Friday, 4 January 2013

Rodgers' redeployment helps Gerrard defy age and naysayers

(As written for FourFourTwo)

As tends to be the case when high-profile footballers reach the latter stage of their careers, there seems to have been a manic rush over the last few months to declare Steven Gerrard's career as having reached its conclusion.

No sooner had Brendan Rodgers taken the Anfield reins on June 1st than a host of belittling critics were proclaiming the end of the road for a player apparently incompatible with his new manager's ideas. "He's finished," sniped the premature party line, "he can't play possession football."

Gerrard, of course, is merely the latest member of England's fabled and failed Golden Generation to undergo this public trial, with Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole having been subject to similar chastisements at regular intervals for the past couple of years.

Perhaps their perceived failure on the international stage is what prompts such wilful attempts to consign these players to the footballing scrapheap, a kind of vindication for the 'you were never that good in the first place' attitude that has long superceded a nation's rose-tinted visions of World Cups and European Championships.

Tellingly, though, all four remain prominent members of their respective teams. No, these players may not have been England's answer to Beckenbauer, Cruyff and van Basten, and their combined power for the Three Lions may have been far less potent than the sum of its parts, but they were – and are – exceptional footballers nonetheless.

Their enduring longevity is testament to this quality. It's what allows Lampard, at 34, to continue to put in match-winning performances for Chelsea, and what enables Cole (32) to continue to attract the noveau riche petrodollars of Paris Saint Germain. It is also this level of class that dictates that Steven Gerrard – who turns 33 in May – remains a vital cog in Brendan Rodgers' slowly evolving machine, albeit performing a slightly different function than in seasons past.

There can be no doubt that the Liverpool captain hasn't always excelled this season, although he is far from the only squad member to have underachieved on occasion. As with every player, the process of adapting to various tweaks in shape and style has not always been a smooth one.

What has begun to creep to the surface in recent games, though, along with a simple upturn in Gerrard's form, is evidence that directly contravenes his naysayers, and that suggests that there is plenty of life in this old dog yet.

Those who claimed that there was no place for Gerrard's (in)famously 'Hollywood'-style distribution in a Brendan Rodgers midfield underestimated both the accommodating nature of the manager and the fundamental quality of the player.

The most easy thing for Rodgers to do with his skipper upon arrival – and perhaps the most obvious one – would have been to shunt him into a front three, where his finishing would most flourish, and from where his signature raking diagonal passes would have been less tempting. Gerrard, though, has occupied a central midfield berth, almost without fail, for the entire season so far, something which shows no sign of changing.

The new manager came under much criticism for his stubborn dogmatism throughout the summer's Andy Carroll saga, but in his deployment of Gerrard he appears to have conceded that, on occasion, tiki taka does not have to reign supreme; that the long ball can be the right ball, and that the possibility of a defence-splitting pass often outranks the risk of ceding possession. Gerrard has needed to adapt to Rodgers, of course, but likewise, Rodgers has also been able to adapt to Gerrard.

None of this is to say that Gerrard is indeed incapable of engaging in a short-passing game – for the most part, he does, and does well – but the rapid switching of play that his passing range facilitates is a powerful weapon that does not go unappreciated by his manager.

As the 32-year-old showed against Sunderland with a number of exquisite long balls, there can exist a healthy middle ground between short, sharp ball exchanges and the more penetrative, unanticipated play-switchers. Gerrard is capable of either, but to limit him to the former would be lunacy. In this regard, Rodgers has shown he is no madman.

Just as he had in Liverpool's previous two games at QPR and Stoke, Gerrard topped the passing tables against Sunderland, completing 81 of his 88 passes; only Lucas Leiva (77 completed out of 87) came close, with no other player completing more than 50. He also completed 26 of 31 passes in the attacking third.

Tellingly, Gerrard mixed up his recipients: these weren't all Hollywood balls. He completed 12 passes to his midfield sidekick Lucas, 11 to right-back Andre Wisdom, 10 each to Suarez and left-winger Stewart Downing (mostly cross-field switches), and nine each to left-back Glen Johnson and centre-back Martin Skrtel.

