Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football will lead to a predictable plethora of praise from fans, managers and his colleagues in the England national team. Any number of talking heads will pop up on television screens and radio programmes to pay tribute to Gerrard’s tireless running, spectacular shooting and never-say-die attitude and remind us that the England team will be poorer without him. The fact that little of what they say is true will have little bearing on proceedings.
The truth is that, except for one game against Hungary in 2010, Gerrard never produced his best performances – the quality of which was always exaggerated anyway – in an England shirt. Whichever position he played, one weakness or another undermined the collective’s structure and set England on course for disaster. Specifically, his lack of composure, positional intelligence or tactical discipline made England appear completely anarchic for the best part of his ‘peak’ years.
While Rafa Benítez realised that the best thing to do was to put two intelligent and disciplined midfielders behind him and turn him loose behind a striker, only Fabio Capello dared to try and repeat the trick at international level. Predictably, replacing Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso with Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard led to a significant drop-off in collective performance.
Not that it mattered. Gerrard’s iconic status has guaranteed his inclusion in every England tournament squad since 2004 but his infuriating weaknesses contributed to the failure of each of those sides. Despite what will be said in the media over the coming hours and days, Gerrard’s international retirement is the best thing that could have happened to the England national team now. If anything, it is long overdue.
It is probably clear by now that I am no fan of Gerrard’s. Any diehard Liverpool fans reading have probably made the assumption that I am a Manchester United fan, tribally obliged to blind myself to their hero’s greatness. I am not. The reality is that Gerrard, perhaps more than any other player in English football history, illustrates and represents our collective failure to understand the beautiful game.
The English interpretation of football has arguably been shaped by three people: Charles Reep, who conducted fundamentally flawed research in the late 1940s and early 1950s and apparently proved that long-ball tactics were the most effective; Charles Hughes, who subsequently took Reep’s findings and made them the foundation for all English coaching; and Rupert Murdoch, whose repugnant but influential newspapers and TV stations have set the tone of our public football debate for decades, while simultaneously establishing celebrity culture as a national obsession.
These influences have popularised every boneheaded idea that continues to hold English football back. Our players, fans and managers almost always agree that the faster the game, the better. Consequently, the spectacular Hollywood Ball has historically been preferred to the more incremental short pass. The thirty-yard screamer is always better than the forward pass that, even after completion, does not guarantee a shot on goal. The 100 miles-per-hour, incident-packed spectacle is superior to a rational, strategic encounter in which both sides have detailed plans and try to execute them.
Indeed, the idea that football matches can be seen as games of strategy primarily dependent on acquirable technical and mental skills, which players and teams can continually work to learn about and improve on, has always been considered something of a joke – an indicator of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism more than anything else. Far more popular is the idea that matches are physical battles and that superior strength, fighting spirit and passion for the shirt will triumph.
Though the tide is turning, this has been the defining characteristic of English football for over a century. It has led to both the fans and the media portraying international games, particularly those against imperial rivals at major tournaments, as all-out war.
The myth of the football match as ‘highly charged battle decided by individuals’ instead of ‘logical strategic game decided by collective cohesion’ led to the creation of Roy Race, better known as Roy of the Rovers. This fictional comic-book character’s rags-to-riches story saw him rise to the pinnacle of the English game and his adventures repeatedly climaxed in decisive individual heroics. Just when all appeared to be lost, Race single-handedly won games for his team, Melchester Rovers.
Steven Gerrard was the real-life version of Roy Race; the inevitable result of all of these cultural imperfections. A gifted youngster from English football’s only real hotbed, the predominantly working class North West, he received years of coaching that had little if anything to do with the reality of modern football and grew up believing that individualist miracles, be they long distance strikes, improbable long-range passes or courageous drives through the middle of the pitch, were the solution to any collective hardship.
Like many English footballers of his generation, Gerrard has often given the impression that in his mind he is not playing a ball-game on a large field of green grass but rather charging through a battlefield while the enemy’s artillery guns rain shells down upon him and everyone around him. His frenzied and illogical but unstoppable forward energy always seemed analogous to that of a soldier stepping off the landing craft on D-Day, desperate to barge their way through hell on earth to safety at any cost.
Instead of acting as a hindrance, this defining characteristic was identified as a sign that he really cared and endeared him to coaches and fans. Eventually, it made him a global superstar. His refusal to play at anything other than 100 miles-per-hour, in addition to his ability to score spectacular goals with incredibly clean right-footed strikes of the ball, elevated him to godlike status.
Consequently, he has captained Liverpool since 2003 and has been an automatic starter for England since around the same time – this despite the fact that football has been moving slowly but surely away from this style of play for the majority of his career. I have seen it said that for most of his career he was a brilliant 1980s footballer playing in the wrong era. This seems a fair assessment.
He certainly appeared like the right man in the right place at the wrong time between the years of 2004 and 2008, when Gerrard more than David Beckham was England’s go-to midfielder. His famous energy combined with his infamous lack of composure to create infuriating headless-chicken acts that left huge gaps in the centre of the pitch and handed the initiative to England’s more methodical, intelligent opponents.
