On August 2nd, Liverpool were in Belarus to play FC Gomel in a qualifying match for the Europa League. The game will be remembered for Brendan Rodgers’ first competitive game as manager of Liverpool (and his first win), but it will also be remembered as Jamie Carragher’s 700th appearance for Liverpool.
‘Legend’ is a word that has been overused to the point where it is has become little more than a hackneyed expression, used for any player who does anything of note, but when ‘legend’ used to describe Carragher, it definitely reflects his status within the club and the high esteem he is held in by both Liverpool fans and his peers. Carragher will be remembered as one of Liverpool’s greatest servants. Carragher is second on the all-time Liverpool appearances list (703 at the time of writing), has made the most European appearances for Liverpool (142 at the time of writing) and has won 11 trophies in the 17 seasons he has been a player. All of these are phenomenal achievements and are testament to the high levels of personal fitness and discipline Carragher has maintained throughout his career.
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Carragher’s level of performance is declining at an alarming rate. Carragher has never been particularly blessed with pace, but as he has aged, he has slowed down drastically and he cannot make the tackles and blocks he used to and as a result his foul count has increased. It has now got to the stage that Carragher’s inclusion in the team now inspires dread amongst Liverpool fans, where once Carragher inspired such confidence that he would have been the last player Liverpool fans would have worried about.
Last season, Carragher was ousted from being first-choice at centre-back, as Liverpool’s defence looked far better when Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were the centre-backs. Even so, Carragher still managed to make 21 Premier-League appearances last season, so was still very much in Kenny Dalglish’s plans. Even though Dalglish has gone, Carragher still appeared to be in the plans of Brendan Rodgers, with Rodgers calling him ‘a model professional’ and citing him as an example to young players to follow.
On Sunday, Daniel Agger was suspended for Liverpool’s home opener against Manchester City. The big worry for Liverpool fans was who would replace Agger in defence. Would it be Carragher, or the undoubtedly talented, but inconsistent, Sebastian Coates?
A couple of seasons ago, it would have been unthinkable that the answer would have been anything but Carragher; in fact it would have been unthinkable to have talked about Carragher in terms of being a replacement for anybody, as he was the linchpin of Liverpool’s defence. It would definitely have been unthinkable that the prospect of playing Carragher would have been greeted with anxiety by Liverpool fans. In the end, Brendan Rodger opted for the more mobile Sebastian Coates, who put in a good performance that seems to have leapfrogged him above Carragher in terms of the pecking order.
This throws Carragher’s Liverpool future into real doubt. For years Carragher was the main man in Liverpool’s defence, now he’s seemingly fourth-choice, and that may not even be the case for much longer as there is definitely a case to try Martin Kelly at centre-back, where he looks a better fit. So what does the future now hold for Carragher?
Carragher in his career has epitomised everything a Liverpool fans want their players to be. He has played every game with all of the passion, determination and commitment to the cause any fan could wish for. Despite his flaws, or more accurately, because of his flaws, and because he’s retained a sense of humour, humility and a personality that makes it so easy for fans, especially scouse fans, to relate to him, Carragher is one of the most beloved Liverpool players. ‘We all dream of a team of Carraghers’ (sung to the tune of yellow submarine), has been one of the most popular songs sung by Liverpool fans for the past few years.
Many players have a rocky start to their career, particularly if they start their career at a Premier League club. Carragher didn’t just have a rocky start to his career; he had a rocky first few years. Carragher came into the league as a central midfielder (he was actually a striker when he was younger), but was deployed all over the back four. It was obvious that Gerard Houllier liked Carragher, and wanted to have him in his team, but was never quite sure where to play him. Carragher played one season at left-back, another at right-back as well as a few games in central-defence.
Carragher was a victim of his own versatility and was unfairly regarded by many as a player who was just keeping a place until a better player came along. Other players did come along seemingly to replace Carragher, but Carragher saw them off and kept his place in the team. It wasn’t until Rafa Benitez took charge of Liverpool that Carragher found a regular home at centre-back. The success of the Sami Hyypia- Stephane Henchoz partnership had prevented Carragher from playing too many games at centre back in previous seasons, but as Henchoz was on his way out of the club, Carragher proved to be a more than able replacement.
