The arrival of Joe Cole is one of the more exciting transfers Liverpool have made in the last few years. When he left West Ham for Chelsea he was a player I admired but the years since have probably tarnished his image a little. Shifted from pillar to post to please flair-averse managers, Cole’s game these days is less magical than it was and he seems to have as many detractors as he does advocates. But in his correct position, attacking central midfield, there’s a chance he can get back to being the player he has always threatened to be.
But if he’s playing in ‘the Steven Gerrard role’, where does that leave the man himself? How about in the holding role. Bear with me. If we assume Javier Mascherano makes good on his agent’s promises and leaves for Serie A, there is a huge gap in Liverpool’s central midfield. The argument for playing Gerrard further forward in a 4-2-3-1 bore fruit when:
a) Liverpool’s holding midfielders were Mascherano and Xabi Alonso
b) there was no one else to play there
c) Gerrard was younger
d) Rafael Benitez was manager
Now, if Mascherano goes, none of those things apply. Roy Hodgson was a 4-4-1-1 man at Fulham and Liverpool have the players to make such a system work, even after Mascherano’s departure. Playing Gerrard as Liverpool’s defensive midfielder has been tried before, particularly in his early career. But as youngster with bags of energy and a venomous shot, it made little sense to have him anchor the team while lesser lights did the attacking. Now 30, Gerrard is at the crossroads. Does he continue to see himself as a central attacking midfielder in a flat midfield four, a role he has played so little for Liverpool down the years? Or does he acknowledge that with the passage of time and the arrival of Cole, Liverpool don’t need him to be Superman any more?
Gerrard is still athletic and he still has a great shot, but playing him off Fernando Torres (or whoever is up front this season) has, to my mind, never been his best position. It was a marriage of convenience; Gerrard’s never been a No10. Cole, on the other hand, was born to play that role – he’s just suffered from managers in this country not trusting him to do it. So assuming Hodgson sticks with his Fulham-style 4-4-1-1, Gerrard might get his wish to play in central midfield again. Only I’d have him as the most defensive of the two. Again, bear with me.
We are often told the role made famous by Claude Makelele is impossible for an English player to play. They’re apparently not disciplined enough and watching Gareth Barry hare up the field with scant regard for England’s rearguard at the World Cup, there’s more than an element of truth about that. But I believe Gerrard has the brains to play that role better than anyone at the club, bar Mascherano. He has the mobility to close people down, he tackles ferociously and he can pass long or short. In sum, he’s a hybrid of Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, which to me sounds like the archetype of the modern holding midfielder. The role requires its incumbent to subsume his ego for the good of the team, to do the dirty work and to play in a disciplined and aware manner. Can Gerrard do this? I don’t think he needs to see it as an issue. He’s not getting any younger and long-term his role will inevitably more defensive in nature. He might as well get a headstart with the conversion while he has the legs to overcome any deficiencies in his positional sense. If Gerrard wants his ego massaged, he’d still get to dictate play, albeit from a deeper position, much in the way Alonso used to for Liverpool and did for Spain in South Africa. For Xavi, read Cole.
With Gerrard deeper, it will give Alberto Aquilani his best chance of winning over his legion of critics. The Gerrard-Aquilani axis might not gel, but there’s little doubt those two represent Liverpool’s best central-midfield pairing, offering a nice balance of attributes and the vital ability to keep possession. With Cole just ahead of them and the flanks manned by two from Milan Jovanovic, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt and maybe even young David Amoo, Liverpool’s midfield blend has a nice look about it. There may be room for another option in there – Lucas perhaps to sit and shore things up – but with Glen Johnson looking to get forward often from right-back, Liverpool’s threat from either side of the park already looks promising.
It will be interesting to see where Hodgson fits all these options in. 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 might have looked outmoded at the World Cup, where 4-2-3-1 ruled with a counter-attacking fist. But with Benitez might also have gone a system for which Liverpool no longer have the players. Hodgson has plenty of options – he must just wish he had a kinder set of opening fixtures in which to bed his exciting new team in.