He was shifted out to the right and then to the left as Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello continually tried to build a team that had some kind of structure in the middle of the park, but repeatedly found their ideas shot down as sacrilege by an incredulous media in thrall to Gerrard’s heroism and, more importantly, by the fact that wherever he was told to play, he always ended up charging around in the centre anyway.
The greatest unspeakable truth about Gerrard’s career is that his presence in central midfield in big games has more often inspired panic in his teammates rather than trust, even at Liverpool. The burden he felt, the fear of letting his friends and family down, routinely meant that he lost the plot on the field even more than usual and tried to win matches single-handedly. He was everywhere at once in the attacking phase and nowhere when the ball turned over. Rafa Benítez, the manager who best understood him, knew this was a recurring problem and famously substituted him in a Merseyside derby because he would not play like a rational human being.
This is not to suggest that these failings were unique to Gerrard. Thierry Henry was once asked what the biggest strength was of English footballers. “Their passion,” he replied. He was then asked what their biggest weakness was and he answered again “their passion.” It goes without saying that the same applies to Wayne Rooney, for example.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Gerrard never became a fully rounded box-to-box midfielder capable of passing accurately with either foot, of reliably out-thinking top-class opponents or of choosing not to set up the opposition striker for important goals in must-win matches. That said, his later years have seen a vast improvement. While many players decline as they get older and lose the ability to cover every blade of grass, Gerrard has actually got better.
At the age of 31, shorn of the ability to run around like a total idiot for 90 minutes, he suddenly understood that football has become a precise game of positioning, technique and speed of thought. The last two seasons under the management of Brendan Rodgers have seen the Liverpool captain become a good deep-lying playmaker. As long as he has two runners alongside him, he has time to make a decision and use his now reliably accurate long-passing to dictate games.
By retiring from international football, Gerrard will undoubtedly give himself another season or two to do this job at Liverpool. I wish him every success in that role. At the same time, it is high time English football and the national team in particular turned its back on this throwback type of midfielder and focused its energy on finally trusting youngsters more suited to the modern international game.
After all, Gerrard’s 114-game international career came at the expense of Paul Scholes’, Michael Carrick’s, Leon Britton’s, Jack Cork’s, Josh McEachran’s and so on. There are many more like them who fell through the cracks. As previously stated, it does appear that the tide is turning. There are modern midfielders coming through and it finally seems like they might get the game-time they need to develop.
Steven Gerrard is finally gone. With his departure, the curtain falls on the Roy of the Rovers era. It is time to move English football forward. As the man himself said, this must not fucking slip.
Steven Gerrard’s major tournament career
Euro 2000 – Group stage exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Romania in a state of panic. Gerrard made a substitute appearance in England’s backs-to-the-wall victory over Germany but did not feature in any other games.
World Cup 2002 – Quarter final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Brazil in a state of panic. Gerrard missed the tournament through injury but played one of his best-ever games in England’s 5-1 victory away to Germany in qualifying.
Euro 2004 – Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Portugal in a state of panic. Gerrard made a crucial mistake leading to France’s winner in the first group game and continually looked ill at ease in a ridiculously open midfield alongside Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
World Cup 2006 – Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Portugal in a state of panic. Gerrard scored goals vs Sweden and Trinidad & Tobago but his partnership with Lampard went beyond any description of ‘bad’. Gerrard missed penalty vs Portugal in shootout defeat.
Euro 2008 – Failed to qualify – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Croatia in a state of panic. Gerrard began qualifying as a right-sided midfielder but, once again, the midfield had no coherence and was repeatedly outplayed by more intelligent opponents. Gerrard finished the campaign with one of the very worst international displays of his career in England’s 3-2 defeat vs Croatia.
World Cup 2010 – Round of 16 exit – Capello’s England attempted to play with a more modern high-line style but still showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up playing straight into the hands of a reinvigorated Germany’s counterattacking strategy. Gerrard had performed splendidly in qualifying, having been given a relatively free role on the left-flank – he and Rooney benefited from the use of Gareth Barry and Emile Heskey as disciplined and reliable pivots. Gerrard scored in the tournament opener vs the United States but the rest of his tournament was inconsistent at best. His positional sense was once again criticised after left-back Ashley Cole suffered due to a lack of protection.
Euro 2012 – Quarter Final exit – England showed no ability to keep and circulate the ball and ended up trying to contain Italy in a state of panic. The ageing Gerrard was more positionally disciplined but more-or-less non-existent without the ball. To his credit he provided high-quality set pieces and assisted goals in that manner, but offered little else.
World Cup 2014 – Group Stage exit – A consciously progressive England side quickly reverted to type against Italy, parking the bus and allowing a high quality opponent too many opportunities to score. Gerrard was criticised for his failure to support the overrun Leighton Baines. After another defeat to Uruguay, Gerrard was blamed, perhaps harshly, for both of Luis Suárez’s goals. Even though he was unfortunate, there was no denying that it was another poor midfield display.