It is a hot topic among Liverpool fans and an issue that has now also been raised by Liverpool legend Tommy Smith. Smith recently said in his weekly column in the Liverpool Echo why he thinks Steven Gerrard has been so ineffective of late:
“I’ve heard people saying Steven Gerrard’s not been playing well. Maybe that’s because he’s got no-one to play up front with. If Torres is up there, Gerrard plays a lot better. But if he doesn’t get any balls laid off to him when Torres is missing then what’s he supposed to do?”
It is an interesting issue to discuss and it is a subject that deserves to be developed further. Like many, I believe Gerrard’s form has dipped this season and although some of this can be explained by his own injury problems earlier in the season, now the problem appears fundamentally a footballing issue. Benitez back in December stated as much when saying that injuries no longer were the issue for the England vice-captain, and he expected a lot more from the attacking midfielder. Gerrard himself also expressed his desire to improve but in recent weeks it appears still that he is not firing on all cylinders. Some fans have speculated that he has been sulking after another season passing him by without the league title, but there is another interpretation, one which Smith has hit the nail on the head with his comments: Gerrard is isolated.
With the loss of Xabi Alonso in the summer, Gerrard said in November:
“It’s always going to be different when you lose one of the best players in the world – and people are finally realising that’s what he is, on the back of his form for Real Madrid and the difference in us from last year. We’ve got other midfielders here doing a good job but it will take a while before Alonso’s out of our system because he was such a top player. Defensively, because of his intelligence at picking up his positions, he was so good at protecting the central defenders. And going forward, he was one of the best passers of the ball I’ve ever seen; someone who could create something out of nothing. He was sometimes underrated when he was here because of Torres, but when you play with him and without him you realise how much he meant to you, both as a player and the team as a whole.”
In his withdrawn striker role, Gerrard got most of his supply from Alonso, and laid off balls from Torres as Smith mentions above. When Torres was absent for large parts of last season it didn’t matter as much for Alonso was providing excellent through balls to give him opportunities to attack, but now with Torres absent and Alonso leaving for Madrid, Gerrard has no way to control the game. With two holding midfield players in Lucas and Mascherano, both initially look square rather than for a forward ball like Alonso would have done, this is no slight on the pair as both do the jobs they are suppose to do but it leaves Gerrard with no supply. The solution to this should be Aquilani but he has yet to get the handle on games and control possession like Alonso used to. This maybe partly due to the fact he still recovering from his long term injury and getting used to the pace of the Premier League, but if Liverpool are to finish fourth in the league they need to be better going forward.
The games against Unirea and Manchester City are a case in point. In both matches passing was slow and build up play in the final third was poor. Gerrard higher up the pitch could not control possession and distribute passes in midfield and without Alonso, Mascherano was left to collect the ball and deliver long range diagonal balls. No disrespect to Mascherano but this is not his job, his style of play, like Lucas, is to break up play and pass it short.
The return of Torres should improve matters in attacking play but there is no guarantee. Torres will make tremendous runs into the channels and lay off balls to Gerrard but service will need to come from central midfield. In my opinion, for quick passing and pacey attacking play to break down teams, I would like to see Steven Gerrard back in central midfield. Here, he can pick up balls from either Mascherano or Lucas and distribute balls forward with his fantastic passing ability with pace and zip. Aquilani may benefit from this by playing a role further forward, opening up space for him to link up with Torres. It is a possibility that I believe Rafa should consider but going by his back to basics defensive play in recent weeks, he may not like it. In his earlier years at the club, Benitez played Gerrard wide right as he believed the Liverpool captain vacated midfield too readily and wasn’t as disciplined as players such as Alonso, Sissoko or Hamann. His move further forward to play off Torres could be interpreted as a way of solving the problem but now having played under Benitez for nearly six years, and now 29 years of age, don’t you think Gerrard has learned to be a bit more disciplined?
The change of Gerrard back into central midfield is something I would like to see as I believe it would benefit Gerrard’s form as well as improving Liverpool’s attacking play without compromising too much on defensive considerations. Especially in home matches against teams such as Unirea, surely there is no harm in trying?