Thursday 30 April 2015

Xavi and Gerrard: 500 Games Each, But Worlds Apart?

It was almost 399 years after the day both Shakespeare and Cervantes passed away when Steven Gerrard and Xavi Hernández both played their 500th league game for their respective clubs. As for these writers, although contemporaries, both players have quite distinct styles. It is not just that they are different. Gerrard is a ‘box-to-box’ player, said to be a protagonist of a game of times passed, whereas Xavi, the technical virtuoso, typifies a more modern game. In light of their distinct styles, many may appreciate linking Xavi to a literary genius; fewer in the case of Stevie G. In this post, I present a personal comparison of both jubilee celebrators and explain that a main reason why Gerrard is considered the ugly duckling of the two may be due to a matter of - bad - timing.

Source: sport.es

In his excellent book on football tactics, Universality: The Blueprint for Soccer’s New Era, Matthew Whitehouse speaks of Gerrard in terms of “the classic midfielder of the late 1990’s”, which faded away with the advent of the 2000’s. Xavi, on the other hand, is labelled “a technician, ideally suited to the contemporary game and its needs” and “the best midfielder of his generation”. These views also seem reflected in the way both clubs are currently treating their veterans: whereas Barça President Bartomeu told Xavi he has earned himself the right to decide whether and how long to remain at the club, Gerrard was made to understand it was time for him to leave Liverpool FC. Xavi’s place in football stardom is definitely well deserved. But is Gerrard’s in the periphery really granted?

Both Xavi and Gerrard started their club careers at the end of the previous millennium and, since, have turned into icons of their respective clubs. The highlight in both players’ club careers has been winning a Champions League and receiving the man-of-the match award for their individual performance in the final. Both respective games could hardly have been more telling of both protagonists. In 2005, Gerrard saw his team 3-0 behind at half time in the CL final against AC Milan. After scoring the 3-1 with a rare, thumping header, the captain windmilled his arms, urging the Reds’ fans this one wasn’t over till it was over. The rest went into history as the 'miracle of Istanbul' and ended with Gerrard lifting the trophy. Four years later, FC Barcelona would beat Man. U. 2-0, with Xavi demonstrating his sublime skill throughout the game and presenting Messi the second goal with an inch-perfect assist.

Fighting spirit vs. a touch of class. In contemporary football the former seems to have lost its appeal, in favour of the latter. In the case of Gerrard and Xavi, is it fair to say the latter is really superior, in terms of efficacy? Although goals and assists, admittedly, only tell a partial story, comparing both players on this basis seems informative, for two reasons. First, both played 500 league games, a large enough number to rule out most randomness and coincidence. Second, both are midfielders whose team contribution lies primarily in the build-up of the attack and setting up goals.

Comparing both players' vital stats, it can be noted that, in 500 league matches, Gerrard scored 117 goals; Xavi 56. Let’s have Gerrard’s 32 penalty goals count only for half, adjusting the statistic to 101 goals. Xavi is the king of assists, with 110; Gerrard has 68. That makes a total of 169 goals + assists for Gerrard vs. 166 for Xavi. Moreover, as over the period in which Gerrard and Xavi were active, the average number of goals in a Premier-League game is 2.64 as compared to 2.68 in a Liga game, a goal/assist in the Premier League seems even slightly more difficult/decisive. The vital stats, thus, do not seem to bear out the difference in relative superiority typically perceived in both players. Then why this perception?

In addition to the outspoken differences in success with their respective national teams – only Xavi was part of a golden generation – a major explanatory factor is that the world seemed to be ready and waiting for the Xavi-type of player, while it was, at the same time, tired of and not yet ready for Gerrard. Together with contemporaries such as Iniesta, Messi and David Silva, Xavi defied the obtain logic that there was no space at the front stage of world football for small and frail technicians. Shortly after the “rise of the little man”, as Whitehouse calls it, however, they seemed to dominate world football, through both FC Barcelona and Spain. General appreciation for the novelty of this type of player and his flair are evident in the FIFA Ballon d’Ôr’s nominations: Messi has been on the stage during all five ceremonies, Xavi and Iniesta both twice. Xavi became one of the billboards of a new type of football – tiki-taka – featuring an exciting new type of player.

Gerrard is much less atypical – tall and athletic, with physical prowess, power and endurance being his key attributes. He was often considered too old-school, not refined enough for the modern game. Although most popular in the traditional English game, the ‘box-to-box’ player seems much less vital in newly emerging formations, notably the 4-2-3-1. During the 2005/2006 season, then-Liverpool manager Benitez considered Gerrard not tactically disciplined enough to be at the centre of the field as he “wanted to do everything himself” and preferred to play his captain wide or as support striker. Stevie G did not let it get to his heart and scored 23 goals in all competitions that season.

Coaches have been playing the Liverpool skipper in a range of positions: defensive midfielder, central midfielder, number 10, support striker, winger and right midfielder. Gerrard's versatility, then, seems to resonate with the “universal player” of the imminent future, which Whitehouse speaks of, i.e. the type of player who excels in many different positions and formations, allowing for fluidity of play and tactics, even in a single game, personified by Philip Lahm. In this sense, Gerrard probably came to the stage too early. 

In contrast, Xavi, who played in just one position, viz. central midfield, made his career at the same time that the type of football he was playing flourished, a possession-based type of play summed up by Xavi's statement that "if you are not going to pass the ball then why play the game?", which, today, not even Barça or Guardiola’s Bayern are attempting to perform anymore. Obviously, Xavi was not just lucky with this; he contributed to the success of his type of football. For Gerrard, it has always rather been an uphill battle: too late as a ‘box-to-box’; a universal type of player avant-la-lettre.

In spite of this, comparing their vital league stats at their respective clubs, Gerrard does not seem to have to shy away from Xavi’s. But, as Xavi accurately notes, “in football, the result is an imposter. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting – a legacy”. And to leave a legacy, it helps being a child of your time.