And it worked. Gerrard's midfield energy allowed Luis Suarez to set up Raheem Sterling for the opener, and the captain went on to directly assist both Suarez's goals – first with a lofted swipe into the inside right channel, then with surely the pass of the season so far to wrap things up: a wonderfully shaped 50-yard arrow which perfectly bisected the Sunderland centre-backs.

Judging by Wednesday's performance, and by Rodgers' reluctance to utilise him in attack, it would seem most likely that Gerrard will play out the coming seasons in a deep central role. The most obvious comparison in this regard would be with Paul Scholes, who also relied on utilising his vision and technique from deep when his physical dynamism bade him farewell.

The comparison, though, is not necessarily so straightforward. Gerrard doesn't boast the first touch of Scholes, nor does he appreciate the value of subtlety quite as well, but that is not to say that he cannot play the role of footballing quarterback supremely effectively. Age and injuries may dictate that his leggy energy is increasingly sporadic, but it still exists in the Liverpool talisman more than it ever did Scholes, and his tackles, while legal, retain their bite.

Lest we forget, Gerrard witnessed a similar evolution first-hand over a decade ago, as the 35-year-old Gary McAllister cashed in his chips as a rangy box-to-box strider in favour of a smarter, economical deep-lying ball-player in Gerard Houllier's Reds side. Gerrard certainly won't have forgotten – the Scot's cultured passing brought Liverpool a treble.

But looking away from the past and into the future, with Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen, the club now have a trio of players who can perform the holding role in three very different but equally useful ways, while between Jonjo Shelvey and Suso, there is little shortage of promise at the midfield's apex.
Gerrard has recently played his 600th game for Liverpool – a phenomenal feat – and he, like any player, will certainly need to be managed carefully in his latter years. But, as with his peers, the obituary writers need not pick up their pens just yet.

Could Liverpool And Sturridge Be Perfect Fit?

(As written for Football365)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Liverpool's apparent acquisition of Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea - the transfer is, by all accounts, a done deal - has been the rather lukewarm response from many supporters of the Merseyside club.

Not that Liverpool fans are unique in their ambivalence towards Sturridge, but they provide yet another example of the response the striker has been inspiring throughout his young career.

Sturridge's signature, lest it be forgotten, represents the procuring of a young, exciting forward who has already played for two of the last three Premier League champions. Of a goalscorer, comfortable anywhere across the forward line, who is unlikely to suffer from the self-doubt that has too often blunted Liverpool's attacks in recent seasons. And all for a very reasonable £12million.

At least, that's one way of seeing it.

Others would say that merely 'exciting' is no longer enough at the age of 23. That an absence of progress has already seen Sturridge discarded by two of Liverpool's would-be competitors. They see a striker who doesn't score enough, a winger who doesn't work enough, and point to a troubling disparity between his touchline-jigging degree of narcissism and his tangible output on the pitch. And all for an exorbitant £12million.

Unfortunately for Sturridge himself, the majority of judgements - including, presumably, those wielding power at Stamford Bridge - seem to sway towards the latter.

The point here isn't that his reputation as an underperforming egotist is undeserved, but more that a footballer of his undoubted ability should not be finding Premier League success so elusive - after all, an overgrown ego has never stood in the way of many, if not most, of the game's finest players.

Not that Sturridge is some sort of Ronaldo-in-waiting - he clearly isn't - but it would be difficult not to see his career so far as something of an underachievement given the raw materials at his disposal.
The ex-Manchester City man has explosive pace, blindingly quick feet, and a natural eye for goal. And yet, despite boasting such an armoury, he seems wilfully unable to grasp the game's basics. Often, a straightforward cut-back been declined in favour of an absurd attempt at goal, or a head-down dribble been granted wrongful priority over some shrewder, simpler link-up play.

And, from such behaviour, an unenviable reputation has been carved. He plays for himself, goes the accusation, and compromises his team's efforts in the process.

