Steven Gerrard: A Story in Five Goals

Cun Shi

You can see it in his first goal. He’s 19, wearing no. 28, a number reserved for fringe midfielders. The ball gets cycled back toward the midfield line from the right wing, and standing 50 yards from goal, he starts asking for it. He’s calling for it not because he’s open — he is — he’s calling for it because he knows he’s about to score.

Steven Gerrard scored 118 more goals for Liverpool — and it’ll probably stay that way unless he scores again this weekend. Gerrard, who will suit up for the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS later this season, has also played 503 games for Liverpool, and Sunday’s match against Stoke City will likely be his last.1

With all those goals and all those appearances, for just one club, the broad outlines of Gerrard’s career are etched into the Internet: He signed for Liverpool at the age of 8 and never left. He won the UEFA Cup at 20, became captain at 23, and won the Champions League at 24, but in 17 Premier League seasons, he came up empty-handed every time. Despite offers from seemingly every big team in Europe, he stayed at his hometown club, even when he saw its wage bill fall below England’s and the continent’s biggest spenders. He may or may not have once assaulted a DJ for not playing a Phil Collins song. He scored tons of face-melting goals. And he’ll most likely go down as the last one-club superstar in world soccer.

As Brian Phillips wrote about in February, Gerrard has been so present in one color for so long that he takes on whatever symbolic value you want to ascribe to him. The legend blurs the man, and it also blurs the player. Despite near-universal agreement that Gerrard was a phenomenal soccer player, there’s a sense that maybe he never achieved as much as he could have and maybe that’s sort of his fault. But watch that first goal again, and it’s all right there: He had to do it on his own. As these next five goals show, he often did.

Manchester United, March 31, 2001

I like to think that everyone is either a Steven Gerrard fan or a Manchester United fan. You either want to be brought to tears by a swerving asteroid volley or you want to watch guys named Gary and Phil pass the ball up the flanks, cross it into the box, and win a bunch of trophies.

The famed United academy class of 1992 — which included Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville — won 50 Premier League titles combined. Gerrard has won zero. But in a lot of ways, Gerrard vs. Manchester United was the defining Premier League rivalry of the past 15 years: the superstar who tried and failed to do everything on his own vs. the super-club that won no matter who was on the field. United had the real treble;2 the year he scored this goal, Gerrard won the bootleg version — FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup.

Overall, Gerrard scored nine goals against United, with a record of 13-20-2 in games against the Red Devils. Liverpool won this game 2-0, but United still won the Premier League by 10 points this season.

Here’s a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson: “I was one of the few who felt Gerrard was not a top, top player.” Imagine seeing a dude score that goal against you and then being able to form those words with your mouth.

West Ham United, May 13, 2006, FA Cup Final

This is Gerrard’s most famous goal.

Just kidding. It’s this:

Without this goal, Liverpool would’ve been eliminated from the 2005 Champions League, which the club famously and improbably ended up winning (led by Gerrard and his Man of the Match award-winning performance) after a three-goal second-half comeback against AC Milan. There is no Miracle of Istanbul without the missile against Olympiacos.

The timing of the Champions League title is one of the weirder things about Gerrard’s career arc. This goal — and the trophy it led to — were just the beginning of Steven Gerrard, One of a Handful of People on Planet Earth Who Could Single-Handedly Win a Soccer Game. The 2005 season wasn’t Gerrard’s best, and it certainly wasn’t the team’s best either — it finished fifth in the Premier League with 58 points, the second-lowest point total in the club’s history up to that point. Despite, you know, winning the most prestigious soccer tournament in the world, Liverpool were in a time of transition. This was Rafa Benitez’s team, but it was made up of former manager Gerard Houllier’s players.

And soon after lifting the club’s fifth European Championship, Gerrard’s Liverpool legend almost ended. He handed in a transfer request and very nearly forced a move to Chelsea — only to, as he put it in his autobiography, realize he “couldn’t jump over the edge of the cliff.” If Gerrard had moved to Chelsea, he probably would have won a few Premier League medals and possibly another Champions League, and eventually would have ended up playing for José Mourinho at Real Madrid.

