It was an economic oddity those at Liverpool have become all too used to. Last summer, three players were worth almost as much as the club itself. At the same time as Anfield's officials were struggling to sell the very institution, they would have had no problem off-loading Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres or Pepe Reina. Many sides were interested and, with so much turmoil, the players themselves were known to be getting itchy. So, in order to prevent further instability, the club slapped on price tags so high they rendered the trio 'not for sale'. Their collective value, apparently, was a fair fraction of the £300m the new owners paid.
Of course it's long been a joke among both rival fans and the more cynical at Anfield that Gerrard has always thought along those lines: that he's bigger than the club. Right now though, there may well be enough accuracy in that joke it's starting to affect the team. Has Gerrard's infamous ego started to exceed his effectiveness? Did the club miss a trick in the past? Should they have taken the money and run a better team with it?
None of this is to deny the devastatingly brilliant player Gerrard has been. A supreme athlete, he's illustrated time and again that he's capable of fantastic and frequent match-saving moments. As recently as two weeks ago he extended Roy Hodgson's stay of execution with the two glorious passes that brought victory over Bolton. The problem though: those two passes were 50 per cent of Gerrard's four league assists this entire season. His goal count is the same number. And, of those, two came in one defeat to Manchester United, two were penalties.
You could say he's been a victim of the general malaise that's afflicted the club or that it's his worst return in half a decade. Except this is all only in-keeping with last season's slump. Since May 2009, Gerrard's rate of productivity (goals and assists per game) has been 0.49. What's so alarming is how quickly that has followed his finest ever season. In 2008-09, Gerrard provided a career best of 16 goals and nine assists in 31 games. It was the peak of a six-year period in which Liverpool appeared utterly dependent on their captain.
The problem with such dependence is that, not only does it eventually begin to constrain a team and prevent its growth, it creates messiah complexes. Indeed, it's a common phenomenon in team sport that the need to accommodate a talisman will inevitably start to weigh a side down rather than drive it forward. Judging when the balance starts to tilt is crucial. Gerrard himself has witnessed it first-hand.
During Michael Owen's last season at Anfield, the striker's previous heroics had rendered him undroppable. But his obsolescence in an evolving game was already being seen. With pace and finishing his only real world-class attributes, Owen required Gerard Houllier's Liverpool to play in a conspicuously one-dimensional way. The team's solitary attack was a Gerrard through-ball to feed Owen's acceleration. They eventually chugged to fourth place but Rafa Benitez infamously didn't make too many overtures to keep Owen.
Today's opponents are perhaps starting to witness a similar dilemma. Tim Cahill's goals have been great for Everton, but the team has looked much more fluid recently without him. Essentially, Cahill doesn't have enough elements to his game to be a truly top-class attacking midfielder. But playing him there allows the Australian to arrive late in the box and maintain that magnificent scoring rate. David Moyes did recently try him up front but the more limited range of a striker made Cahill much less effective.
On a different level, Gerrard has the same problem. For all his athleticism and ability, he doesn't have the discipline to actually play that many positions. Benitez, having watched Gerrard intermittently impress on the right wing, eventually found the right role. Positioned just off Torres and completely released of defensive responsibility, Gerrard began to excel.
It was an excellence, however, that required a very specific arrangement. And, for a time, Benitez hit it. Xabi Alonso's service, Gerrard's power and Torres's finishing all complemented each other perfectly – particularly at the end of the 2008-09 season.
In such circumstances, Gerrard's ego only expanded. And indulging it was fine so long as he continued to excel. But he hasn't. Liverpool must now ask themselves if it's worth basing their entire attack around a hero who has now suffered a prolonged dip at the wrong side of 30?
Alonso's departure has undoubtedly been a factor in that dip. Indeed, Gerrard is now understood to have been particularly aggrieved with Benitez as to how the Spaniards' relationship deteriorated. However, there appears more to Gerrard's drop in form than the musical chairs in Liverpool's midfield. For 18 months now, there's been a jadedness to his play in general. The Opta stats illustrate he hasn't been as sharp as he was; his shooting less accurate.
The problems at the club have likely affected him. But then they've also been prosperous for Gerrard personally. It's exceptionally rare these days for two players to have accumulated the power within a club that he and Jamie Carragher have. Although there have been recent doubts about the exact benefits of the defender's influence, you only have to read the two players' autobiographies to realise why there should be greater doubts about Gerrard's. Whereas Carragher talks about the game in general, Gerrard mostly talks about himself.
Again, that kind of power and indulgence is fine so long as Gerrard is at his peak. It becomes a problem when he isn't. And, although the captain may genuinely believe he has the good of the club at heart – he is, after all, desperate to win the league – the question is whether he's detached enough to make the right decisions for both himself and the club.
Hodgson, it should be remembered, was appointed on Gerrard's approval. He wanted someone English and, evidently, someone he could influence further. That was encapsulated in the recent wheeze of returning Gerrard to central midfield. As many of the leaks from within Anfield have testified, Gerrard all but bullied Hodgson into finally letting him fill the hole left by Alonso. This despite the fact that everyone in football except seemingly Andy Gray and Gerrard himself can see that he doesn't have the discipline to play there effectively. Many of the rousing last-ditch tackles he has become famous for are only because he lacks the positional sense to properly harry opposing players.
And the worst side of those tackles was illustrated at Old Trafford. Shortly before the challenge that brought his red card, Gerrard had watched Raul Meireles pull out of a tackle. His fury was evident. And so he went in with the sort of lunge that has been all too common – but also all too unpunished – throughout his career. It was irresponsible to Michael Carrick and irresponsible to his team. Liverpool are now without their leader for one of the most important games of their season.
In that, he has made Kenny Dalglish's re-adjustment a lot tougher. But, for all the talk about whether Dalglish's abilities are applicable today, there may be one important lesson to take from his first spell as Liverpool manager. In the summer of 1987, after Everton had temporarily knocked Liverpool off their perch, Daglish sold a fully established star in Ian Rush and brought in three rapidly ascending ones in John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge. Despite selling their most productive player, the following season resulted in some of the most rousing football in Liverpool's history.
The key question now is, with the price still right, should Liverpool now make a similar move? Does Gerrard's effect still justify his influence on both the club and the team? Again, the maths just aren't that simple.
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