I always think of centre-backs as falling into two categories, proactive and reactive, and the best central defensive partnerships usually feature one of each. Proactive centre-backs are the ones who are good at reading the game, being able to sniff out danger and manage to stop a problem before it starts. Reactive centre-backs are the ones that are good when the ball is in the box and it looks like a shot on goal is imminent. They are the players who are willing to put their bodies on the line to make a block, to put themselves in situations where other players wouldn’t and who will make the last-ditch, goal-saving tackles.
However, it is reactive defenders that have shorter careers. As players age, they lose their pace and get injured more often. That is crucial, as it means that they can no longer make the same blocks and tackles that they used to, and their game declines as a result. With proactive defenders, a decline in pace is less important; there’s an old saying in football that some players have the first yard in their head, which means that because they read the game better than other players, they react quicker, meaning that they don’t need that extra yard of pace. That is why some central defenders can remain effective well into their late thirties, which is long after players in that position usually retire.
Carragher is a reactive defender; he isn’t a good enough reader of the game for his declining legs to not be a problem, and he just can’t do the things he used to do anymore. He has made a career out of putting his body on the line for his team, which makes the number of appearances he has made all the more impressive. When Liverpool won the Champions League in Istanbul, it was largely down to the defending, and sheer will, of Carragher who single-handedly repelled wave after wave of Milan attacks. I’ll never forget Carragher throwing himself at the ball to make a block in extra-time, having to be treated for cramp as a result, then doing exactly the same again seconds later.
Carragher is also a victim of the changing roles of a central defender. Carragher is an old-fashioned ‘stopper’, but that isn’t good enough in the modern game. For the best teams, Centre-backs now need to do more than just purely defend. They are often required to start attacks, which means that they need greater ability on the ball than was once required, and that just isn’t Carragher’s forte. In Brendan Rodgers’ system, which places great value on ball-retention and possession, it is hard to see how someone with the limited passing ability of Carragher can fit in.
Sadly, Carragher is now starting to resemble a boxer who has hung around for one fight too many. He deserves better than the poor performances he is now putting in. He deserves better than for his inclusion in a teamsheet to be a source of concern for Liverpool fans. He deserves better than for fans to be watching him with anxiety, waiting for his next mistake. He deserves a chance to bow out gracefully.
Carragher does still have options. Carragher has previously stated that if he was no longer first-choice for Liverpool, he’d move on to another club. He still loves playing the game and wishes to play on as long as possible. I’m sure there are plenty of sides who’d want him if that was what he wished to do and Liverpool would not stand in his way.
Carragher has managed to retain the same level of love and enthusiasm for the game that he had as a kid, he is a real student of the game and has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of football. Carragher was a pundit for this summer’s European Championships for a British TV station, and proved himself to be an excellent analyst (for those who could understand his accent anyway!), able to educate the viewer and providing frank, intelligent analysis, so it would appear a career in the media is waiting for him should he want it.
Carragher has started working on his coaching badges, and has been touted as a future manager, maybe a future Liverpool manager. I’m sure that Brendan Rodgers would be more than happy to find a role for Carragher coaching in the youth academy should he want one, and would be glad to utilise his experience, knowledge of the game and excellent leadership qualities. Equally I’m sure there would be many lower-league clubs who would value Carragher’s expertise as a coach, or possibly a player-coach and would give him a foothold into management.
As a Liverpool fan, I’ve been privileged to have been able to watch two of the clubs greatest ever players in Carragher, and Steven Gerrard, on a regular basis for a large part of my life. Sadly, Carragher is in decline, and it’s hard to see him ever regaining a place in the team on merit. With Premier League clubs now having to register 25 players, teams can no longer afford carry passengers, which as it pains me to write, Carragher has become.
Carragher probably doesn’t believe his time playing for Liverpool is coming to an end. He probably still believes that he still has plenty to offer the club, and that is a sentiment I totally agree with. I just don’t believe that what he still has to offer includes playing anymore. My hope is that Carragher bows out gracefully and that Liverpool then give him a coaching role, which will keep such a great servant to Liverpool at the club where he belongs.