"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Flying Dutchman's lesson for Gerrard

Last updated at 5:40 PM on 25th March 2009

by Martin Samuel

There is a reason Steven Gerrard is not asked to play for England in the same position he plays for Liverpool, and his name is Wayne Rooney. Those who think that the great conundrum of England selection still concerns Gerrard’s relationship with Frank Lampard are living in the past.

They occupy different areas of the field now and one might as well debate whether John Terry and Gareth Barry are mutually exclusive. Gerrard versus Rooney is the issue these days because Gerrard performs so brilliantly for Liverpool at deep centre forward, behind Fernando Torres, and that is where Rooney expects to play for England (except with Emile Heskey as his foil, which might explain why England are not quite up there with Spain yet).

The teaser for Fabio Capello, the England manager, is whether he indulges Gerrard, as the man in form, and shunts Rooney to a wide area, or whether he keeps Rooney in a role that, this season, has seen him turn in his best international performances since the 2004 European Championship, therefore keeping Gerrard on the left, a role he plainly dislikes.

Either way, he could do worse than to sit both men down with a DVD of Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool as a way of demonstrating that occupying the wide position does not mean the end, but the beginning.

Enlarge Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt

At the top of his game: Kuyt

Perhaps the ultimate Kuyt goal is Liverpool’s equaliser against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the Champions League last season. Ryan Babel slips the ball to Torres, who has dropped out of his lone striker position to assist on the edge of the area.

Torres plays in Gerrard, who drives into the Arsenal penalty area, going past Emmanuel Eboue, then Kolo Toure, before pulling the ball back from the byline to cross. Kuyt, arriving late at full pelt from a wide right position, out-muscles Philippe Senderos, the Arsenal centre half, in the six-yard box and forces the ball past Arsenal’s goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

And there, encapsulated, is the changing face of modern football. The striker comes out of the space and the midfield and wide players flood into it. What Capello wants from his wide forward, Kuyt has been doing for years now, often to little credit. His work ethic, unselfishness and ability to operate in a netherworld between the touchline, forward line and midfield make him the epitome of the modern attacker.

Kuyt will never have an FA Cup final named after him like Gerrard or draw comparisons with Pele as Rooney did in Portugal but at the top of his game for Liverpool, pound for pound, he continues to punch his weight against the best of them. He knows what his manager wants and he delivers it without ego or introspection.

Enlarge Dirk Kuyt equalises for Liverpool against Arsenal in the Champions League

Great leveller: Kuyt (second left) beats Senderos (second right) and Gael Clichy (left) to Gerrard's centre, leaving Almunia (right) stranded

While Gerrard can obsess about his place in a game and Rooney can become angered by his predicament if unsuccessful, Kuyt has somehow learned to balance his past with his present and accept that circumstances have changed.

He is known as a down-to-earth character — his father was a North Sea fisherman in Katwijk aan Zee, and his wife continued to work as a nurse at an old people’s home even when her husband was one of the most famous footballers in Holland — and his performances reflect that. There is little ego in what Kuyt brings to his team, even though at Liverpool he could easily have thrown a tantrum by now.

Kuyt was bought as a striker. Yes, he could play wide if required because in Holland the 4-3-3 system is king, but he was the Dutch league’s top goalscorer on two occasions, Feyenoord’s for three consecutive seasons, was voted Footballer of the Year in 2005-06 and left for Liverpool with a record of 71 goals in 101 league games.

His boyhood hero was Marco van Basten and on arrival he would justifiably have harboured ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Anfield legends such as Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler.

To have been so thoroughly recast, several years later, as a right-sided wide player whose creative talents and defensive running are as valued as the odd, often vital, goal, would have set off an outburst of temper in lesser men.

Kuyt could no doubt have found a club to accommodate him as a striker had he wished and many foreign imports would have done just that. His willingness to conform to the policies of Rafael Benitez, his manager, has paid dividends, however. Kuyt now recreates his Liverpool role for Holland when, as a striker, he might not have got into the national team.

In this, the system in his country is also rewarded. Dutch football teaches its young footballers to be comfortable in a variety of roles, rather than fearing new ideas, which seems the English way.

Albert Riera, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Liverpool

Inspirational presence: Gerrard's (second right) Liverpool team-mates (l-r) Albert Riera, Fernando Torres and Kuyt congratulate their skipper after taking the lead at Old Trafford

This is where Kuyt’s adaptability bisects Capello’s vision for England. To make the next step, Capello requires a player with Gerrard and Rooney’s ability but Kuyt’s understanding of the game and absence of ego. He needs someone approaching the perfect footballer and he does not have that within his England team: not in terms of temperament, at least.

Gerrard may be an inspirational presence on the field for Liverpool, but off it, and with England, he is beset by insecurities. When he complained that he had only been played in his best position five times in 68 games by England he was referring to a role so specific it would determine not just his selection, but that of another one, or maybe two, players.

Gerrard was speaking not of central midfield, but of attacking central midfield with another player detailed to sit and hold. So, given that he felt short-changed playing centrally with Lampard, imagine his reaction when asked to start wide. Never forget that Capello’s first thought was to make him captain and play him in the role he occupies so magnificently for Liverpool now — behind Rooney, who was deployed as a striker — and it was a failure.

Rooney has started on the left with Manchester United to some success, particularly in Europe last season when Sir Alex Ferguson preferred his defensive work-rate to that of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the player would appear to be on something of a short fuse at the moment and Capello may not wish to risk unsettling him further by moving him from a position in which he is beginning to prosper.

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (R) gesticulates towards referee Phil Dowd

Short fuse: Rooney's temper gets the better of him after being sent off at Fulham by referee Phil Dowd

Capello’s instinct was to try to use Rooney as a lone striker last year, but he quickly became convinced that he is better in the hole between attack and midfield. Gerrard is also gradually looking more comfortable starting on the left and Capello may feel that swapping the players now is change for the sake of it.

Against that, if he is going to experiment, the time to do so is on Saturday in a friendly against Slovakia, not the following Wednesday in a competitive match with Ukraine. If he can work on switching Rooney and Gerrard this week, then that variation can be taken into the World Cup qualifier, where it will pose a serious problem for the Ukraine defence.

At times, Capello appears to react only to club form (judging by the selection and subsequent de-selection of a gang of Aston Villa players in the past two months) and this promotes the case for Gerrard in the centre.

Yet if he gets it wrong and Gerrard fails to rise to the occasion, with Rooney also in unfamiliar international territory on the left, Capello risks reducing two of his best players at a time when his England team are running relatively smoothly.

Capello is, of course, handsomely rewarded for these judgment calls but, even so, how much simpler just to be able to play a low-maintenance, highyield, ever-reliable, technically excellent Dutchman. If only everything in life was as simple as picking Dirk Kuyt.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009