IT’S been something of a stop/start season for Liverpool Football Club under Brendan Rodgers so far.
There have been plenty of good performances and in recent times we have certainly been harder to beat, however, we still aren’t scoring enough goals and therefore aren’t winning enough matches – just four all season.
One of the main reasons for Liverpool’s lack of potency in front of goal is the lack of available options in the striking positions.
The well documented failure to bring in another recognised forward during the summer window has led, particularly with the injury to Fabio Borini, to practically all our goal-scoring hopes being pinned on Luis Suarez.
Suarez has been in magnificent form so far this campaign, registering ten goals in fourteen games (eleven if the linesman had done his job at Goodison), however it is unrealistic to expect Suarez to score in every game and, even if he did, it still wouldn’t be enough to guarantee victories. Goals from midfield have been scarce for at least two seasons now and it’s clear that if we are to climb the table, this must be rectified.
One of the biggest reasons for our lack of potency coming from midfield areas is the decline in Steven Gerrard’s goal tally over the last three seasons. Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic has developed a fearsome reputation as one of the world’s best all round midfielders during his career at the club and, more often than not, his swashbuckling displays have come accompanied by plenty of goals.
However, as his Anfield career enters its twilight years, it appears that Steven Gerrard can no longer be Mr Liverpool, taking matches by the scruff of the neck and winning games single-handedly. This is a natural consequence of getting older; Gerrard, it would seem, simply no longer has the legs to be that kind of box to box midfielder and perhaps, Reds fans will just have to accept this as a fact.
Gerrard, being the all-round footballer that he is, has the ability to play in practically every outfield position on the pitch. When making his mark on Houllier’s Liverpool, the young Gerrard showed that he was more than capable of being a disciplined defensive midfielder. During Rafa’s early years, he excelled playing on the right of a four man midfield, before the arrival of Fernando Torres allowed him to be reborn as a potent second striker, linking the play with speed and precision whilst chipping in with numerous goals and countless assists.
Injuries have taken their toll in the last couple of seasons and, although full fitness was regained before the summer and England’s Euro 2012 campaign, Gerrard has looked very leggy at times in a Reds’ shirt during the current campaign. Gerrard has played every minute of every Premier League game so far, as well as captaining England in World Cup Qualifiers and all too numerous international friendlies.
On top of all this, Gerrard has seen some action in the Europa League and Carling Cup and, with everything coming after he played every minute of England’s run to the quarter finals at the Euros, it’s not a bit of wonder that the 32 year old looks in need of a rest.
Rodgers has chosen to play Gerrard primarily as the central member of his midfield three. He is often found helping Joe Allen and doing much more work in the central area of the pitch rather than joining up in an attacking sense. As far as I can see, this may be a mistake. When operating in a Rodgers midfield trio, the number one duty for a player is to press the ball. Aside from in the very early years of his career, pressing hasn’t been a major part of Gerrard’s game and, with the years rolling by, he now doesn’t appear to have the energy to effectively close the opposition down quickly enough. If you take a look at numerous games this year, the most recent being at White Hart Lane last Wednesday, Liverpool have suffered because of Gerrard’s lack of pressing. Tottenham had far too much time and space in the centre of the pitch in the opening fifteen minutes and they punished us for it.
The biggest issue with playing him in the middle of a three though, is that because of his defensive duties he is unable to get forward with any degree of frequency. This means that one of our most potent attacking weapons is simply not being utilised to anything like its potential.
Take the Spurs game again as an example; Brendan Rodgers tried to move Gerrard further up the pitch after the first twenty minutes and it instantly paid dividends. Gerrard’s burst into the box almost resulted in a goal and should have resulted in a penalty and a red card for Moussa Dembele. Later in the same game, Gerrard was heavily involved in Gareth Bale’s comedy own goal!
It seems to me and many others that as Gerrard gets on in years and doesn’t have the ability to do everything in every game, that the energy he does have left should be put to use further up the pitch where it can be most beneficial for us. Gerrard is still, without question, one of the best if not the best finishers in our squad, he may not have the blockbusting 30 yarders in his locker at the moment but, give him the ball within twenty yards of the goal and he has the class and the accuracy to make teams pay.
Personally, I’d like to see Gerrard play different roles this season, however all of them would be within the front four. He could be pushed forward to the apex of the midfield three, giving him greater freedom and a bit less defensive responsibility, however, he could just as easily be utilised on the right or left of the front three.
Gerrard’s pace over short distances, his fantastic crossing ability, his eye for incisive passes and his cool head inside the box are all attributes which would come into their own if he was given licence to play further forward and freed of some of his defensive shackles. His flexibility and ability to play in numerous attack-minded positions means that he could be rotated with Sterling, Suso, Borini (when fit) and, to a lesser extent Shelvey; thus giving Rodgers a chance to rest players – a key part of the modern game.
Earlier in the season, Rodgers hinted that we haven’t seen the midfield come into its own yet and that once we did, we may well see Gerrard play further forward, I hope he remains true to this idea. Lucas Leiva is set to return, perhaps once our Brazilian dynamo is back in his rightful place anchoring the midfield, we’ll see Rodgers re-jig the midfield and push Gerrard further up the pitch.
We can see from Gerrard’s stats that his Premier League goals have been in decline over recent seasons. In Rafa’s last season he bagged nine. This dropped to four the following season, five last season and only one so far this season. As mentioned above, Gerrard spent large parts of the 10/11 & 11/12 seasons side-lined with injury and, looking at his other stats, there’s no reason why he couldn’t get back to the goal-scoring level he was at in 09/10, if he were to be moved further forward.
His pass completion in the final third is better than it was then (71% vs 62%), his shooting accuracy only slightly worse (44% vs 48%), the big difference is between his minutes per shot on target which has dropped from every 44.9 mins to every 100.9 mins. Although part of this stat may come from the fact that Gerrard is a little less accurate nowadays, a strong case can be made, particularly in light of the other stats, for this being because Gerrard is being played too far back and is being given too much defensive responsibility, meaning he’s unable to get forward enough to make more telling contributions.
Steven Gerrard is one the greatest Liverpool players of all time, still a wonderful servant of the club he has given us all some of the most poignant memories of our years watching the team that we love. At 32 Gerrard still has plenty to offer and, utilised correctly, has at least another season and a half left in him.
I understand why Brendan Rodgers has decided to use him where he has and to play him so regularly, not only is he a talismanic figure for our fans, but also he strikes fear into the opposition. However for me, Gerrard is not and has never really been at his best in the centre of midfield and, if Rodgers wants to get the best from Gerrard and to do the best for Liverpool, he might have to re-think just where Gerrard can be at his most effective.
Stats from eplindex.com
You can catch Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/