Keane took such a dim view of shirt swapping that, when he was manager of Sunderland, he barred his players from doing it: “I had senior players coming up, and asking me for my shirt during a game … and I’m thinking, ‘Are you really focused on the game at all?’ You see players now who say, ‘I’ve got 50 jerseys in my garage,’ and I think, ‘yeah, brilliant. But how many medals have you got?’”

If you're talking Premier League medals, Gerrard's trophy room contains none. Manchester United's Class of '92 – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Beckham, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville – have 50 among them. And yet Gerrard was a more complete footballer than any of them.

Some of those Manchester United players were better than Gerrard in some aspects. Scholes was a better possession player, Giggs a better dribbler. None could match Gerrard’s all-around ability, his combination of skill, athleticism, and big-game impact. Scoring goals is the most difficult thing in football. Gerrard has scored 183 for club and country, more than Giggs (181), Scholes (169) or Beckham (146).

He's the only player to score in the final of the FA Cup, League Cup, Uefa Cup, and Champions League. He's collected more individual Player of the Year awards than all of the Class of '92 put together.

League titles are won by teams, not individuals. The United boys didn’t outscore Gerrard on medals 50-0 because they were better players. It was because there were six of them and only one of him.

‘Anxiety has been Gerrard’s constant companion’

When we speak about the legendary generals of English football – the players who go out on the pitch and dominate the other 21 players – can we say they have any traits in common? Many display a flair for cruelty and a casual attitude toward the rules. But if a single characteristic united them, it would be their near delusional levels of self-belief.

That eccentric confidence usually becomes apparent early. When Souness was 17, he went to Spurs manager Bill Nicholson and demanded to know why he wasn’t yet a first-team regular. Souness believed he was already the best midfielder at the club.

Keane's first match in English football was against Liverpool at Anfield. He was two weeks past his 19th birthday, and his direct opponent on the field was the reigning PFA Player of the Year, John Barnes. Keane's teammate Brian Laws described what happened: "After 10 minutes, he'd trampled all over John Barnes, and I was laughing because this kid was going to do my job for me, which was brilliant! He was a man playing in a boy's body. He didn't give two monkeys who he was playing against, and he made it very clear he was not going to let anybody stand in his way."

Gerrard was 18 when he made his league debut for Liverpool as a late substitute against Blackburn. As he writes: “I could see the doubts on the fans’ faces … I could almost hear them say to each other, ‘Who’s this skinny little twat? Who the fuck’s he? I hope he doesn’t come on.’”

His first start came against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Like Keane at Anfield, he was playing on the right of midfield, and he was up against a formidable direct opponent: David Ginola, who would be named PFA Player of the Year that season. "Ginola was on fire," explained Gerrard. "He took the piss out of me. He was so strong. 'Go away, little boy,' Ginola seemed to be saying, 'you are not good enough. Get away. Come back when you can live with someone as brilliant as me.' I stumbled through a nightmare … It was an onslaught. I was a bag of nerves, terrified when the ball came near me. I panicked. I gave a few passes away, and Incey was onto me straight away. 'Get a fucking grip!' he screamed."

Gerrard devotes a couple of pages of his autobiography to the Ginola ordeal, dwelling on his fear, his shame, his impotent rage. He scored his first Liverpool goal a year later, against Sheffield Wednesday at Anfield. It was a fantastic goal: a run from midfield, an exchange of passes, a neat body swerve to deceive the last defender, a hard low shot past the keeper. It was a goal that woke up a lot of people to his potential, and it must have been a big moment in his life. To this happy event, Gerrard devotes a single line.

You could say he is a glass-half-empty kind of guy. In the book, he sheds tears on at least 10 separate occasions. The narrative is strewn with phrases about his mental meltdowns: “My head was gone,” “my head was a mess,” “my head was about to explode,” “my head was battered,” “it was doing my head in.”

It's clear that a lot of the darker stuff in his head is related to his fear of letting people down. It seems to be constantly on his mind. Before Barcelona played in the 1992 Champions League final, Johan Cruyff tried to relax his team: "go out there and enjoy yourselves." When Manchester United were in the final in 1999, Ferguson appealed to his players' ambition: "imagine what it would feel like walking past that trophy and not being able to touch it." When Gerrard rallied his teammates before the 2005 final in Istanbul, his focus was on the need not to disappoint the fans: "Just look at our fans … look how much this means to them. It means the world. Don't fucking well let them down. You don't realise the reaction you will get from these fans if you win. You will be a hero for the rest of your life."

