How Steven Gerrard’s steep decline changes England’s great midfield debate

If soccer is about anything, it is about relentless, snarky debates over which player is best. You can have the joys of Ronaldo versus Messi, the less trite pleasures of David De Gea versus Thibaut Courtois, or the slightly more nauseating discussion of Arjen Robben or Eden Hazard. There are almost endless opportunities for one side slinging guff at the other.

But with its golden generation of midfielders, England was blessed – three players, all from big clubs, with two decades of evidence to skew, ignore and exaggerate. Truly, what a ridiculous time to be alive. But now, with Paul Scholes mostly absent from soccer, Steven Gerrard on his way to Los Angeles, and Frank Lampard with his next MLS team to disappoint, we have a fair time to take inventory while avoiding any conclusions about which was the best player (Scholes, obviously).

Manchester United v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final

The most cloyingly Andrea Pirlo-esque was obviously Scholes, and with the memes about his long-ball passing and the adoration of Zinedine Zidane, it’s tempting to vomit into the sick bucket and write off his stature as hyperbole. But given Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernandez tried to sign him for Barcelona – perhaps to end his continual, enjoyable physical abuse of the vile Sergio Busquets – there’s little to do but accept he was an extraordinarily talent: capable of the snide tackle, a pass to launch a counterattack, or a goal threat.

Perhaps because of this, Scholes was the most adaptable of the three. Starting as a striker, Scholes moved into central midfield when Roy Keane had a serious injury. After that, he played behind Ruud van Nistelrooy (with limited success) before moving back into midfield, ultimately dropping into a deeper partnership with Michael Carrick. That he was mainly excellent in most of these roles helped Scholes claim the most trophies of the three, giving United a stability it would have lacked had the personnel changed with its style.

While Scholes adapted, Frank Lampard displayed an exceptional consistency from the time Chelsea became successful. There were, however, some notable peaks: 2005, when he came second in the Ballon d’Or and reached 160 consecutive appearances; 2009-10, when he scored 27 goals under Carlo Ancelotti; and 2012, when he put in two brilliant performances against Barcelona in Champions League.

Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference

Lampard is, though, the least adaptable of the players, offering hard work and intelligence but no special technical gifts, making him slightly one-note. His biggest adaptation was playing in either a two- or a three-man midfield, his most effective partnership formed with Claude Makelélé and Michael Essien. His consistency, however, largely cancelled this out — for 10 consecutive seasons, he scored at least 13 Premier League goals.

Like Scholes and Gerrard, Lampard has an exceptional relationship with his club, one that is largely unaffected by his move to Manchester City. The greatest manager of his generation, José Mourinho, might have had a naked tryst with him in the showers early on in his career, but he was still ruthless enough to know when to make a clean break. Mourinho clearly relied upon him — it was Lampard he tried to take to Inter, not John Terry. Terry might be thought of as fans’ favorite player of the era, but his occasional forays into disgrace and racism along with Lampard’s general decency (with the exception of being a Tory) make him the midfielder the more loved of the two for many.

Gerrard is the outlier of the three. He is undoubtedly excellent, but he has the most conspicuous regret of the trio. All three have won the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup, but Gerrard is the only player who failed to win the Premier League. You can see in his face how much last year’s slip haunts him, having been the most hubristic of the three — giving out public speeches to his side about the challenge not going astray then refusing to tell TV presenters what he’d said, despite it being all for the cameras — and even having kissed those cameras to celebrate goals. Perhaps, he was even more premature than that, if rumors are to be believed. And the side that he captained blew it.

But to focus on the one failure is daft when it comes to a retrospective. Gerrard remains Liverpool’s most important player since Kenny Dalglish, and its best one, too. At present, however, he’s no longer at his best. He has willingly dropped deeper into midfield as he has aged, but he has not been able to maintain the same level as Scholes or Lampard. After the exertions of Euro 2012 and a few hamstring injuries, his body was no longer able to match his abilities. He has struggled to adapt.

Chelsea v Liverpool - Premier League

It was often said by pundits that he could naturally drop deeper like Scholes did, but that failed to recognize that he was not the same type of player. He was effective at his peak and certainly more inspirational and willing to take more responsibility than Scholes was, but he was not as intelligent or capable of playing more than one way. As one fan said, he’s still able to play the 60-yard cross-filed pass, but he is still yet to learn when he shouldn’t.

Like Lampard, Gerrard had his standout seasons. The dented treble in 2005 was no mean achievement. Taking such a flawed side to Istanbul was as much down to him as any player. In 2008-09, freed from tactical requirements, he had his finest season, his running, dynamism, goal-scoring and passing leveraged by the cast Rafa Benítez had assembled around him. Fernando Torres, at the peak of his powers ahead of him, and Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso behind him, were a superb bloc, only held back by the relative lack of quality around them. Like Lampard and Scholes, Gerrard has his best seasons when surrounded by the most talent.

But Gerrard was the one of who carried his side most often, partly through his own strength of character, and partly because no teammates were good enough to do the same. He also has the most complicated relationship with his club. Pictured as a child with an Everton top, he also strongly considered leaving for Chelsea twice, and had offers from sides abroad. Yet he also lost a cousin in the Hillsborough tragedy, and watching him last season — during the 25th anniversary of the disaster, at a time when it looks like justice will finally be given to the victims and their families — his captaincy hinted at an emotional bond with fans that there simply isn’t with Lampard or the notably cold Scholes.

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

And that’s why there are so many possible regrets for Gerrard. He was so obviously responsible for inspiring his side to the cusp of the league last season, and it was his slip that stopped them winning it. He will never win the Premier League, but if he had joined Lampard at Chelsea, he almost certainly would have a league title. You get the sense that his career means everything when seeing it through the prism of Liverpool, whereas when he looks at it objectively, there’s not quite enough to satisfy him.

As different as they all are, there is a commonality: their international career. There is little to say that hasn’t already been said about their failure to impress for England. They all have such different qualities as footballers and humans, and yet all of them suffered from lethargy and stage fright, and could not inspire each other to success. In addition, Lampard and Scholes both made the most of their bodies and talent in their careers’ closing stages: Lampard is refreshed at Manchester City; Scholes playing at a high standard thanks to two high-year breaks. It remains to be seen if Gerrard can do the same with the less exacting demands in MLS.

In delaying a move abroad, Lampard has confirmed he misjudged his expiration date, just as Scholes did when he reappeared from retirement to beat Manchester City. The Premier League can’t justify letting Lampard go just yet, but despite his two goals this week against AFC Wimbledon, only the most deluded think it’s unwise to let Gerrard go.

It’s one of the twin cruelties that will exacerbate Gerrard’s regrets. As excellent as he was at his peak, Gerrard’s decline has been sharper and earlier Lampard’s or Scholes’. Now, eight months after nearly claiming his the title, Gerrard is about to end his Premier League career without winner’s medal, and undoubtedly leave Anfield earlier than he expected.

Photo credits, from top-to-bottom: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images; Mike Hewitt/Getty Images; Clive Rose/Getty Images; Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.