Benitez fights back in row over ideal role for Gerrard

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The Independent Football

Steven Gerrard cut an isolated figure as Liverpool lost at Old Trafford on Sunday. At times he seemed to look as longingly towards central midfield as a small boy staring through a toy shop window. He had better get used to it. That was the message from Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, to his captain last night.

Benitez insisted his usage of the 26-year-old midfielder was best for Gerrard, and best for Liverpool. Drawing a parallel with the way Gerrard is deployed in the England team he said: "I am as happy as Steve McClaren with Steven Gerrard and where he is playing.

"Steve scored 23 goals last season, playing on the right side of midfield. He is not being played as a right winger. Are you seeing him making crosses from the byline? No.

"He is always getting the ball and coming inside, that is what the role is. And he had the best season of his career playing that way.

"England can see that and that is where they are playing him too. Yes, Stevie can play well in central midfield, he could play well anywhere. But we have more balance with Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso there, and with Stevie wider. That works for our team. He goes inside and scores 23 goals, that surely is a good role for him."

The whisper on Merseyside is that Gerrard disagrees, with both his coaches. Earlier this year he told reporters his inconsistent form with the international team was due to his playing in his preferred position less than a handful of times.

But Benitez said: "I have talked to Stevie, and he is happy. He is the captain and must be an example for the rest and he knows that the most important thing is the club, the team, the supporters and after that, the players." Which, reading between the lines, suggests Gerrard is anything but happy at being played on the flank, but accepts that as captain it is his duty to put the team first.

Benitez continued: "I think Stevie is as happy here as he is with the national team, where he is playing on the right in a new era with Steve McClaren.

"Let's see the next England game whether he plays in the centre with Frank Lampard. Let's wait to see how England use him: I believe that will be on the right side."

But while McClaren and Benitez both play Gerrard on the right they do so for different reasons. McClaren does because he has recognised, unlike Sven Goran Eriksson, that Gerrard and Lampard cannot play in tandem in central midfield. A holding player is required. With Gerrard being more versatile, and David Beckham's exile creating a vacancy, it is the Liverpool man who is shunted to the right wing.

Benitez plays Gerrard on the right because he believes he lacks the tactical discipline to play in the centre, in part because his desire to influence the game sees him trying to put out fires, or create ones, all over the pitch. Benitez wants two central midfielders prepared to hold their shape while the team attack on the flanks.

Benitez has also had to defend his own record after the surrender to Manchester United which left the team 11 points adrift of the Premiership leaders.

He said: "We knew [the game] was important and we were all obviously disappointed. But we cannot continue to think like that, we have to look to the future. Last season at one stage we were 24 points behind Chelsea but we finished with 82 points, a club record, and finished third.

"It is worse because it was against Manchester United, but you must learn that if you want to change things you cannot allow yourselves to have your heads down for long.

"You cannot move on if you are always blaming people, forget that. Only winning can change things and avoid a mental problem taking hold.

"People forget. When I arrived here we lost at Burnley in the FA Cup and we were told we were the worst Liverpool side in 40 years. We won the Champions' League that season and reached the Carling Cup final. That wasn't bad, surely.

"The second season we improved, and we were much, much closer to Chelsea and we won many games in a row at the end of the season. And then we won the FA Cup, the European Super Cup and managed 33 clean sheets. That wasn't bad either.

"This season we have won the Community Shield, and you must have won something big to be in that. So in three seasons we have been in six finals and won four. Not bad, no? We have won trophies, we have improved and we have done that without the money of Chelsea and Manchester United."

Of course, the two most spectacular triumphs, the Champions' League and FA Cup wins, both depended heavily on heroic performances by Gerrard ­ playing in central midfield.