By Kevin Koczwara
Luis Suarez scored a goal to remember against Stoke City, but a major part of the goal came from a great cross-field ball from Jay Spearing. And let us not forget that.
The little midfielder picked up the ball in the midfield, with the ball stuck at his feet, he clipped it across to Suarez, who took the ball down with sublime skill and scored a goal that etched itself into history. Spearing’s cross field ball was one of the few times Liverpool opened up play and didn’t force play down one side during the match. Instead, Spearing picked his head up and changed the point of attack for the Reds. It was a heads up play from Spearing and the kind of contribution the academy product has given the Reds since his move into the first team: simple and effective.
Spearing, 22, made his mark on the Liverpool team last season after Steven Gerrard went down injured. The former captain of the youth team at Melwood, started in a string of games under Kenny Dalglish in the spring alongside Lucas Leiva. Lucas and Spearing formed a hard-working, industrious midfield partnership that was overlooked at times because it wasn’t a flashy pairing, or a goal scoring partnership. Instead, both players protected the backline and allowed other players on the field to have more freedom to roam, attack, and push forward. They won the ball back and distributed it wisely.
Lucas’s work has been documented over the years at Liverpool, but little Spearing tends to be an after thought at times . He isn’t a prototypical player in a top-four side. He’s a little man with a lot of might. His work against Stoke on Wednesday was more than impressive. He was all around the field — flying into tackles and refusing to back down despite and an obvious size differential between him and the likes of Kenwyne Jones, Rory Delap and the majority of Stoke. Instead, Spearing ran from end-to-end cutting off passes, tackling with force and intent, and he passed the ball well to open up play. He helped Lucas control the pace of the game in the midfield for Liverpool.
Spearing’s strengths in the midfield are his balance and posiontional awareness, which are overlooked parts of his game. Spearing rarely defended in the box on corner kicks because of his short stature, but he positioned himself in good spots to pick up the clearances. He the patience on the ball to take it down and to pass it out of the back, rather than just punting the ball to momentary safety. A few times he was caught in possession, which happens to almost every midfielder at some point in a game, trying to play the ball out on the ground, but his willingness to try to keep play moving should not be overlooked.
Liverpool over the last few seasons has been a team that has relied on kicking and chasing. Fernado Torres ran into the channels, Steven Gerrard took down the opponents’ knockdowns and played Torres through or ran at defenders. That was the plan under Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson. Those managers had tighter purse strings than Kenny Dalglish, but since Dalglish’s arrival, he’s tried to instill an ideology of distributing the ball through the midfield rather than over it. And Spearing has adapted well. His lack of pace, size and great footwork stands against him, but he’s made up for it with hard work, smart play, and determination.
Spearing isn’t the most beautiful of players. He doesn’t make the game look easy. He doesn’t stand out. And he doesn’t speak up often. He’s quiet, but works hard and is passionate about the team and keeping his place. A regular stand-out in the reserves — winning two Reserve FA Cups and the Reserves league once — he’s gradually integrated himself into a now packed midfield. While he may not get a nod over the likes of Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Lucas or Charlie Adam, he is the perfect kind of player to have for League Cup matches. He is industrious, provides cover, and most of all has something to prove.
Spearing has found it hard to break into the first team at Liverpool, but when he gets his chances to play, he proves he can stand up there with the big boys. That kind of commitment has convinced Dalglish that Spearing has a place at Liverpool. This summer, reports were swarming that Wolverhampton wanted to bring the 22-year-old in on loan to solidify it’s midfield. While a regular spot in Mick McCarthy’s team would have done wonders for Spearing’s progress and confidence, Dalglish decided it was better he stayed at Liverpool. He knew he might need him over the course of a long Premier League season.
Spearing made his debut for Liverpool in the Champions League in 2008/09. He came on as a substitute against PSV and away against Real Madrid, where the Reds thrashed Madrid 4-0. Things were looking bright for the pint-sized midfielder, but he stagnated in 2009/10 and struggled to break into Benitez’s side. In 2010/11, Spearing started to show the promise and feature more regularly in the side. Roy Hodgson used him in Europa League games, giving Spearing more time to adapt to the riggers of playing for Liverpool out of the harsh realm of the Premier League. Dalglish replaced Hodgson and saved Liverpool from the depths of the Black Lagoon. And he saw something more in the midfielder.
Spearing started to get a run of games under Dalglish last season, and he’s become an important player for the club who can fill the midfield and add some extra bite. Players who can contribute in cup games and spot starts are important for successful teams. They’re the type of players who don’t get the headlines or make the big cash. And they’re the players who can make a difference from game to game when called on. They’re the type of players who separate the big clubs from the little ones. So don’t write off Spearing yet, Liverpool will need him.