He also would have avoided the fallow period that was Liverpool Football Club from 2009 to 20013 and never slipped against Chelsea, basically dropping the Premier League trophy right before the finish line. Instead of playing for better teams with better players and the promise of trophies, he chose the path that turned him into a venerated icon whose Premier League career ended in what was really a kind of tragic disappointment.

Ten years ago, he couldn’t have known things would follow in such a way, and a year after Istanbul it looked like more championships were ahead. Gerrard would go on to win his only Player of the Year award. Liverpool finished the 2005-06 season third in the Premier League table — with a then-club-record 82 points — and reestablished themselves as one of the best teams in England. If the Champions League final was Gerrard lifting Liverpool to improbable heights, the 2006 FA Cup final was Gerrard proving he could keep them there.

Among the world-class players of the past 15 years, he’s unique because he chose to stay at one club. And because he stayed put, for his local club, I can’t think of another player for whom every game seemed to double as an effort to prove that he was the best player on the field. When that lined up with the moment — against Olympiacos, AC Milan, and West Ham — Gerrard briefly turned soccer, a team sport played by 22 players at a time, into a game that could be won by an individual.

Inter Milan, February 19, 2008, Champions League

EarnestTemptingFossa

Now, there’s a Fergusonian way to turn Gerrard’s abilities inside out: his inclination to always do the big thing, to try to win the game no matter the score and no matter where he was on the field. This was actually his biggest weakness. His 70-yard diagonal balls did little more than please the fans. His positional indiscipline made tactical consistency impossible. His from-the-start frenzy functioned as a red card waiting to happen. These impulses made for the occasional transcendent moment — and could even work as a foundational teamwide strategy (just let Stevie be Stevie) in short-term cup competitions — but only teams with 11 complementary pieces could win the 38-game Premier League or achieve any real sustained success.

When Rafa Benitez took over for Houllier, he supposedly told Gerrard at their first meeting: “Your problem is you run around too much.” But I think he misspoke. Running around isn’t Gerrard’s problem — that’s what makes him great. It was Benitez’s problem: Having one dude screaming up and down the field like a chrome-faced War Boy wasn’t the most efficient way for his team — with its 10 other players — to use space.

Before he won the Champions League title, there were worries about Gerrard’s “best position.” And even en route to the victory over AC Milan, some suggested that Liverpool’s best performance in Europe was a 0-0 draw away to Juventus in the quarterfinals … when Gerrard was out hurt. And throughout Benitez’s tenure on Merseyside, Gerrard played all over the midfield, even spending a year as a wandering right winger. But no matter where he played, Gerrard still scored goals like the one against Inter.

For all the flaws in Gerrard’s game, I don’t like the idea that the team somehow worked better without him. Gerrard wasn’t Messi — he wasn’t perfect: He gave the ball away too often, and his tackling almost always hovered between “reckless” and “a crime in certain countries” — but still, why bow at the altar of the system when you have a guy who can do this?

GraveUnselfishDorado

Especially when we’re talking about Liverpool teams that included prominent roles for the likes of Igor Biscan, Peter Crouch, and Jermaine Pennant, isn’t your best bet always to let Gerrard go out there and try to do it all? If anything, I wonder if a lot of these Liverpool teams overachieved, consistently finishing in the top four because they had Steven Gerrard. He never felt like he was fitting into a larger whole until he was paired with a tactically meticulous manager — Benitez and Brendan Rodgers — and was surrounded by players who were in his same universe of talent.

Everton, January 25, 2009, FA Cup 

If you had to rank all the best Liverpool Premier League seasons, and the best Steven Gerrard seasons, 2008-09 would probably be the Venn diagram point of convergence. Liverpool led the league in goals scored and goal differential, lost only two games, and recorded a club-record 86 points — but still managed to finish second to, of course, Manchester United. However, that EPL campaign included two victories over the eventual champions, including a 4-1 throttling at Old Trafford. I still don’t know how they didn’t win the whole thing.3

Gerrard spent most of the year as a responsibility-free attacking midfielder, playing in between a yet-to-be-kissed-by-a-Dementor Fernando Torres and a near-perfect holding-midfield pivot of Xabi Alonso (the passer) and Javier Mascherano (the pitbull). The setup leveraged Gerrard’s mania into an efficient force. The platform of Alonso and Mascherano gave him license to roam, while the forward threat of Torres gave him the room he needed to do it effectively. He finished the year with 29 goals (seven penalties) and 13 assists.