Amidst the complaints of selfishness and arrogance, though, could it in fact be that he was actually trying too hard to prove himself during his sporadic outings for Chelsea? While the incessant stepovers and constant hammering of the ball goalwards was instinctively construed as self-indulgence, perhaps it was the case that the perennial benchwarmer and England hopeful was simply desperate to mark his rare appearances with a goal, an eye-catching piece of skill, or anything that might dismantle the apparently set-in-stone status quo that is Chelsea's first-choice striker.


Ultimately, and for whatever reason, there's little doubt that Sturridge's on-field decision-making has thus far undermined his raw ability, depriving him, for the time being, of the chance to display his talents at the top level.

The fact that his best and most consistent form so far in his career came not at either of his parent clubs, but during his loan spell at Owen Coyle's Bolton Wanderers, would certainly seem to align with the oft-touted theory that the vainglorious Sturridge thrives as the proverbial big fish. Two years ago, Sturridge swaggered into the relegation-threatened club, mid-season, and helped keep them afloat with eight goals in 12 games. Back in London, though, in the far larger pond of Stamford Bridge, he has impressed rather less regularly.

(Sturridge himself would doubtless claim his form at Bolton corresponded with his position, Coyle being the only manager to consistently grant him a central striker's role - a case he is very much entitled to.)

Liverpool, in its current incarnation, would seem to provide something of a middle ground between the two. Anfield is hardly the pressure-free playground that the Reebok Stadium proved to be, but the division's 12th-placed club will provide far more leeway than Chelsea's elite-level pursuits in terms of patience and margin for error - both of these so important in a young footballer's development, yet so far denied to Sturridge.

Given Luis Suarez's dazzling form this season, the role as the side's spearhead forward will not be there for the taking. But nor will it be as perpetually unreachable as before, with an already versatile attack likely to have the luxury of rotation after the arrival of January's reinforcements.
Most crucially, though, the club need him. Desperately short of goals, creative flair, and, more basely, attackers in general, Sturridge will be a far more central figure with his new employers than has been the case before, Bolton aside.

And so, on paper, the move has many hallmarks of a fruitful one, despite the muted reaction from Merseyside. Offering some healthy room to breathe, greater security of a starting berth, and a club in need of goal-getting forwards, Liverpool would seem a fertile ground for Sturridge to blossom. Similarly, there's no doubt that the player will improve Brendan Rodgers' current squad, and with time on his side, the presumption should be that Rodgers will improve Sturridge, too.

But his critics are certainly right about one thing: at 23, time won't be on Daniel Sturridge's side for a great deal longer. If he doesn't start to impress soon, the excuses - so far just about legitimate - will fall on deaf ears. Time to show your worth, Danny.

Why Oriol Romeu could be Benitez's unlikely best friend at Chelsea

(As written for

Now that the initial uproar over Rafael Benitez's appointment as Chelsea manager has subsided, much is beginning to be made of the adjustments which the Spaniard has started to implement upon his new side.

Though such discussions have mainly centred around Benitez's tasks of plugging Chelsea's porous defence and reforming the club's morose No.9, one major alteration already employed by the manager has been largely overlooked: the reintroduction to the side of Oriol Romeu.

Despite his prominence in first-team affairs under Andre Villas-Boas, Romeu was conspicuous by his absence during Roberto Di Matteo’s time at the helm. This season, before Di Matteo’s dismissal, the 21-year-old had started only two of Chelsea's 18 league and Champions League fixtures, completing neither. Last campaign, following the promotion of the Italian, told a similar story: two starts in all competitions.

Since Chelsea's latest manager took over, though, the midfielder has already figured in three of the team's four fixtures, coming on for John Obi Mikel against Manchester City, before replacing the Nigerian outright for the meetings with Fulham and Nordsjaelland - the latter a bona fide must-win, whoever the opponent.

Compared to 360 minutes in 40 competitive games under Di Matteo (not including League Cup fixtures), Romeu has already enjoyed 191 first-team minutes in four matches under Benitez.

