For years now, Liverpool have been labelled a “one-man-team” by the media. First it was said to be Steven Gerrard carrying his teammates, and more recently Luis Suarez has been credited with winning games single-handedly. For a few seasons the Gerrard-Torres partnership laid the trope to rest, but even then, those two were seen as ‘apart’ from their inferior teammates.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that players credited with making superhuman contributions also receive criticism for not being team players. In the case of Gerrard, this wasn’t so much to do with selfishness, as tactical indiscipline. The Liverpool captain would often roam from his position, leaving gaps behind him when playing a central midfield role, and regardless of the team’s tempo, Liverpool’s iconic number eight would always be set to high-octane.
Although the same observations could be made of Suarez, a high-energy striker with a tendency to roam doesn’t cause the same tactical issues. Instead, it’s Suarez’s reluctance to pass to teammates, often shooting from absurd angles or trying to dribble through crowds instead, that gives the impression the Uruguayan wants to do it all by himself. Of course, his immense talent means that he sometimes pulls off the unorthodox, but for every time he does, there are several others when a simple pass would have sufficed and could have led to a goal.
No More Superheroes
There isn’t anything inherently bad about having a star player. After-all, the best club side in living memory have Lionel Messi, but the key difference between Messi and players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez or Steven Gerrard, is that despite Messi’s individual brilliance, he is very much a team player.
Messi comes across as very humble man, not only off the pitch, but in the way he plays too. There’s no sense that he wants it to be all about him, even if he does inevitably receive the most attention. Despite most of the world hailing Messi as the best player ever, he’s not adored in Argentina in the same way Diego Maradona still is. Talent wise, it seems obvious that Messi is at least Maradona’s equal, and in terms of both individual and team achievements, he is already ahead with half a career left to play. But what Messi doesn’t have is Maradona’s larger-than-life personality and arrogant streak. In football terms, this should be seen as a good thing. At Barcelona’s La Masia, ego is seen as a barrier to success, and players are instead encouraged to show ‘seny’ – a kind of humility and respect which makes for better team players. Indeed, when Deco, Eto’o and Ronaldinho were deemed surplus to Barca’s requirements, it was part of an effort to stop Messi taking on the bad habits of his seniors.
Cults of Personality
The cult of personality surrounding certain players is as dependent on their inflated egos as it is their talent. Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham were arguably better brands than they were footballers, while talents of ‘quiet’ players like Paul Scholes are often under-acknowledged. Off the pitch, Gerrard is more akin to Scholes than he is Beckham; his star-status still very much deserved. Suarez, too, has the skill to back up the hype, and he is more ‘anti-hero’ than ‘golden-boy’, but what all these players have in common is a huge reputation they take with them onto the pitch.
It’s a presence that goes beyond their worth as footballers, giving them an almost mythical quality. This isn’t all bad: it can help to take pressure off teammates while simultaneously intimidating opponents who feel like they are taking on the legend, rather than just the man. Jose Mourinho is an expert at deliberately fostering a notoriety around himself as ‘the special one’, in order to deflect attention and pressure away from his team.
But when it’s a teammate as opposed to a manager relieving pressure from teammates, a star player can also limit others’ sense of agency in the team. For a club like Barcelona, where Messi has other incredible talents like Iniesta and Xavi around him, playing second fiddle isn’t an issue, and the new European champions Bayern Munich don’t have one stand-out star. But for a team of mostly young, yet to be established players, a legend or star player can cast a large, stifling shadow.
Out of the Shadows
It’s sometimes as if lesser or younger players don’t feel entitled to stamp themselves on games when a legend like Gerrard or a star like Suarez is around. If the eleven players on a team are all of a similar status or ability, there’s nobody for players to look towards to win the game for them, and nobody ‘senior’ to berate them for not passing when they try to make something happen themselves. Without a clear hierarchy of ability on the pitch, each player shares the burden of winning equally. Each must take responsibility, and each has the right to express themselves, free from the risk of being told they should have passed to the star player instead. Football being a team game, each player feeling empowered to take collective responsibility ought to make for a better team, and the stats suggest it does.
At one point towards the end of Dalglish’s last season in charge, Liverpool had won 48% of games when Gerrard didn’t start, and only 9% when he did. Since Suarez joined the club, Liverpool have won 39% of games he’s played, scoring 1.58 goals in the process, but 62% without him, while scoring 1.85 goals per game. Last season alone, Liverpool’s win percentage was 83% when Suarez didn’t play, and the team’s best performance came away at Newcastle when Suarez was banned. Coutinho was superb and Sturridge scored a hat-trick, but several others also made notable impacts. Jordan Henderson looked self-assured, Borini got his first league goal when brought on, and Suso enjoyed his first cameo in almost three months. It seemed as if the space vacated by Suarez allowed others to come to the fore.
If players like Jordan Henderson, Fabio Borini and Joe Allen – as well as youngsters like Suso, Sterling and even Coutinho – feel a heightened sense of autonomy without Suarez leading the line, the Uruguayan’s departure could lead to a more fluid, balanced and confident Liverpool side next season.