While the team didn’t quite reach the heights of Champions Leagues prior, they did beat Real Madrid, 1-0, in Spain, and then 4-0 at Anfield, behind two goals from Gerrard. In the quarterfinals, a 3-1 home loss to Chelsea was followed up by a frantic 4-4 tie at Stamford Bridge. The second leg was the kind of wide-open, back-and-forth match Gerrard seemed born for. Problem was, he didn’t play, missing out due to a groin injury. With the team they had in place, though, it was a given Liverpool would be back in the knockout stages stages a year later. Fast-forward to today, and Gerrard still hasn’t played in another Champions League game beyond the Group Stage.

Fulham, February 12, 2014, Premier League

A few months later, Alonso was gone, then Benitez a year later, and then Mascherano and Torres soon after that — and depending on the color of your glasses, everything finally either fell apart or came back to earth.

The incomplete history of the fall of Steven Gerrard and Liverpool FC is as follows: Alonso leaves in the summer of 2009, and then Benitez, Torres, and Mascherano follow. Oil money arrives at Manchester City, and Gareth Bale drives Tottenham into the top four. Cash rules everything around us. North of 30, Gerrard still wants to move like he used to, but he can’t. The team finishes seventh, sixth, eighth, and seventh in consecutive seasons. Along the way, they win the League Cup, which is somehow more depressing than not winning it, and make an FA Cup final, but the signature Gerrard moments — i.e., any Gerrard moments — were all but gone.

When he played, though, Gerrard was still a very good center midfielder. This latter phase of his career coincided with steady advances in analytics, and while he might seem like the kind of player whom numbers would deflate — always trying to do too much, shooting from long distances, passing from even longer ones — it’s quite the opposite. Even as he aged, Gerrard kept scoring and kept creating chances, while almost never losing the ball or getting dribbled by. The tackling numbers progressively diminished, but everything else you’d want from a player in that position was still there.

Based on the whole of his career, we should’ve known there’d be one final spectacular surge that’d ultimately fall short. While there are other seasons that are more indicative of Pure Gerrard, I don’t know if there’s another Liverpool season in which the team better represented its captain than in 2013-14. Like in 2008-09, Gerrard was again surrounded by a wealth of very-good-to-great players — Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Coutinho, Jordan Henderson — but instead of standing on a platform, manager Brendan Rodgers put the platform on top of him. All the berserking attackers and deep-lunged midfielders ahead of him allowed Gerrard to play as the team’s deepest midfielder, quarterbacking counterattacks. From the base of a team that scored 101 goals in 38 games, Gerrard must have felt like he was watching highlights of his younger self: all marauding, direct runs from deep, right down the opposition’s throat.

Ten years prior, this goal against Fulham wouldn’t have happened — or at least not in the same way. Maybe Gerrard would’ve put his foot on the ball, steam forward, and let one rip from 30 yards out. But instead, he bends it through the heart of Fulham’s back line, still doing everything he can save for the final touch, instead leaving it on a platter for Sturridge to finish off.

We all know how the season ended: Liverpool won 11 in a row and shot up to the top of the table, and then Gerrard slipped at the worst possible moment. After earning four points in their last three games, they lost the Premier League to Manchester City by two points. Even though the title went to City, the lasting story from the season will still be Liverpool’s improbable, dare I say irresistible, charge that was ultimately doomed to fall short.

They did everything they could; they just couldn’t win the Premier League.

Due to an editing error, this piece originally stated that Gerrard will be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy next season. He will be joining the MLS team later this season.

Filed Under: Soccer, Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, Ryan O'Hanlon

ohanlon-headshot

Ryan O’Hanlon is a general editor at Grantland.

Archive @ rwohan

More from Ryan O'Hanlon

See all from Ryan O'Hanlon

More Soccer

See all Soccer

More The Triangle

See all The Triangle