Given that the centre of midfield is a vital area of any team – and not least in a Benitez one – the interruption to the recent Mikel-Ramires status quo represents a serious move on the new manager's part. Having not yet shared a pitch with Mikel under his new boss, Romeu seems to have displaced the Nigerian at the forefront of Benitez's plans.

Of course, Frank Lampard is soon due to return from his recent lay-off, but, even if the increasingly fragile 34-year-old was not expected to depart Stamford Bridge at the season’s end, the long-term future of Chelsea’s midfield would not lie with its senior citizen.

Despite signing a new long-term deal with Chelsea only this week, it would seem as though Mikel's ponderousness on the ball has consigned him to a second-choice berth for the time being, while Romeu's speed of foot and mind renders him a better-suited partner for the tireless Ramires in the side’s engine room – a partnership that will only be consolidated following the news of Mikel’s impending three-game ban.

Though he lacks the sheer height of the Nigerian – something that could explain his sole exclusion so far, when his side met Sam Allardyce's West Ham – Romeu boasts a far greater comfort on the ball, and, with his broad six-foot frame, is certainly no pushover himself.

With the Blues' new-look line-up now seeing Romeu and Ramires occupying the centre of the park, the obvious comparison to be made is with the partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in Benitez's Liverpool side.

The delegation of 'destroyer' and 'distributor' duties within the Ramires-Romeu pairing is less black and white than with Alonso and Mascherano – Ramires is certainly no slouch in possession, while Romeu offers a muscular, competitive midfield presence – but the early signs point toward the Spaniard being handed the primary task of acting as his side's deep-lying passer, with the Brazilian’s Mascherano-esque mobility vindicating his likely employment as a defensive shield.

As one half of the 'double-pivot' in Benitez’s customary 4-2-3-1 set-up, Romeu's task is a simple but highly specialised one: to receive and dispense possession with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency.

Alonso, of course, was and remains a modern-day master of the position, rarely taking more than two or three touches to control the ball, asses his options, and release, setting in motion many a swift attack with his understated promptings from deep.

Though it would be foolish to expect Romeu to hit such heights, he will be called on to provide a similar function. More than any other player, the manager will look to his compatriot to provide the brains of his side.

Given Romeu's footballing upbringing, it something that he should be well-suited to. He was schooled at Barcelona's famous La Masia academy, an institution that constantly teaches its players to think, think, think; pass, pass, pass, and which has produced a glittering string of ball-playing midfielders that range from today's fleet-footed gems, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, to the apparent apple of Roman Abramovich’s eye, Pep Guardiola himself.

Romeu, in the summer of 2011, was deemed surplus to requirements at Camp Nou (they are somewhat well-stocked in central midfield), but was rated highly enough by the Catalan professors of possession for them to insist on a buy-back clause in the deal that took him to Chelsea.

Make no doubt about it, the boy has talent. What he has not had is a prolonged run in the Chelsea side – at least, not in a Chelsea side playing with anything approaching a healthy balance. But if there is one thing that his new boss is likely to instil, it is balance, and if Benitez’s early selections are indeed a sign of things to come, Romeu is unlikely to be given a finer opportunity to flourish in English football.
And so, back to what is inescapably one of Benitez's foremost duties: resurrecting Fernando Torres. A telling statistic from the striker's time at Liverpool is that 69% of his goals for the club resulted from passes that had pierced the opposition's defence. Many of these were made by a rampant Steven Gerrard, but plenty also came from the boots and brain of Alonso.

Torres’s inspired form on Merseyside under Benitez was as much the result of his team’s tactics as anything else, and the quintessential cog in that set-up was its midfield passer – as demonstrated by the team’s swift demise once Alonso had departed for Madrid, a year after his attempted sale to Juventus.

Romeu is no Alonso – few footballers are – but he could well hold as much influence as any Chelsea player upon whether the side adapt successfully to their new manager's methods, or perish alongside him. Having found himself dusting off his No.6 shirt since Benitez's arrival, the midfielder is likely to be one of the few faces at Stamford Bridge actually smiling at the new appointment.

