In retrospect, it was the right move. The game was tied 1-1 when Gerrard exited. The game finished 2-1. Lucas was heavily involved, setting up an excellent chance for Voronin in the 77th minute, and taking the cool, composed shot in injury time that Phil Neville had to handle to prevent a goal.
And yet, because it’s Gerrard, and because Benitez has come under a lot of scrutiny recently, people seem upset with the decision.
I agree with many; Sissoko played far worse than Gerrard, and was far guiltier for the majority of Liverpool’s turnovers.
But this discussion really begins and ends with Benitez’s post-match comments:
“In this game, sometimes you need to play with the brain and we were playing with heart. We needed to keep the ball and pass the ball.”Admittedly, that’s a bit harsh, and I’m surprised to see Rafa so forthright. But it’s true. For all of Sissoko’s faults, and believe me, many were on display, Gerrard tried to do everything on his own, when the final ball wasn’t coming off for him, and was breaking up Liverpool’s attacks as much as Sissoko’s giveaways.
If Lucas comes on for Sissoko, does the way Liverpool plays change at all?
Lucas would have been subservient (for lack of a better term) to Gerrard in the center, and the problems Benitez spoke about would have continued. Liverpool’s shape would have still been contorted, as Gerrard did not stay on the left or right, nor was there room for him in the center with both Mascherano and Sissoko involved. And while Sissoko did little different after Gerrard went off and missed a glorious chance in the 79th minute, Lucas’s disciplined involvement turned the game in Liverpool’s favor.
I don’t want to put the cart so far in front of the horse, but Lucas was Alonso-esque yesterday, and Liverpool needed that sort of presence.
How this affects Gerrard I’m less sure about. Hopefully not at all, or even better, it pushes Gerrard to improve. But I do fear being brought off could negatively affect his confidence at a time where he’s not had the best spell for either Liverpool or England. Which is why I was so heartened by the way he celebrated Kuyt’s second goal and after the match.
Look, the name of this blog is “Oh You Beauty” for a reason. Steven Gerrard can be an absolutely immaculate player, and has saved Liverpool’s bacon time and time again. Olympiakos, AC Milan, West Ham, Luton; the list goes on, and that’s just the last couple of years. And it’s hard to fault him, especially as a local lad, for doing all he could to try and beat the city rivals, especially with his CV. But, and I think even he’d admit it, he’s not been at his best since the Chelsea match, although he is getting back on form bit by bit.
And while it’s very strange to write this when talking about Gerrard, no player is bigger than the team. Liverpool winning is what matters. Usually, that means Gerrard has a role to play given his importance and influence, and we’ve seen him “take the game by the scruff of the neck” and lead Liverpool to victory. But yesterday, cooler heads were necessary, and Stevie tried to do too much on his own.
Also, for all the stick that Benitez gets over his substitutions, in hindsight the only thing he did wrong yesterday was not bringing on Pennant for Sissoko until around 5 minutes were left. Bringing on Babel, whose speed can turn a game, for Benayoun, was the right move. I hope I’ve explained why I believe bringing on Lucas for Gerrard was the right move. Pennant for Sissoko was also a smart substitution, even if I think it should have happened earlier.
Credit to Benitez; I’ve complained about subs in the past, but the way the bench was managed on Saturday won Liverpool this derby. Rafa spotted where a substitute could change the game, made the substitution, and the game changed for the better. End of.
If complaints like these arise when Liverpool wins a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, I’d hate to see what would have happened had Liverpool drawn or lost.