Anxiety has been Gerrard’s constant companion; you see it in his play. He told his teammates in Istanbul, “Make every challenge count, every run count, every shot count. Otherwise you will fucking regret it for the rest of your lives.” It could be the motto of his career. Everything has to count, or he has let everyone down. The 30-yard shots that fly into the net and the 30-yard passes that fly into the stands are expressions of the same impulse. He has no patience. He’s desperate to make something happen every time he gets the ball, and quite often he succeeds. In a sense, this battle with anxiety is what made him the spectacular player he became.

‘His barometer was permanently set to hurricane’

It took Gerrard’s football opposite to divine his true nature. If Gerrard’s conception of the game was dramatic, romantic, and individualistic, Rafael Benítez’s was cool, controlled, and collectivist. Benítez arrived from Valencia to manage Liverpool in 2004, his mind uncluttered by the clichés of English football. He shocked Gerrard by telling him in their first meeting, “Your problem is you run around too much.”

Nobody had spoken to him like that before. Years later, Benítez would take Gerrard off in a derby match against Everton because “he was playing with too much passion” – that is, running around like an idiot.

At first, Benítez tried to persuade Gerrard to play more with the head and less with the heart. By his second season, he had decided it would be better to find a way of working with the player’s nature rather than against it. So he started playing him out on the right. Gerrard considered this a demotion, and every so often he would tell the media that he preferred to play in the middle. Benítez argued that the truth was on the field. The move away from the centre coincided with Gerrard playing the best football of his career.

It was ironic that Benítez took ceaseless criticism for “playing Gerrard out of position.” In truth, he was the first coach to understand that, for Gerrard, “out of position” meant central midfield. He would never be a general, an orchestrator, because those players need a wider emotional range. They have to know when to be aggressive and when to be crafty, when to keep it simple and when to try something outrageous, when to speed it up and when to slow it down. Technically and physically, Gerrard was Liverpool’s best player by far; he could do things with the ball nobody else could. But his barometer was permanently set to hurricane.

Rather than try to fit the hurricane into his defensive system, Benítez turned it loose on opposing defences.

Gerrard was not the brain of the team; that was Xabi Alonso. Benítez freed Gerrard from the responsibilities of dictating the play and covering the defence and let him do what he was good at – creating and scoring goals. Alonso could lead the play; Gerrard could lead by example. For a time, it worked. Liverpool should have won the league in 2009. Gerrard's consolation was to be named Footballer of the Year.

Alonso's departure that summer effectively lobotomised the team. A year later, Benítez followed him out the door. Liverpool got a new manager, Roy Hodgson, an English football traditionalist who returned Gerrard to what English football had always considered his proper position, in central midfield. The team collapsed.

Gerrard exhausted himself fighting the tide of decline. In early 2011 his body gave out – a complicated groin injury resulting in a six-month absence, the longest of his career.

‘The brooding figurehead of an institution haunted by anxiety’

These days, Gerrard takes occasional injections to strengthen the ligaments in his hip. He is the captain of a young team that’s trying to master a patient, precise, possession football that seems at odds with his own impatient style, with its apparent governing ethos of “never hit a short, simple pass when a long, spectacular one will do.”

Playing against West Ham in December, he took a shot at goal and felt a pain in his hamstring: four weeks out. The following week, Liverpool went to Tottenham without him and won 5-0. It was their best performance in years.

Gerrard was there as a guest pundit for Sky Sports. He seemed curiously downbeat, and who could blame him? The game was like a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life – he’d seen what the world might be like if he wasn’t around, and everyone was having the time of their lives.

It would be hard on anyone’s ego, and Gerrard has often been accused of egotism, because that’s how people usually interpret his on-field persona. But if he really did have a giant ego, he would have left Liverpool for a stronger team years ago, instead of staying on and sacrificing his own chances of success to increase theirs.

Bellamy again: “The club asked a lot of him. There were times he had to carry the team … he would be in a good mood one day and then the next his head would be down and he wouldn’t talk much … he is an immense player but because he was streaks ahead of everyone – even someone like Alonso – he put too much onus on himself to do everything. The club relied on him. There were days we knew that if we were going to win, Stevie was going to have to be at his best. He knew that too, and that is a lot of pressure to carry around on your shoulders.”

Leadership came naturally to players like Souness, Keane, and Vieira. At Liverpool, Gerrard had leadership thrust upon him. He’s a worrier, an introvert. It’s not in his nature to boss people around. For most of his career he’s played for a team he knew wasn’t quite good enough to succeed. He’s been the brooding figurehead of an institution haunted by anxiety about its own decline.

Perhaps if, as Ferguson believed, Gerrard sometimes succumbed to bravado, it’s because the person he was trying hardest to convince was himself.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer