During his post game press conference, fresh off a 2-0 win that saw his Reds hurl Aston Villa into even deeper depths of goalless football purgatory on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers used a modern buzzword that more than a few managers have seemed to latch on to in the past few years. “We have regained our identity in how the team has played for two years,” he told reporters. “In the opening four months or so of the season we were just nowhere near what we have been.”
Relatively speaking it’s a word that has only recently entered the lexis, especially in the world of sports, but it’s always been present. Football has offered some of the best and most lucid examples of identity in its history throughout the years. See: “Total Football”, a philosophy that was employed by Ajax and the Netherlands in the 60’s and 70’s. Look up any YouTube video featuring Ronaldinho and witness what it really means to play with joy, perhaps the last great messenger of Brazil’s legendary “Samba” style.
The famous “Catenaccio”, AKA “Door Bolt” system, fostered by Inter Milan coach Helenio Herrera in the 1960’s is still used to this day, not so much as a tactical system per se but rather as an excuse for any time Italy wins a game. Identity has always pervaded football, it’s just now it’s been defined. And now that it’s been defined, you are automatically expected to man your post at the local panic station any time your team’s semblance of identity is questioned/altered/lost.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not slamming identity as a whole. I think it can be quite beneficial when a team is on the same wavelength in terms of philosophy and style of play. “Buying in” is an important factor when you have a vision of success. But on the other side of the coin, the idea of identity can be a hindrance when it’s blown out of proportion or warped beyond its original meaning. So what the hell am I getting at? Let’s look at Liverpool.
Everyone knows about the struggles of Liverpool early on in the season, but recent outings suggest they are just about finding their feet in the league. The new boys are starting to figure it out- Lazar Marković has flashed his potential and Emre Can looks serviceable in a number of positions. Three shutouts in their last six games allude to a back line unit that is starting to gel. They are getting goals from different players every week, all while Daniel Sturridge edges closer to his return. Unbeaten in their last six, four of those are wins, second in the league on form behind Southampton. All these different factors look to be coming together at a critical time, as Liverpool will undoubtedly aim to use this last half of the season to build something sustainable for the next few years. All that said, I cannot think of anything more potentially threatening to all the current success they’ve built than “The Next Gerrard” plot that’s forcing its way to the media surface.
Steven Gerrard, current captain of Liverpool FC and talisman of the club for the past decade and a half, of course announced he would be taking his talents to Major League Soccer for the fast approaching twilight of his footballing career. He’s been the heartbeat of a Red tenure that includes a Community Shield, three League Cups, two FA Cups, one UEFA Cup, two UEFA Super Cups, and a fairytale Champions League medal from 2005. His individual accolades for club and country are too numerous to list in this article. A leader of men. When he leaves at the end of the 2014/15 season he will leave behind a great legacy, but I don’t think anyone is questioning that it’s time for the next chapter, for both Liverpool and Gerrard himself.
However, any combination of the words “Next” and “Gerrard” and “Replacement” in a Google search query returns a host of results touting (insert central midfielder here) to be the right man to fill a rather large pair of boots. Some common candidates include Aston Villa’s Fabian Delph, Roma’s Miralem Pjanić, and Everton’s Ross Barkley. Some outlets are crying about the hole that will be left when Stevie finally departs. But this is where the question of team identity is confused. Yes, there will be a hole when Gerrard leaves, and that hole will never be filled. You’ll never again see him don the number 8 and come through to produce a stoppage time free kick winner. That’s his legacy, and nobody can replace that.
But can a younger, more sprightly midfielder come in and take over his duties as a midfielder? Of course, that has to happen. Liverpool won’t lose their way when Gerrard leaves like some press outlets would have you believe. It’s important to acknowledge that discrepancy. Now this angle of replacements and successors could very well be, and likely is, simply the angle that those media outlets have chosen to run with. But Liverpool fans need to be very careful not to digest this as anything more than it is- an angle. Otherwise you create a lose-lose situation.
It is unfair to put the unneeded pressures of succession on whoever comes into the team, and it is unfair to Gerrard to suggest he can simply be replaced. A team that persists on their… ahem… identity… of function and system is much more likely to see long-term success than the team that rests on the shoulders of a singular transcendent talent. For years Liverpool has asked Gerrard to produce magic in big games, and time and again he’s done just that. The early part of this season I think we finally saw age catch up to him, and his legs just couldn’t keep up with the demands put on the modern day deep-lying midfielder. The last few games have confirmed this, as Liverpool has put in good performances with Gerrard either coming on late or not playing at all. They seem to have started preparing for the next chapter in earnest. The last thing they need is for a perfectly capable midfielder to come in next season and immediately be burdened with the expectations of a club legend. How good could Anderson have been at Manchester United if the memory of Roy Keane wasn’t looming over him every time he made a mistake?
This idea of “replacing” prominent figures in sports is prevalent and dangerous. We should remember the good times, of course, but when it’s time for that record setting athlete or once dreamlike talent to move on, then it’s time to move on. Maybe more importantly, the future should be fostered with care, not measured to the standard of those who come around once in a lifetime. This summer Liverpool will have to rip a 35-year-old Band-Aid from their arm. If done fast it’ll only hurt for a moment, and if they do, we won’t see an identity crisis at Anfield any time soon.