Steven Gerrard scored 23 goals last season for Liverpool. Some of them were scored from him playing in central midfield, some were scored from him being played on the right-hand-side of midfield.
Gerrard was a central midfielder when Rafael Benítez arrived at Anfield, and in fact he played there to great effect, with Didi Hamann for much of Rafa’s first season at Anfield. Last season saw Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso take over the central midfield roles for the club and take them over well. Their play complimented each other. As a big bonus, Gerrard on the right was showing just how good a player he can be.
Some don’t like Gerrard playing on the right. Mainly TV pundits and ex-players. They now say it’s one of the main causes of Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season. Alongside rotation of course. A growing number of attempts seem to have been made to imply that Gerrard is not happy playing on the right. Andy Gray of Sky seems to be the main culprit for this story, every time I’ve heard him talk about Gerrard he says how he knows Gerrard won’t be happy being out on the right. Then the rumours start. I’m not talking about those rumours of complete fantasy involving Gerrard in his personal life that I’ve seen so many of this week, I’m talking about rumours saying he’s so unhappy with his current position that he’s about to ask for a transfer.
These rumours perhaps have a slight grounding in fact. For starters Gerrard had Liverpool fans up in arms for two summers over possible moves to Chelsea, and no matter how hard he tries he’ll never be able to remove the tarnish his reputation got during that time. Liverpool fans will put it to one side from time to time, but when these rumours surface a lot of Reds are very quick to believe them. Too quick. As well as what went on in the two summers of discontent, the other fact is that Gerrard does prefer to play in the centre. He prefers it – but he doesn’t insist on it. That’s where the pundits are getting it wrong.
Gerrard had to come out of the shadows and explain his point of view yesterday. He made it clear that he’s not as bothered about where he plays as some would try and have us believe. He said: “The position is not the issue. When you are a young player breaking through you want to play in your favourite position, you are desperate to get into the team. But I am 26 now, I have to think of the team first. If the manager needs me to do a job on the right or the left I have got to accept it.”
So he’s honest – he’d rather play in the centre, but accepts he’s needed to play on the right and will continue to do so. He had no need to make this statement, at a promotional event for Persil, if he was as unhappy as some make out. He says he and Rafa are both happy with how each other feels about this issue: “He knows where I would like to play but I also understand that there is a job to be done for the team and I need to do what the manager wants me to do.”
Stevie also referred to some of what Rafa had been saying earlier in the week: “I have heard he has said the order of priority is "team, club, supporters, players," and I agree with that. It is not about individual players, it is about the team. Last season we finished third in the league and we got 82 points, a club record and we won the FA Cup. And 75% of the time I played on the right.”
Gerrard got a lot of stick for his performance on Sunday. Like the rest of the team, Gerrard just did not perform. In his case he had a pretty good excuse. His six month old daughter Lexie had been in a meningitis scare after coming down with a very high temperature and a rash. It turned out to be an allergic reaction and Gerrard confirmed she’s now recovering well. It’s not just on Sunday where Gerrard has failed to reach the high standards he sets for himself, although he’s not been as bad as some will try and have you believe. He accepts the fact that he’s going to be criticised though: “There has always been pressure on me since I have become captain of Liverpool and I can understand the criticism and take it on the chin. I know I am not playing at the standard I want to play at but I feel as if my best form is only around the corner. A little fluky goal or a big performance will turn my form around.”
He’s clearly had some encouraging words from Rafa and others. He says: “I know I am a good player and good players have dips in form. And that is happening at the moment. Certain people expect me to go out every game and be man of the match and score from 30 yards, but it is impossible to do that at the level we are playing at. It's really difficult.” He knows he’s got to keep trying: “I also understand when I am not playing to my own standards, and I can take the stick when it comes my way. I've had a couple of dips in form in my career so far, but this is the first one since Rafael Benitez has taken over. I had a couple of dips in form under Gerard Houllier and I came back a better player and a stronger character for it. Hopefully I will do the same again.”
He says he feels that he’s getting closer to being the old Steven Gerrard again: “I know my best form is just around the corner, I can feel it coming back in training.”
When Rafael Benítez was defending where he plays Gerrard earlier in the week he used England as an example. He said: “I am as happy as Steve McClaren with Steven Gerrard and where he is playing. We are really happy when he plays well. He can play as a central midfielder as well but we have more balance with Sissoko, Alonso and then Stevie on the right. That works for our team. He is not being played as a right winger. Are you seeing him making crosses from the byeline? No. He is always getting the ball and coming inside, that is what the role is. We are looking for the best balance in our team and the best season in Steve’s career came last season when he scored 23 goals, playing on the right side of midfield. England can see that and that is where they are playing him too. Yes, Stevie can play well in central midfield, he could play well anywhere, but we have more balance with Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso there, and with Stevie wider.”
He said he’d discussed the issue with Gerrard: “I have talked to Stevie and he is happy. He is the captain and must be an example for the rest of the players and he knows that the most important thing is the club, the team, the supporters and after that, the players.”
Rafa also pointed out another position he likes to use Gerrard in occasionally: “He can also play as a second striker. He does not play as a winger for me or England. Let’s see the next England game whether he plays in the centre with Frank Lampard. Let’s wait to see how England use him, I believe that will be on the right side.”