It is a debate that has resulted in many a squabble over the past decade. Whether it has been quarrelled over a few pints down the pub or a dispute brought up in the immediate aftermath of yet another uninspiring England performance, most if not all British football fans will have had this discussion.
Yet the question of who you would rather have, Lampard or Gerrard, in that essential midfield role is one which I would argue doesn’t deserve the air time it gets.
The argument may now be less of a contemporary relevance than it once was; with both Premiership stalwarts now past their peaks as they ride into their mid 30s. The Premiership agenda has moved on from this classic debate to one of future English midfields (Wilshere, Cleverly, Rodwell, Oxlade Chamberlain) and foreign maestro domination (Mata, Silva, Toure, Cazorla).
However here is a question that was once at the heart of English, British and (at the risk of being arrogant) I dare say world football. Everyone had an opinion, everyone chose, either Lampard or Gerrard.
This, I put to you, is the fundamental flaw of the discussion. They cannot be compared and swapped about for one another. While they are both midfielders who have central positions; the roles they have within their team’s systems are different, they have vastly diverse playing styles and varying attributes which make comparison between them not only difficult but ultimately futile.
If you were to look at a comparison between Lampard and Gerrard in terms of their honours achieved, there would be relatively little to choose from. Both have been lucky enough to win the Champions League and an Europa League/UEFA Cup, they have 11 major domestic cups between them (five for Gerrard and six for Lampard) and two Community Shields each.
The only glaring omission from either player’s record is the fact that Gerrard has (so far) failed to win a Premier League title with Liverpool, while Lampard has three - a difference that can be explained by Chelsea’s cash injection to produce title winning squads.
According to the BBC archive of statistics; internationally Gerrard has 102 caps and 19 goals to his name while Lampard has collected 97 caps and scored an impressive 29 times for his country.
Their club career statistics also boast impressive reading. At the end of the 2012-13 season Gerrard has 159 goals in 629 games (1 every 3.96 games) while Lampard holds 243 goals in 804 appearances (1 every 3.3 games) as his record.
The above stats only enhance the idea that there is little to choose between these two players and either one could do a similar job in any midfield. Not the case. Stats without context can always be misleading and while these are impressive for any Premiership midfielder, they do not tell the full story.
I first of all point you to the ‘playing style’ of each player. While they can both be described as central midfielders, the fact is that they have distinct attributes which set them apart from each other.
Gerrard at his pomp was the personification of the box-to-box midfielder. His drive and dynamism in centre of midfield is unsurpassed in Premier League history and only rivalled by the likes of Patrick Vieira.
A combination of strength in the tackle and ability to drive up and down the pitch for an entire 90 minutes is an attribute not many footballers are blessed with. Throughout his days at Liverpool he has been one of a two man central midfield partnership which typically requires an understanding between the two that both cannot bomb forward at once.
His more conservative positioning in comparison to Lampard’s typically more advanced role demonstrates his defensive responsibilities. Throughout his career he has been seen to dig in defensively, making last ditch tackles and helping organise his back line when under pressure. A set of duties which, I would argue, are not carried out nearly as much by Lampard.
Lampard is a player that I would not represent as a box-to-box midfielder. His role at Chelsea has been typically as the point of a diamond four in midfield or as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
His superior goal scoring record reflects this more advanced role. While at times he may have been altered within the Chelsea system to play a more traditional central midfield role, he does not possess the same engine or physical attributes Gerrard has in that capacity. His most effective role is that of a playmaker off the front line, where his goal getting prowess can shine.
These differing styles of play and opposing attributes, both physical and technical, result in each player carrying out a completely different role within their teams. These different roles have been facilitated by the tactics employed by both Liverpool and Chelsea over the past decade.
Lampard’s function for the majority of his career has been to complement the frontline, link attacks together and, of course, to score goals. He is not the single driving force behind his team, he does not dictate play and he does not get overly involved in defensive duties.
He is a mere supplement of the Chelsea attack, and an extremely successful one at that.
Both Abramovich’s spending at Chelsea and the tactics employed by various managers have facilitated Lampard’s role at Chelsea as the goal scoring midfielder. The position just behind the front line is where Lampard has plied his trade and performed most effectively. This results in little defensive responsibility as well as being a supplement to players who are able to control and dictate attacks.
Chelsea have repeatedly spent money on players that can aid Lampard in this role. Makelele, Mikel and Essien have all been employed as defensive midfielders in the Chelsea tactical set up to allow for that role behind the frontline. Where Lampard has lacked guile, flair and ability to control a game, Chelsea have made up for it with the like of Deco, Robben, Ballack and Mata.
Gerrard’s role at Liverpool is almost incompatible with Lampard’s at Chelsea and thus renders the argument of who is superior pointless. Where Lampard supplements attacks; Gerrard is the driving force behind the majority of Liverpool’s ventures forward and has been the key architect behind all of their play for the past decade.
Gerrard will come short and take the ball from the back line, spread passes and release through balls for more forward thinking players down the field. He is also capable of linking attacks further up the pitch and being instrumental in the final third. His range of passing combined with pace, drive and strength results in his ability to control an entire game and dominate from central midfield.
Gerrard has been able to do this with a considerably poorer pool of players in his party. Only during a brief spell did he relinquish defensive duties as he was asked to play behind single front-man Torres, where he was uninspiring at best. Otherwise he, unlike Lampard, does not rely on others for defensive duties. He is also able to control games with a weaker supporting cast. Where Chelsea have been able to spend copious amounts of money helping Lampard flourish, Alonso and Mascherano aside, their midfield collection has been noticeably of inferior quality.
With no disrespect to Lampard, Gerrard’s control of a game by the scruff of the neck is something he has not been able to match. The symbolic example of Gerrard’s capacity in this role was during Liverpool’s 2004-2005 Champions League winning campaign. “That goal” late on against Olympiakos at Anfield capped off a typically genius performance from Gerrard as he dragged them almost single handed out of Champions League elimination. He then led his team to another unbelievable comeback performance against European specialists AC Milan in Istanbul.
Perhaps these distinctly different attributes and styles are one of the reasons that these two fantastic midfielders were never able to strike up a potent partnership for the national side. England traditionally employ a 4-4-2 formation and deposit Lampard in an arguably alien role to him.
Finding a formation that best suited both players has plagued almost every England manager in the last decade. This is merely speculation of course, but could very well be a way to explaining their failure in creating a fruitful relationship at international level.
The above observations about both midfielders’ playing styles over their careers have only been further vindicated by this season’s events.
Lampard, while sometimes being out of favour, has added to Chelsea’s attacks, supplementing the likes of Mata, Oscar and Hazard while Ramires and Mikel provide defensive cover. Gerrard has regained his form as a driving central midfielder for both club and country and is flourishing in both a deeper role in midfield as well as enjoying his partnership with Luis Suarez.
Despite both players delving into the twilight of their careers I have no doubt that the debate about “who you would rather have in your team, Lampard or Gerrard,” will rage on for some time.
However, I propose that the question is completely senseless. Both are magnificent at what they do and both have their merits in going down as two of the best midfielders to ever grace the Premiership. But when it comes down to it, they are incomparable. Lampard would be unable to perform the role Gerrard has at Liverpool for the past decade and arguably the same could be said about the reverse.
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