Saturday's trip up north to face a dismal Sunderland side should, in theory, provide the perfect opportunity for all three Spaniards to begin to prove their worth at Chelsea: Romeu and Torres on the pitch, Benitez off of it. All have the pedigree, but all have so far failed in winning over the Stamford Bridge faithful.

One thing is certain: Benitez and Romeu are well-suited for one another. Benitez is not one to embark on a beautiful friendship with any of his players (just ask Alonso) but if either he or Romeu are to survive in their current jobs beyond the next few months, their recent introduction may need to be the beginning of a bountiful one.

Chelsea Fans Forfeit Right To Complain

(As written for Football365)

When, on Wednesday morning, the Chelsea manager appointed on something of a circumstantial whim only five months previously was handed his P45 (along with a significant compensatory cheque), there followed something of an uproar amongst the club's fanbase. The injustice and the classlessness of the decision left a bitter taste in many a Blues supporter's mouth.

Such a reaction was not especially unjustified: Roberto Di Matteo had held the status of crowd favourite at Stamford Bridge even before he took Chelsea to Munich via Barcelona in May, and few can argue that his dismissal, based on nothing more than a poor spell of form, represents wildly reactionary behaviour from their club's chairman. Such behaviour, though, has long been the norm from Roman Abramovich, and, crucially, is not something to which Chelsea supporters have any real right to object.

The Russian's somewhat hands-on interpretation of his role at the club became ominously apparent in the summer of 2006, when he deemed the 29-year-old Andriy Shevchenko worthy of a £30m transfer with little regard for the thoughts of then-manager Jose Mourinho, and has since been concretised by a number of Stamford Bridge sub-plots, most notably the on-going and glaringly familiar one in which Fernando Torres finds himself inhabiting the role of hapless protagonist.

As well as simply interfering with his managers' jobs, Abramovich has also shown a rather graceless knack of dispensing with said employees, as he did once again on this week, with all the calculation and tact of a Lee Cattermole reducer. Di Matteo - it has since emerged - was clearing out his desk at the ungodly hour of 5am on Wednesday morning following his side's defeat in Turin.

It did, at least, mark an improvement on the courtesy afforded to Carlo Ancelotti, who was informed of his sacking somewhere in the bowels of Goodison Park in the immediate aftermath of his side's final fixture of the season. His crime: the failure to bring yet more silverware aboard the Abramovich yacht after his domestic double the previous season.

Claudio Ranieri, Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas complete the scrapheap compiled so far by the Russian, now in his tenth season as Chelsea's owner. It is a record and a method to which many Chelsea fans object, with their agitation never more apparent than in the hours following the news of Di Matteo's firing.

But the moral outrage - as well as falling on deaf ears - is undermined by the merriment that duly occurs when Abramovich's tenure leads to trophies, as it so often does. Chelsea fans have little right to complain about the rough side of their owner's approach when they (quite rightfully) enjoy the smooth times with such glee.

After all, as much as the Stamford Bridge faithful have taken trophy-winning bosses Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Di Matteo and Guus Hiddink to their hearts, the overriding common denominator throughout what is now approaching a decade of sustained success at Chelsea has been the Russian's continual heavyweight investment. While a perpetual influx of cold, hard cash is rather less easy to love than one of Jose's snappy put-downs, or a coyly-raised Ancelotti eyebrow, Abramovich's relentless spending has irrefutably been the defining factor in the transformation of a club on the brink of financial oblivion to one that currently have their name etched on the European Cup. The downsides of such success should be tolerated.

This isn't to say that Chelsea's fanbase must consider their club to be blackened by Abramovich's heavy-handed methods, or their glories tainted - there is little room for moral high ground in football - but the fact of the matter is that it is the Russian's input which has directly led to nine major trophies arriving in west London in as many years, each one celebrated with gusto in the Shed End. Propelled by the £75m trio of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, there can be little doubt that the near future holds yet more cup runs, title challenges and European nights that will be savoured along the King's Road.

The non-negotiable cost of such dizzying success, it seems, is a lack of civility and class towards a respected employee every now and then. But few can complain about it being an unfair trade-off.

