Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes: A Conversation
2,067 appearances. 548 goals. 355 assists. 42 trophies (Community shields excluded, obviously). One distressingly unsuccessful England midfield. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes are the 3 greatest English midfielders of all time, and bona fide footballing legends.
Player comparisons are often contaminated by the stark contrast of footballing eras, because how can you accurately measure Maradona’s career, playing on 80’s minefields against Italian cage fighters, to Messi’s, gliding across emerald carpets wearing 15g boots?
The trio’s synchronised primes, like a perfectly weighted through ball, lay on a plate the golden chance to have a fair, objective and logically sound conversation about who the better player was. Unfortunately, football fans are almost exclusively the polar opposite of these things, and prefer to argue as if they’ve just received a Nigel de Jong kung-fu kick to the skull. The tribal warfare of English football means, to United fans, ‘Scholesy’s clear’, to Chelsea fans, ‘It’s Lampard. There are levels to this game’ and for Liverpool fans, “Stevie G’s the best there was, the best there is, and the best there ever will be”. Twitter is a truly toxic place.
It’s a debate that has many different angles to it, and no definitive answer.
In terms of team trophies, Scholes had by far the most successful career, winning every club competition possible. Alongside Roy Keane, he was the engine room of United’s 98/99 treble winning side, arguably one of the greatest of all time. He won 3 Premier League titles in a row…twice, as well as 2 Champions Leagues. When Scholes returned from retirement in 2012, aged 37, to help steer a waning United side to his 11th league title and 22nd major honour, it only further confirmed his status as a pathological winner and the perfect poster boy for United’s relentless machine led by Sir Alex Ferguson during the 90s and 00s.
Lampard too, was part of a memorable team, the centrepiece of Mourinho’s seamlessly efficient Chelsea side, cruising to the 04/05 title shipping just 15 goals, and doubling up the season after. A league and FA Cup double under Ancelotti in 09/10 followed, before crowning his Chelsea career in 2012, captaining them to Champions League glory against Bayern Munich at the Allianz. Whilst, like most, the majority of his 13 years at Chelsea were spent watching Scholes’ side lifting titles, like that rainy night in Moscow in 2008, Lampard still jetted off to the MLS in 2014 with every major club trophy under his belt and his name carved into history as Chelsea’s greatest ever player.
Of the three, Gerrard is undoubtedly the player who, trophy-wise, massively underachieved. The 9 he won with Liverpool were much harder come by than any won by Scholes or Lampard, and 2 of them wouldn’t have even happened had it not been for Gerrard’s electrifying influence. Unfortunately, his career will always be marked by the Premier League title that eluded him so tantalisingly in 08/09 and 13/14. Nonetheless, to retire with a Champions League, UEFA Cup, 3 League Cups and 2 FA Cups, often alongside players echelons below him in class, demands a high degree of respect. In an era of football where loyalty can be bought with the right sized wage packet, a player of Gerrard’s calibre staying at his boyhood club, despite desperate world record bids from Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ and Mourinho’s Chelsea, is a rare occurrence. If he had switched colours, he would certainly have retired a far more decorated player, and won the numerous league titles his ability deserved. However, to succeed as he did, with the club often on his shoulders, tells you everything about Gerrard’s legacy.
Whilst they may mean the most to players and fans, if team trophies alone were to define a player’s greatness, then the two greatest footballers of all-time would be Dani Alves and Dynamo Kyiv’s Oleksandr Shovkovskiy. Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t even touch the top 10.
Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes were all supremely talented but, despite all playing the same position on paper, incredibly distinguishable footballers. Their individual roles within their sides were vastly different and fluid throughout their careers. Scholes was United’s orchestrator, whether it was operating in a 4-5-1, 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, he used his exceptional first touch and IQ to control midfields, playing tight one-twos, raking long passes and threaded through balls. His output of 0.32 G/A per game is the lowest of the three, and that certainly reflects his role as the player that would primarily start moves off, expertly feeding the more prolific players ahead of him like Beckham, Giggs, Ronaldo and Rooney. Numbers do not do him justice, and any respectable Premier League fan will tell you Paul Scholes was one of, if not the, best strikers of a football in the world. His 5”6, skinny frame meant that the physical and defensive side of his game left a lot to be desired and his tackles were often late, or not there at all, leaving the impenetrable Keane to do the dirty work. But it was a perfect storm, allowing the little ginger technician to weave, jink and slice his way through midfields, in a way that few teams could resist.
Gerrard and Lampard were more talismanic for their sides, their impact transcended what they did when in possession or making a tackle. Gerrard especially, had an ability to take games by the scruff of the neck, and drag the other 10 players up to his level. This cannot be seen any more clearly than the 2005 Champions League final against probably the greatest AC Milan side ever. 3-0 down at half-time, Gerrard scored a brilliant first, won the penalty for the equaliser and finished the game at right back. That Liverpool side included Djimi Traore and Harry Kewell. It was not even from the same planet as the likes of Kaka, Shevchenko, Pirlo and Seedorf. Yet, it was the 473 times Liverpool captain who was the leveller. Watch any of Liverpool’s greatest games from 1998-2015, and Gerrard was probably the best player on the pitch. Apart from 2 seasons alongside Mascherano and Alonso, he was consistently deprived of world class midfield partners. In that time Gerrard produced what he admits was his best football, playing off of the mercurial Fernando Torres, bursting through defences and dominating European ties against Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Arsenal. From becoming captain at 23 to scoring two screamers in an FA Cup final, his Liverpool tenure was spent with the weight of an entire city on his back and it’s this expectation that often overshadowed his footballing prowess. He was dynamic, creative and clinical going forward whilst being a supreme tackler and leader in his own half. He is the only one of the three that could be said to have been world class in 3 different positions, a defensive midfield quarterback, explosive centre midfielder and ruthless second striker. With 0.45 G/A per game and an affinity for making crucial games his own, the ultimate compliment Gerrard can be paid is that, despite his success, we are still left asking what could have been?
