Ah, the good old 90s – better music, better times, and better football. England’s golden period for influential central midfielders: Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. One wonders how the Three Lions never got beyond the quarter-finals of major competitions, but that’s another story. Onto the question at hand: Who was best of them three?
Now, to set things clear: the differences among the three are too striking to judge on the whole. This is a breakdown and comparisons of their skills based on statistics and, dare I say objective, judgment from videos. That, of course, is in no way fully conclusive.
Bu let’s go with it.
Technique-wise, it’s between Lampard and Scholes. Lampard probably had a wider repertoire of skills and his technique on the shot and pass were no doubt in a class of their own. Scholes, on the hand, probably possessed an intuitive feel for the pass and the long shot. It’s hard to say who was better between the two, but I’ll give it to Lampard for his heel pass executions and skills.
Who takes this one? Lampard
Is there really a question here? It was, of course, Gerrard whose position was box-to-box. His incessant running and committed attitude often made him stand out on effort alone – and that is not easy, to say the least, in the Premier League. Scholes was more of a keeper of the ball while Lampard worked like a spring for it. Gerrard ran after it when he didn’t have it and ran with it when he did.
This is subjective to judge because of the players’ different styles and roles within their teams. All three could dribble past opponents, but if Lampard did it with skills and tricks, Gerrard did it on the run, and Scholes did it only as a last possible measure.
Because of his technical repertoire, I would say Lampard stood a better chance of producing a successful dribble. Scholes’ superior spatial awareness and timing might have made him into a good dribbler if he tried, but his responsibility towards his teammates to feed them with passes perhaps limited this skill.
For Steven Gerrard, it was most often only one way to go: forward. His runs were splitting and very difficult to contain. Lampard could work well in situations with limited space, and perhaps this is why he played in a more forward position than the other two.
Scholes, on the other hand, was a master at it. He could turn faster than the blink of an eye and release himself from his markers. It’s almost like he had an eye at the back of his head for seeing free space and a knee-jerk reaction to getting it occupied.
This is probably that hardest ones to judge. All three of them were masterful passers. The differences may lie in the types of passes they employed. Gerrard and Scholes had an affinity to long-range passing. Of those, Scholes was the Yoda himself. Looking at it from the receiver’s point of view, Scholes passes might have seemed like Duck a l’Orange on a silver platter.
Lampard, however, was the master of the incisive pass. His ability to interpret movement helped him rack up quite the number of assists in his career. Of the three, Scholes had the biggest range in types of passing.
Even though a misplaced Gerrard long-range pass was like a disorganised wallet of a person with obsessive compulsive disorder, compared to the long passes of Scholes, they have been found to lack particular edginess. Scholes’ falling leaf slow passes over the defenses often left United’s attackers with the easy job of taming a willing ball amidst space the size of the Lake District and enough time to camp overnight and have a shave in the morning.
Lampard could produce long-range stunners, but his ability to spot through balls was unparalleled. I would say his vision was very similar to Scholes’, but while the differences may lie in the choice of execution, Lampard often took snap decisions in limited space while Scholes sought free himself first. This speaks of a faster mind in Lampard and a strategic one in Scholes.
Tie: Lampard and Scholes
To any of you familiar with chess, here is a nice comparison: Gerrard was two bishops, Lampard two knights, and Scholes - eight pawns. Or, in other words, Gerrard was the man who often inspired his Liverpool teammates to unbelievable comebacks. Lampard made his teammates sharper and was an ever-present threat to defenses. And Scholes was the often invisible boa that constricted teams.
Of them three, perhaps Gerrard was the most influential one because of his leadership qualities. He was almost single-handedly responsible for Liverpool’s historic comeback from 3-0 down against Milan in the Champions League final.
Goals and assists
Understand something about Scholes: he was a control freak. He fed by controlling the game for his team, while Gerrard and Lampard often took it upon their shoulders to decide games. It comes as no surprise then that Lampard has the most goals, closely followed by Gerrard. Scholes is last – in goals and assists.
All three had a particular affinity towards long-range shooting and a stellar free-kick execution.
We are nearing the domain of the ‘complete midfielder’ – the one who can defend and attack. And the clear winner is Steven Gerrard whose tackling was second to none outside of the circles of the most gifted of Premier League centre backs. He received five red cards during his Liverpool career while Scholes received four, but the difference is Scholes usually got a red card for every other tackle, roughly speaking. His reckless talking was his biggest weakness.
Lampard was also good at it: intercepting, tackling, covering for teammates - only trailed by a mile or two from Gerrard.
Number of collective and individual accolades
Lampard won 13 trophies with Chelsea while Scholes was part of a squad that dominated English football for over two decades – 25 trophies. Gerrard was the most unlucky of the bunch – nine trophies.
But while collective accolades depend on teammates, individual ones paint a more accurate picture:
Gerrard’s best finish for Ballon D’or was third – in 2005. He also won an astounding 40 individual accolades among which European Player of the Year and three times a spot in the FIFA World XI. Gerrard just stood out compared to the rest of the Liverpool squad – apart from Xabi Alonso who also stood out.
Lampard’s best finish for Ballon D’or was second – again in 2005. Over the course of his career he won 35 individual accolades.
Scholes is a strange case. The admiration he received unofficially from managers and players never matched the number of official individual accolades in his cabinet. He never reached the top three of the world’s best footballers, and he received three lonely and sad individual acknowledgements. But, hey, Scholes was never a player striving for individual acknowledgement – he just did something invisibly brilliant and went home.
What did their contemporaries think of them?
“The one England player that is standing out and is a leader is Lampard.” Zinedine Zidane
“There is no doubt that Frank Lampard is one of the great midfield players of the generation.” Xavi
“Lampard is still one of the best in the world.” Pirlo, near Lampard’s exit from Chelsea.
“Technically and tactically, he is the best.” Kaka
“Steven Gerrard is the best player I’ve ever played with.” Luis Suarez
“Steven Gerrard would be the captain of my World XI dream team.” Francesco Totti
“He is the best midfielder of his generation. I would have loved to have played alongside him.” Pep Guardiola
“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Paul Scholes.” Xavi
“I want to pass like him. Who taught him how to do that?” Ronaldinho
“At La Masia, his name is mentioned a lot. He’s a teacher.” Messi