Earlier this week Gordon Taylor, the boss of the players’ union the PFA, had a bit of a moan to the BBC about the way players like Steven Gerrard were being overused by their clubs. If Rafa Benitez ever cared what people outside the club said about him, he’d probably have given up caring exactly then.
Rafa rested Gerrard earlier this season – and as a result got criticism from numerous pundits and ex-players about how he should never be resting Gerrard.
Gerrard then got injured – he broke his toe – and Rafa chose to play him in one more game, helped by a painkilling injection, before resting him to allow the injury to heal. The game was against Chelsea, Rafa deciding it was worth the risk for that one game.
Then along came England. And after Gerrard had been out with that injury, they insisted on using him twice in five days for their foundering Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Rafa requested that England go easy with him. His requests were completely ignored, even though England weren’t exactly short of central midfielders.
Since then Gerrard has struggled to find any form, only recently showing signs of the Gerrard that started the season and who is so often credited with winning games for his club.
He’s also had to be used a little more often in the last couple of weeks than Rafa would have liked – because of injuries to other central midfielders. In fact he’s played six games in 18 days, which is the statistic Taylor responded to. “If that was a racehorse you would say that was too much and have the RSPCA onto you,” said Taylor. “At the moment, we’re turning up on crutches for major football tournaments.”
Well two of those six games were in England’s colours. Did it occur to England to perhaps save Gerrard to be used in just one of those two games? Maybe it occurred to them – but they didn’t rest him.
On return to Liverpool’s control again Gerrard then found himself used in the following four games in succession. First of all against Everton, where he started to show the signs of his old form, but where he was taken off with twenty minutes left. Another of Rafa’s decisions blasted by the experts, in hindsight it was perhaps as well he did this. A few days later and Gerrard was in Turkey as Liverpool lost in the Champions League. Already struggling with injuries, Rafa was hardly in a position to leave his captain out. And as has been so heavily documented, Rafa does not like to use players too much.
Then the next game for the Reds was against Arsenal. Televised live, it was played on the Sunday and the boss’s plans meant he wanted to use three central midfielders. Momo Sissoko had by now fallen ill and was unavailable, so Gerrard was used with Mascherano and also Xabi Alonso. Alonso didn’t see the game out, suffering a recurrence of the metatarsal injury he’d just come back from. Mascherano had to struggle on to the end despite suffering from what was feared to be a serious foot injury.
On Wednesday it was the Carling Cup, and with Momo still ill, Mascherano kept on the bench as a precaution (his injury had turned out to be heavy bruising rather than a break) and Xabi out for some time to come, Rafa had little option but to use Gerrard.
Rafa is criticised for leaving him out to avoid burn-out, criticised when forced to play him due to injuries.
Taylor also said: “Some players can clock up 50, 60 games a season and it’s obviously going to take a toll. What’s disappointed me for a long time is that while our club football is ruling the roost, international football is taking a backward step.”
The sad part in these comments is that Taylor, and those in charge of the game at the FA and other governing bodies, seem unable to see why there is conflict between clubs and countries. Former Red striker Michael Owen missed most of last season after suffering an injury whilst on duty for England. Newcastle struggled to get any kind of compensation for the loss of their player.
Rafa Benitez and other club managers can lose their jobs if they don’t succeed – so why should they risk that for the sake of England’s national team? Some managers are more reasonable than others, but why should Rafa even consider England’s position when they treated Gerrard in such a way when he’d broken his toe?
Rafa responded to Taylor’s comments yesterday: “Gerrard now has his confidence back, when he is in that frame of mind he plays well and Liverpool play well. Beforehand he was injured, he needed to get fit but he still had to join up with the national team. He was the hero of his country because he was playing with injuries, but it is not easy to play a lot of games in a row when you are not 100% fit.
“Everybody was pushing him to do everything well for his country and the team and to play two matches in a row. Sometimes that is not easy in those circumstances. It has had an effect on him ever since. We were missing those surging runs from midfield into the box, now he is doing that. He has the confidence to do it and that has meant the team is playing better.”
Gerrard won the penalty that set Liverpool on their way to beating Everton in the first of the four matches since the last international break, and has scored in each of the next three. Rafa says the on-form Gerrard makes a huge difference to the way the team perform: “Steven is playing well, he is back to fitness and in the last three games he has been much, much better. He has scored in each of those games and we are beginning to benefit from his returning form. He has been the difference in the team. It gives everyone more confidence, they know that if they are in trouble or we have a problem, that Stevie can score maybe the winning goal or produce the crucial tackle.”
Rafa would like to use Gerrard in every game, but of course he won’t if he’s got a full squad available to him: “If Gerrard has confidence then the team will play better. It is important to remember that when he was not playing and Alonso was with Mascherano or Sissoko in midfield, we were not playing well and it was not good enough. So when you have people like Alonso, Mascherano, Agger and Sissoko all fit and all playing well, and Gerrard is also playing well, then we can beat anyone. When they are all playing well and we have Gerrard also at his best, then we know we are a very, very good team and anything is possible.”
Rafa sees today’s clash with Blackburn – a live TV fixture so kicking off at 5.15pm – as being as difficult a game as others they’ve had of late: “Blackburn will be equally as hard a match as our recent games with Everton and Arsenal. Blackburn have confidence, they now play some nice football with good players. They create chances and have really improved; it will be a tough test for us. When you spend two or three years close to the top four, close to the Champions League like they have, then you must give credit to the manager, Mark Hughes, for that achievement.”
If Liverpool can win today they should make up ground on either Arsenal or Manchester United in the table – because those two play each other. But Liverpool have to get their own game right first: “This could be an important weekend in the season, with Arsenal playing Manchester United, but the key for us to keep being consistent. Recently the team was not playing well but the last few games we have been better. The commitment of the players has always been there, but now with us getting better results the confidence also improves. Everybody accepts that Arsenal are playing really, really well and could be title contenders, so for us to almost beat them and fight as well as we did last weekend, we must be pleased.”
Rafa took the positives from the Arsenal game to try and help continue building the confidence of his players: “I said to the players that after that game we must realise that we can beat anyone. We had lots of problems before and during the game with injuries and sickness, but still had the chances to have won the game.”
It’s not the first time Gordon Taylor has used his racehorse analogy. Back in 2002 he said: “You wouldn’t have racehorses turned out as often as footballers do or there would be an outcry.” Perhaps if he’d worked a little harder in those five years he might have got some kind of action plan in place to try and prevent these situations from happening, if he genuinely does feel as strongly on the subject as he implies.