5 Dec 2007

Rafa the Merciless and his Steven Gerrard masterstroke

When Steven Gerrard was surprisingly hauled off by Rafa in the recent Merseyside Derby and replaced by the inexperienced Brazilian Lucas Leiva, fans and pundits across the globe were aghast at what was perceived to be a humiliating mistake.

For millions of fawning fans, Steven Gerrard is untouchable and beyond criticism, and substituting Liverpool’s captain against arch-rivals Everton was seen as a traitorous act.

Liverpool went on to win the game, with Gerrard’s replacement playing an integral role in securing the penalty that won the game. This did not appease the masses though and the knives came out for Rafa.

The sniping attitude of the press was ‘Liverpool won, but it was still the wrong decision’. Gerrard was clearly not happy with Rafa’s judgement and publicly stated that he was ‘going to have a word with the Manager’ about it.

Rafa further infuriated Gerrard’s huge fan base by suggesting that the Liverpool skipper needed to play more intelligently:

"We needed to play with our brains and not with our heart. We needed to pass the ball better".

This withering retort from Rafa was greeted with venom by fans and pundits alike, who could not comprehend the logic behind removing Gerrard from the field of play and leaving on Momo Sissoko – a player not renowned for incisive passing.

At the time, I supported Rafa 100%, arguing that Liverpool fans should be rejoicing because the club now had a Manager who was strong enough to do things his way and deflect the twin critical assault of misguided, sheep-like fans and clich├ęd, agenda driven media.

It’s no understatement to suggest that the substitution of Gerrard is arguably Rafa’s most unpopular decision to date. In my view, it is also the Spaniard’s bravest and most brilliant decision since arriving at Anfield.

Prior to the Everton game, Liverpool had drawn five of their previous ten games and were playing dull, uninspiring football. Steven Gerrard had managed just one goal in those ten games, and his form, by his own admission, was nowhere near up to scratch.

Blame it on injuries, blame it on England, blame it on whatever – The club captain was not playing well at all, and this was reflected in Liverpool’s turgid form.

Rafa’s masterstroke against Everton changed all that. Gerrard was shaken from his comfort zone and given a symbolic warning by ‘Rafa the Merciless’: Pull your weight or you’re out.

The substitution shocked Gerrard into action, and since then, he has been in superb form for Liverpool, scoring 8 goals in 9 games and providing 6 assists. This is an excellent return from the skipper, and if he continues in this vein, he’s definitely on course to pass the 20 goal barrier this season.

This massive improvement in Gerrard’s form is no coincidence, and Rafa deserves infinite credit for having the guts and the sheer chutzpah to make such an unpopular decision in such a vital, high-pressure game.

Lesser Managers would not have had the nerve to make that decision, and that is what separates the good Managers from the true legends of the game. The true greats are not afraid to take risks and do not pander to egos or status. The true greats will do what needs to be done, irrespective of the pressure and abuse that may come their way.

A similar situation occurred in 2002, when after an insipid first half performance in the Champions League against FC Basle, Gerrard was criticized publicly by Gerard Houllier. In the game, Liverpool were 3-0 down at half time, and Houllier replaced Gerrard for the second half with Salif Diao.

The difference between that situation and the current situation is Gerrard’s response. After being slammed by Houllier, Gerrard’s form dipped even more, and it took him a good couple of months to show signs of regaining his best form.

Gerrard’s instantaneously positive response this time round is a testament to how he has matured as a player over the years. In the past, as evidenced by the Houllier situation, Gerrard would have sulked and allowed the criticism to affect him. He seems to have grown out of this, and that can only be a positive thing.

It’s no secret that I have many problems with Gerrard’s behaviour off the pitch and it's true that I don't beleve he is world class. Indeed, if it were down to me, I would sell him and use the money to buy world class creative players.

However, this does not mean that I do not appreciate Gerrard’s contribution to Liverpool. As has always been the case with me (though many will predictably disagree) I always assign credit where it’s due, and at the moment, Gerrard deserves a lot of credit for his reaction to the substitution and his subsequent good form.

The bulk of my credit and respect is, however, reserved for ‘Rafa the Merciless’. His inspired decision to substitute Steven Gerrard may have been humiliating for the player, but it was a case of the means justifying the end, and Liverpool’s form since (and Gerrard’s contribution to it) means the Spaniard has been emphatically vindicated.

I only hope Rafa continues in the same vein and retains his fearless approach. Players should be in the team if they are performing well. If they're not, they should be replaced. It's a simple philosophy, and one which Rafa seems embrace.

Except in the case of Peter Crouch of course, but that's another article!

Jaimie Kanwar


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