Lampard was a slightly different beast. He truly came to life in the final third of the pitch. There was perhaps nothing more inevitable than his late arrival to smash, slide or head home balls into the box. For aesthetic value, Lampard was not the perfectly balanced craftsman that Scholes was, or an effortless athlete like Gerrard (he can thank West Ham fans for ‘Fat Frank’) but instead took the title of ‘goalscoring midfielder’ and made it his very own. With just the 210, he retired as Chelsea’s all-time top goal scorer and the Premier League’s 5th highest, on 177, two more than Thierry Henry. An impressive 0.56 G/A per game, as well as scoring double figures in 12 (yes, 12) consecutive Premier League seasons, demonstrates the Chelsea legend’s exceptional productivity. However, to ignore the roles played by Makelele, Essien and Ballack, in giving Lampard the license to roam forward and create, would be unjust. Their proficiency at shielding the back 4, much like Keane or Carrick with Scholes, meant Lampard rarely had to look over his shoulder, and was free to occupy the half-spaces, make perfectly timed runs and link almost telepathically with Drogba and Anelka. It is his finishing that he will be remembered for. Whether it was a deft backheel volley vs Stoke, an inch-perfect lob vs Hull or a precise turn and volley vs Bayern, no midfielder has ever found the back of the onion bag with the same unerring consistency.
What these comparisons shouldn’t do, is overlook the fact that all 3 were capable of everything in the midfielder’s playbook at a world class level. All 3 could spray a perfectly flighted switch ball right onto a winger’s toes. All 3 could turn on a sixpence, beat a man and play a defence splitting pass. All 3 could pick the ball up 30 yards from goal and send a missile into the top corner. It was what was required of them by their teams that often dictated how they played and contributed. Being part of brilliant treble and double winning teams, surrounded by outstanding footballers allowed Lampard and Scholes to refine and excel their crafts. Gerrard, the 2001 'poor-man's' treble aside, didn’t have that and throughout the course of not just his career, but seasons and even games, had to perform in various different capacities to counteract the inadequacies of Liverpool’s sides. Ultimately this was the key differential to their varying club success, why Lampard and Scholes’s teams won successive Premier League titles and why Gerrard’s were only ever second best.
Individual honours paint a different picture. To illustrate the influence each had on their sides, it is interesting that Gerrard and Lampard both won their club’s player of the year award 3 times. Scholes was never recognised as United’s player of the year. In fact, Scholes’s most significant individual honour was being in the PFA Team of the Year in 02/03 and 06/07. Lampard and Gerrard were consistently recognised by fans, journalists and most importantly their fellow professionals, as being amongst the world’s elite.
Gerrard won PFA Young POTY and Fans’ POTY in 00/01, PFA Players’ POTY in 05/06, and finally FWA Footballer of the Year and Fans’ POTY, for a second time, in 08/09. He also earned a place in the PFA TOTY a record 8 times throughout his career, as well as the FIFPro World XI 3 times, which led to inclusion in the UEFA Team of the Century, alongside the irresistible Barcelona duo of Xavi and Iniesta.
Lampard picked up PFA Fans’ POTY, Premier League POTY and FWA POTY all in 2005, whilst being included in the PFA TOTY 3 times between 2003 and 2006. He made the FIFProWorld XI once, in 2005, following an utterly dominant season which saw him provide 19 goals and 21 assists on the way to a league and cup double.
As if that weren’t enough, they were recognised as the 2nd and 3rd best players in the world in 2005, picking up the silver (Lampard) and bronze (Gerrard) Ballon d’Or awards. The only player deemed better? A certain pony-tailed Brazilian you may have heard of.
Although they are by no means gospel, the opinions of those who play against, write about and watch these players, week in week out, cannot be taken lightly. If your peers decide you were the best player in the league that season, then you were undeniably that. Who better to judge a footballer’s ability, than footballer’s themselves?
These achievements signify that whilst Scholes undoubtedly played for the best teams in the Premier League era, Lampard and Gerrard were far more impactful players both nationally and globally. That is not to undermine the immense and crucial role played by Scholes in the Ferguson dynasty, but to emphasise the esteemed status of the other two. When it came to the biggest stages, under the greatest pressure, Lampard and Gerrard both scored in a Champions League and FA Cup final, whilst Scholes only started 1 of the 3 Champions League finals United reached during his career. International retirement at the age of 29, coupled with an average of just 26 league games per season, only strengthens the argument that he did not have the same level of elite and relentless consistency as the other two (Lampard averaged 33, Gerrard 31).
You can find hundreds of quotes from the likes of Zidane, Pirlo, Henry and Xavi, waxing lyrical about just how good each of these midfield greats were, so why they never clicked in the same England team as Beckham, Rooney, Terry and Owen is one of football’s great mysteries and shall be ruefully debated by England fans and journalists for many years to come. Would 4-3-3, as opposed to 4-4-2, have solved the square pegs in round holes conundrum, allowing Scholes to move in from the wing? It’s possible, and the modern success of 3-man midfields, utilised so brilliantly by Barcelona and Spain, suggests that maybe England had them at their disposal a decade too early, but that’s a story for another time.
Ultimately, ‘who was better?’ is not a question to which there is a universally accepted answer, that would be boring. It is instead a story of 3 iconic players who, in their era, were the gold standard for central midfielders. Whilst managers and team-mates may have shaped their careers in drastically different ways, what cannot be disputed is that every time they stepped over the white line and had the ball at their feet, we enjoyed it.