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As a reminder, the formation we’re using for this competition is 4-2-3-1. I probably should have titled this “Team of the Decade – Defensive Midfield,” but that seemed too limiting, even if it’s an adequate summation of the formation under Benitez this season (okay, I may still be bitter over Saturday).
Second, and probably controversially, I’m not including Gerrard in this ballot. Whether he’s best in central midfield, on the right, or as a second striker is a valid argument. But it’s an argument I’d rather avoid here. Gerrard’s almost always the second striker/central attacking midfielder in Benitez’s 4-2-3-1. Plus, if I list him here, chances are he wins, and there’s no point discussing him for second striker. Yes, it also renders the vote over second striker moot, but I like this option better. And there are seven good choices to pick from here even without Stevie. This is the one executive decision I’m making. Sorry if you don’t like it.
Pick two from seven. Please pick two; the vote for CB didn’t add up to 100% for two players because some only voted for one. Yes, Carra and Hyypia were always going to win, but I reckon this poll might be a bit closer.
Xabi Alonso (2004-2009)
Too soon. Way too soon to write this, as if it’s some sort of obituary for both Alonso and this season. I’m obviously going to overemphasize his importance because of how this campaign’s gone. Who knows how much his sale – which he forced – is responsible, or injuries, or squad depth, or karma, or whatever. But I miss his cross-field passes. I miss the way his first touch created time and space from nothing. I miss his laugh. I miss his scent. I miss his musk. You know what, let’s just stop now. This is turning out even creepier than intended.
Dietmar Hamann (1999-2006)
The man that changed Istanbul. Naming Kewell as a starter, as a second striker off Baros in a formation similar to the one Liverpool currently deploys, wasn’t one of Benitez’s best moments as a manager. But bringing on Hamann at halftime for a defender sure was, and six crazy minutes saw Liverpool pull level as Didi completely took Kaka out of the game. Smashing in the first penalty was the cherry on top. But to remember him solely for Istanbul is a massive disservice. The quintessential German holding midfielder, but somehow a Scouser through and through. I’m certain that playing alongside Hamann immeasurably improved Gerrard. By 2006, aging and with Sissoko waiting in the wings, he was surplus to requirements, but Didi was dependable to the end.
Some might see his inclusion in this poll as proof of my pro-Lucas bias. It’s a fair accusation. But he’s only played 18 fewer matches than Mascherano and four more than McAllister or Sissoko. That doesn’t mean he’s the equal of either Masch or Macca; I’d vote for both before Lucas. But I’ll keep insisting that the Brazilian is underrated, deserves to be mentioned here, and has the potential to be a top-class central midfielder. Only 22, he's already made 91 appearances at one of the world's biggest clubs in a league with notably few Brazilians. Some growing pains are to be expected, and that he’s been more conservative than hoped, less of a box-to-box midfielder, isn’t all that surprising. There’s more to come, believe me.
Javier Mascherano (2007-present)
Goals: 1 (I’m tempted to count last week’s against Everton as well, but it’s probably Yobo’s)
The monster, the destroyer. Shiva reincarnate. Mascherano is a laser-guided missile that targets and usually takes the ball. On his day, he’s the best defensive midfielder in the world. But, in football vernacular, he’s a water carrier, limited in the opposition half. He hasn’t shown anywhere near the range of passing or creativity needed after the loss of Alonso, and having his head turned by Barca over the summer at the same time Argentina was struggling to qualify for the World Cup certainly didn’t help. But, thankfully, Masch has shown signs of being back to his best in recent games.
Gary McAllister (2000-2002)
Liverpool doesn’t win the treble without Gary McAllister. It simply does not happen. A cool head throughout the season, he was man of the match in the final, with a hand in four of the five goals. It’s a dire shame we didn’t see him in a Liverpool shirt until he was 35, but he was still a peerless midfielder even at that age, and his experience was what gelled the team. Plus, he did this in the 94th minute of a derby at Goodison. That would be a 3-2 winner from 45 yards out. I can watch that all day long.
Danny Murphy (1997-2004)
Danny Murphy, Manc Slayer. Since 2000, Liverpool faced United 11 times with Murphy in the team. They lost only three of those, winning seven (including the Community Shield and League Cup final) over a five-year span where United won three titles. And Murphy scored the winner in three 1-0 games. That alone is enough to make him a legend. Spud was shipped out soon after Benitez arrived because he was one of the few in the squad Rafa could make money on. His sale to Charlton arguably helped finance the Alonso deal, as that’s who he made way for. Or it funded the Josemi deal. Whichever. Murphy’s had a decent career since, and is currently a cornerstone at Fulham as captain, but he’s never hit the heights had as a Red.
Momo Sissoko (2005-2007)
“He’s magic, you know. You’ll never get past Sissoko.” Momo was boss for two seasons, including utterly dominating performances against Barca in the CL and Chelsea in the Community Shield. But when Mascherano was gifted to Liverpool because of West Ham’s stupidity, Sissoko became expendable. The intervening years have shown that Mascherano’s not the vast improvement in passing we had hoped, but he’s a far better all-around midfielder than Momo, who’s done well in Italy after moving to Juventus, where he has the time on the ball he needs.