How do you phase out a legend? Do you keep them on the bench, hoping that their presence and experience is a boon to your team while praying every day that they don’t grow tired of cooling their heels and kick up a fuss? Do you play them until their shaky legs crumble into dust and they’re forced to retire? Do you bid a (maybe not so) fond farewell and sell them on to the first willing buyer to make space for new blood and grant them their wish to die a warrior’s death on the pitch?
If fortunate enough to physically be able to do so, players choose to continue playing for two reasons: Romantically, they continue playing the game they love at the highest level possible till they physically can’t any more, and practically in order to get ducats while the ducat-getting is good. No reasonable person can fault them for this, but the issue this raises is what to do for a loyal servant who simply can’t get the job done?
Steven Gerrard has been a mainstay in Liverpool’s lineup since his debut in 1998 for the Reds. A talisman in the red half of Merseyside, it’s nearly unthinkable to consider LFC turning out sans Captain Fantastic Stevie G at the heart of their midfield. However, at 34 years of age, we’re rapidly approaching the end of the man who came second only to Kenny Dalglish in the comprehensive poll of Anfield’s best ever: “100 Players Who Shook The Kop”. Ask any opposition supporter what their most vivid memory of Steven Gerrard is, and you’ll most likely have to cover your ears from the joyful hoots as they describe his fatal slip against Chelsea to effectively hand Manchester City the title. More telling however, is the fact that the England legend looks increasingly out of his depth in Liverpool’s midfield, with the whispers growing ever louder surrounding his suitability in their midfield three or four.
While the youthful exuberance of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, et al, helped Liverpool to an astonishing second-place finish in the English Premier League this past season, at times it seemed as if Steven Gerrard was more of a hindrance than a catalyst. However, seemingly any time the whispers grew by a decibel, Stevie G would stride forward from his resting place in front of the back four to rescue his Reds as he’s done year after year. This year, things may be different. While having performed admirably in most of the 16 matches he’s appeared in thus far, with four goals and an assist to his name, Gerrard increasingly looks as if the light has appeared at the end of his tunnel. In matches against top-quality opposition his famous engine seems in need of service; the movement and running required to truly dominate the center of midfield as he has in the past is simply impossible at this point in his career. An intelligent player, he has made do with good positional sense to make up for his aging legs, but in today’s increasingly physical game, it’s clearly not enough. Too often and easily is he bypassed in midfield or simply physically overrun, especially later in matches when asked to play 90 minutes as Brendan Rodgers has done often this season.
How then do the Merseysiders, who owe Gerrard such a debt of gratitude, properly move forward without their iconic captain while keeping him in the ranks? Is such a feat possible in modern day football?
Witness the case of Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus. Il Pinturicchio is one of the the most iconic players to don the Old Lady’s shirt. Named in the FIFA 100 list of greatest living footballers, he scored led the Bianconeri to 8 Serie A titles, scoring 208 goals, winning a World Cup for Italy, and delivering Juventus’ last Champions League trophy in 1996. Sticking with the club through the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 and helping drag them straight back up to Serie A after their relegation to Italy’s second tier, Del Piero further cemented his status as untouchable in the hearts of Juventini.
However, with the arrival of Antonio Conte at the start of the 2011-12 season, Del Piero’s status came under jeopardy as the new coach looked to reshape the broken squad in his own image. Relegated to a substitute’s role, Del Piero continued to perform whenever called upon, all the while maintaining his silence and refusing to speak out against his new, diminished status. Ever the consummate professional, all was silent on the Del Piero front until it was announced that La Madama and her Pinturicchio would part ways at the end of his contract in 2012. The news sent shockwaves through the Calcio world, and enraged Juventini. Even further incensing supporters was the manner in which the club handled the announcement, with club President Andrea Agnelli callously announcing the nonrenewal of his contract in a shareholders meeting rather than letting the great man break the news on his own terms.
Aside from the incredibly poor handling of the announcement, Del Piero’s farewell was conducted with relative grace and respect. After clinching the 30th Scudetto, ADP was given a heartwarming lap of honor in his final home match, fittingly after scoring a trademark curler against Atalanta. Substituted in the 59th minute, the last 31 minutes on the pitch were unnoticed as he made his way around the deafening Juventus Stadium for one last time. After months of speculation, Del Piero then announced his intention to move on to Australia’s A-League with Sydney FC where he remained until earlier this year.
Presently, Juventus faces yet another legendary issue: Andrea Pirlo. Having rescued the deep-lying playmaker from Milan on a free transfer in 2011, ironically taking him from current manager Massimiliano Allegri, a rejuvenated Pirlo went on to lead the Bianconeri to three straight Scudetti, and Italy into the final of Euro 2012. Protected by a rotating dynamic midfield of Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio, Pirlo’s jaw-dropping passing range and inventiveness were on show for the world as he and Antonio Conte became the symbols of a newly born Juventus. Reinventing his free kick technique to copy the nearly unstoppable Juninho Pernambucano, Pirlo became nearly automatic from within 25 meters, prompting Juve supporters to coin the term Zona Pirlo for the range in which he was almost sure to score. However, in UEFA Champions League competition, Pirlo at times struggled to work his magic as teams pressed him with athletic, harrying midfielders, depriving him of the space needed to wave his wand.
During the 2014-15 season, Pirlo has faced increasing scrutiny as the combination of injury and (yet to be seen) gradual decline in ability has seemed to leave him out of sorts and off the pace. At 35 years old, even Pirlo’s evergreen legs will not last for ever, especially in this increasingly athletic game. With Paul Pogba on the cusp of being one of the best players in the world, Arturo Vidal firmly in that Venn diagram, Claudio Marchisio growing into Pirlo’s preferred role as regista, and new boy Roberto Pereyra able to slot into midfield with aplomb, the odd man out seems to be Pirlo, especially on recent form. How then, will the management proceed to move forward? Have they learned their lesson from previous mistakes such as with Del Piero and Milan’s disposal of Pirlo himself, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta?
As modern football progresses, it has trended towards incredibly athletic players who also boast superior technical ability. The very best can find their niche in this electrically-paced game, but it becomes more and more difficult with each passing day. With the “win now” mentality of the biggest clubs, especially those in the “super club” category, there almost seems no space for sentimentality or loyalty. Witness the Florentino Perez-led regime at Real Madrid, where Champions League winner and World Cup finalist Angel Di María was sacrificed in his prime for the brightest new toy on the market, James Rodríguez. While Madrid remains an absolute extreme, the fact remains that it seems as if we’ve turned a corner in this new era with regards to the treatment of club legends and longtime servants. With such iconic players such as Francesco Totti in the midst of Roma’s revival, Steven Gerrard in the center of Liverpool’s resurgence, Xavi Hernández at Barcelona and more, the next months and years will be telling for football’s handling of legends in the future.