Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Point: Stevie G Should Consider Walking Alone

Even I must admit, this just doesn't look right.

There are rumors coming out of Italy that Inter is planning to bid for Steven Gerrard in the upcoming summer transfer window. What coincidence! Inter just so happens to be Liverpool's opponent in today's Champions League matchup!!! Of course, this is no coincidence, and the rumor is nothing more than typical tabloid tripe.

That's too bad, because Liverpool will be better off without Gerrard.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think Gerrard is the source of Liverpool's ills, nor do I think getting rid of him would suddenly improve the play - Rafa Benitez is the chief culprit and he has to go, no matter what the Kopites believe. I also recognize that Gerrard has saved Liverpool's skin many a time, and that he and Fernando Torres have carried the club this season.

Gerrard is unquestionably the most talented Liverpool player of this era, and I understand that Istanbul in 2005 wouldn't have happened without Gerrard. But those are precisely the reasons why observers can't see that he's one of the reasons for LFC's current malaise, and that selling him would be a positive step forward.

Now, let's think this the Moneyball way. Does this player bring enough positives to outweigh the negatives, not just in terms of his own play, but the play of the team as a whole? More crucially, can this player's net contributions be replaced by a less costly replacement?

Well, I'm too lazy to pull up the OPTA ratings (and stat-o-phobes would dismiss any statistical analysis out of hand anyway), but Gerrard is not a very efficient player. Yes, he does do a lot with the ball, but that's partly the result of his dominating the ball. Think Allen Iverson - his high scoring is the result of his high-volume shooting. On the other hand, while his long shots and crosses can be deadly, he loses the ball too easily and doesn't put the ball on target often enough.

Contrast his play for Liverpool with his play for England, with whom he has had to share the possession with Frank Lampard and David Beckham.

Also consider his positioning, specifically his unwillingness to track back on defense. He spends most of the match between the halfway line and the opposition 18-yard-box, which is fine when he was partnered with a ball-winning specialist like Momo Sissoko on your side, but when paired with Xabi Alonso or Javier Mascherano, deep-lying midfielders who can initiate attack, his insistence on staying forward either leaves too much space between the midfield and the defense line or stunts the play of his midfield partner.

Simply put, he is, the arsonist and the fireman, as economists like to say. He's hailed as a hero because he comes out at opportune moments and puts out fires (ergo, fireman), but the fires are created partly because of the way he plays (hence, arsonist).

So let's ask the two questions. Does his work as fireman outweigh his damage as arsonist? I'm willing to believe that Gerrard's net contribution is positive, though I'm not completely convinced. Is he so inefficient that his net value could be replaced by a cheaper alternative? Yes, and selling Gerrard would not only free up funds for wages and purchases, but also improve the productivity of his existing teammates.

The last time Stevie G was the subject of serious transfer speculations was in 2005. Two months after he declared, "How could I leave after a night like this?" on the pitch in Istanbul, he rejected a £100,000-a-week offer and announced that he was leaving Liverpool. In retrospect, moving on would have been the best thing for both the club and the player. Liverpool could simply blame the "the money", and rebuild the team around Xabi with the increased transfer kitty, while Gerrard would have learned a great deal from playing in a system that's not built around him.

If the summer of 2005 happens again, Rafa, or whoever replaces him, should wish Stevie luck and thank him for his services to the club, take the offer and quietly thank his lucky stars. It would be the best thing for everybody, whether they know it or not.

And lest anyone forgets their history, let's look back - quick, guess what happened the seasons after the following players were sold abroad: Kevin Keegan to Hamburger SV in 1977, Ian Rush to Juventus in 1987, and John Aldridge to Real Sociedad in 1989? Yup, Liverpool won the League in 1978, 1988 and 1990. The point isn't that selling Gerrard in 2008 will lead to Liverpool winning the Prem in 2009.

No, the point is that no player is bigger than the club and LFC will live on, with or without Stevie. And the club should never let sentimentality get in the way of sensible decision making.

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