Can Pardew Toon it around?

(As written for The Football Ramble)

Two months ago, when, on the same September afternoon that John Terry was handed a four-match ban for racial abuse, Newcastle United’s manager and coaching staff were handed a lengthy new contracts, opinions were immediately polarised over the wisdom or otherwise of Mike Ashley’s latest
high-profile decision.

A manager putting ink to a new deal after an exceptional season would normally spark minimal fuss, but in the microclimate of hysteria that is the football world, an eight-year contract, regardless of who you are, is almost unheard of. Was Ashley’s move a shrewd one which finally injected an air of stability into a too-often tumultuous club while maximising the market value of an innovative manager on the rise, or a wildly rash gesture of overcommitment in response to a single satisfactory season?

The debate is an intriguing one, but essentially rests on the perception of Mr Pardew himself - which in turn largely rests on how his side are performing. If Newcastle are flying high, as they were for much of last campaign, then you have continuity, a long-term plan (or at least the appearance of one), and have made it as difficult as possible for your patriarch to fall victim to big-club poaching. If the team’s form is in the doldrums, though, then you are stuck with the clown who has taken you there – and who is unlikely to feel under any pressure to fight for his job, as he’s rather difficult (read: expensive) to sack.
It’s a discussion that has since died down, but, with the Magpies sitting in 14th at this not-quite-insignificant stage of the season, is in serious danger of rearing its head again.

The Tynesiders have now tasted defeat in four consecutive league games – a run that, when it last occurred, precipitated the appointment of Joe Kinnear – and such form is illustrative of their on-pitch problems, if not yet any off-field ones. The Senegalese pair of Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, who initially promised a fine strike partnership, now appear incapable of escaping a pattern of one-in-form, one-painfully-out-of-form – an equation that that has now gone on too long and contains too much talent to be mere bad luck. Their brightest spark, Hatem Ben Arfa, is yet to graduate from a gifted technician to a consistently game-changing playmaker – and at 25, it’s not a title beyond his talents. Whether the problem is a motivational or tactical one, it’s one that needs to be addressed.

Yohan Cabaye, meanwhile, is yet to demonstrate last season’s elegant probing in this campaign (and his once-definite title of the division’s best-looking Frenchman is now under threat from Olivier Giroud), while the likes of Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan now seem destined never to shed their labels of mediocre bit-parters. At the back, Fabricio Coloccini is the lone difference between a very good defence and a very average one.

It is no shame for a side to rely on its best players – name me one that doesn’t – but the dependence on the peak form and fitness of at least three quarters of the Krul-Coloccini-Cabaye-Ba/Cisse spine is not the healthiest state of affairs for a club with genuine top-six ambitions, and recent pedigree.
Last week, Newcastle could only manage a 1-1 draw against Portuguese side Maritimo, despite largely dominating proceedings and their opposition presenting almost zero goalscoring threat. If the sign of a good side is winning when playing well, then surely the sign of a less good one is an inability to turn superiority into a result.

Pardew, having taken his side to a quite incredible fifth-place finish last term, has hit an inevitable rocky spell, and now faces perhaps his biggest challenge so far at St James’s Park. Reversing the fortunes of an underperforming side around, many would argue, is a far greater task than maintaining a team’s good form.

All of this is not to say that Newcastle’s recent dip suddenly renders September’s contract-generosity a terrible decision – just as last season’s excellence did not necessarily deem it a brilliant one. What is certain, though, is that Pardew will be expected to earn his keep, with his almost unprecedented level of job security providing an easy vehicle for accusations of complacency or loss of interest in the wake of disappointing results.

Designed to alleviate pressure on the manager at a club’s whose bosses have too often been subjected to an excess of it, Mike Ashley’s contract ploy could just as easily end up having the opposite effect.
As usual (at most clubs, at least) on-pitch matters will dictate the overriding mood in the stands. This week, Pardew took his side to the Britannia, and they turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat. A question for Mr Ashley: At what point does a blip in form become a worrying loss of it?