AMONG the seemingly positive phrases in football’s lexicon, ‘versatile’ is one many fans treat with trepidation.
‘Morale-boosting win’ is another – superficially good news but more pregnant with subtext than Demi Moore watching season four of The Wire.
A versatile player would seem to be a good thing, yet so many have fallen by the wayside at big clubs in particular due to their inability to specialise.
In five years as a pro at Chelsea (spent mostly on semi-permanent loan at Wolves) and with England under-21s, Michael Mancienne was frequently touted as the next big thing, capable of playing anywhere across the back line or in midfield.
Despite a call-up to the full international squad in 2008, it never quite happened for him in English football and he’s now made a bold move to have a crack at the Bundesliga.
The general consensus is that no manager has yet worked out exactly how to use his talents.
Mancienne still has time to nail down a position for club and perhaps country, but many others have fallen in to the versatility trap.
One man who’s often seemed to be at odds with his own adaptability is Steven Gerrard.
The big question hanging over the current Liverpool squad is where the club captain might be accommodated on his (hopefully imminent) return to the side.
There’s no obvious slot waiting for him, yet most fans would argue he should be considered a definite starter if fully fit.
The question will be whether the side should adapt to Gerrard, or Gerrard should adapt to the side.
We no longer have Andy Gray to shine the light of his erudition on this subject, but were I able to channel the spirit of the man himself I reckon I can predict his response.
Pick your best player in his preferred position.
Obvious, isn’t it? Forget the balance of the team, forget the effect on everyone else, forget the fact that a player might not always have unique insight into where he’s best deployed.
In the mind of Gray and plenty of other ‘experts’ Kenny will be reckless if he doesn’t pick Gerrard alongside Charlie Adam (because it’s an article of faith that Lucas is rubbish) in a nice 4-4-2 with man marking and old-fashioned wingers etc etc etc.
This might sometimes happen. There may indeed be occasions when Gerrard could provide bite and athleticism alongside Adam or forward drive alongside Lucas.
Most often, surely, it will not. Lucas and Adam have specific roles – a destroyer and a creator, and while neither are quite as one-dimensional as that, nor are either quite as multi-faceted as Gerrard.
In fact Gerrard’s sheer range of abilities and the way his game is centred around game-changing interventions are the most plausible reasons to keep him away from what we’re told is his favoured position.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s quite hard to consistently alter the flow of matches from central midfield, particularly in the Premier League.
An effective two-man central midfield looks to run the game rather than decorate it, to connect defence and attack rather than join either department – unless the game has swung decisively in one direction, in which case positional discipline may break down more quickly.
Gerrard has never truly been suited to this type of role. If we’re being kind we might say it’s because he’s too effervescent a talent to be shackled, and if we’re not we might say his on-field character doesn’t lend itself to what can often seem to be a supporting role.
Given time and support, and with the required commitment on his own part, Gerrard may have matured in his mid-twenties as an orchestrator similar to Germany’s converted winger Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Here Gerrard’s overwhelming ability may have counted against him – Schweinsteiger was a talented but ineffectual wide man who needed to adapt to survive at the top level. Gerrard was good enough in his pomp to play on the right or left, or as a second striker, without having to think about changing.
Successive Liverpool managers have needed the instant rewards he offers in advanced positions, rarely having the luxury of time to nurture a different approach in midfield.
When Rafa Benitez had Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso to fit in to the jigsaw, forcing Gerrard into the centre would have been a tough task (although Mascherano has since crow-barred his way in to the Barcelona side with hugely promising displays at centre-back).
We are where we are. To put Gerrard in central midfield in September 2011 would be a risky move, breaking up the nascent Lucas-Adam partnership and probably requiring the captain to play at least 10 games to re-adapt to a role he has in truth barely played in years.
That may well be time Gerrard’s body does not allow him. A more sensible approach might be for Gerrard to slot in on the right, putting pressure for a place on Dirk Kuyt or Jordan Henderson (although the Dutchman could be pushed further forward).
However and whenever Dalglish uses him, Gerrard’s versatility must now be seen as an asset rather than something to run away from.
For every Dominic Matteo, ‘the new Alan Hansen’ who played left-wing, left-back and just about anywhere before Gerard Houllier gave up working out what to do with him, there’s a Steve Nicol, whose 12-year Anfield career was undoubtedly bolstered by his incredible adaptability.
For evidence of versatility’s power to extend careers at this level, Gerrard need look no further than another player whose long-term future is the subject of much debate this week.
Jamie Carragher’s first start for Liverpool was as a goalscoring midfielder, while in 2000/01 he was perhaps the finest inverted full-back in Europe, tucked in on the left of a fantastically frugal defence.
Carragher came on in midfield for Peter Taylor’s one and only game as England manager in 2000, then had a spell as right-back towards the end of Houllier’s reign.
At various points along the way there had been question marks over Carragher’s future with Liverpool, and once Rafa Benitez took over plenty felt he could be one of the big losers from the change in manager.
Instead Benitez saw something in Carragher others had missed – the ability to command, to organise and to concentrate for massive periods, game after game, season in, season out from the centre of defence.
All along the way, as is natural for a player whose ability is more about positioning and determination than it is dazzling displays of skill, Carragher had to prove doubters wrong.
The fact that his versatility kept him at the top long enough to find his true calling seems to have eluded a player who is now apparently reluctant to move from central defence.
The excited chatter around Carragher’s performance at Stoke ignored the fact the back four as a whole might have looked a lot more comfortable had he and Skrtel been in each other’s position.
Perhaps there is a case for both Gerrard and Carragher recognising that there’s no shame in being able to move around the pitch.
Both may be wondering how long their Anfield careers can go on. Both may need to compromise and reach an accommodation with their own flexibility more than they have in the past.
If anyone can make the case to them with the required authority and reassurance, it’s Dalglish. Neither of these two champions can be written off just yet.