STEVEN Gerrard’s career will be remembered for a collection of incredible logic defying moments exhibited on the grandest of stages. So why does it feel as though his career is winding down in such a tepid, understated manner?
Seldom has a player had such an all encompassing effect on a football club as Steven Gerrard has at Liverpool. At times over his illustrious career the local lad from Huyton has carried his team on his back. He’s carried them into Europe. He’s carried them to glory. He’s carried them into the history books.
For a few years he was undoubtedly one of the top few players in world football (regardless of what Alex Ferguson’s latest pay day reads) and quite possibly the most complete footballer on the planet. Whether he was playing as a wide midfielder on the right flank, operating as a number ten or even filing in at right-back, for over a decade Gerrard’s performances typically ranged from the very good to the truly exceptional.
That being said, Gerrard’s career has always created debate. Many observers thought that he was wasted out wide by Rafa Benitez and he seemed to agree (despite being voted footballer of the year after occupying that role back in 2005/06). People even claimed that Gerrard wasn’t suited to playing as a number 10 while he racked up an incredible number of goals and assists dovetailing with Fernando Torres.
Conventional wisdom in England generally casts Gerrard as a default central midfielder. Roy Hodgson and Brendan Rodgers obviously seem to agree with that consensus as they have almost exclusively played him in that position over the past 18 months for club and country. It is in central midfield where Gerrard says he feels most at home.
Indeed, Rafa Benitez’s reluctance to play Gerrard in a central role during his stint as Liverpool manager was regularly used as a stick to beat the Spaniard with. Hindsight seems to be proving Benitez right though (no manager has ever had Gerrard playing to the same level of excellence as Benitez did) and right now Liverpool are suffering the consequences of Steven Gerrard the central midfielder.
This isn’t an assertion based on the back of one bad performance at Arsenal, nor is it even a new observation. This is a quandary that has been debated and debated by Liverpool fans for nearly a decade. Last Saturday evening Gerrard was cruelly exposed in his preferred role.
Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta frequently surged their way past Gerrard and his midfield partner Lucas Leiva with alarming ease. Gerrard and Lucas looked as though they were a couple of toddlers caught in the middle of the waltzers while Arsenal shirts circled them at high speed and left them dizzy. The fact is that, even with the industry and youthful legs of Jordan Henderson for support, Gerrard and Lucas simply couldn’t cope with an Arsenal team that possess exceptional movement in the centre of the park. They were overmatched physically and not for the first time.
Liverpool’s midfield has been the least impressive section of their team this season and against a confident and talented Arsenal group they were put to the sword. It was a sad sight to see players like Ramsey and Arteta move away from Gerrard as if he were a pensioner and it was sadder still that Brendan Rodgers neglected to change things in that area of the pitch as Lucas and Gerrard struggled to the nth degree all night long with no tactical or personnel adjustments. Lucas and Gerrard can both do a fine job from deep midfield position but as a pair against decent sides, they are imbalanced. And more importantly, since when has doing ‘a fine job’ been associated with Steven Gerrard?
Liverpool’s best midfield combination over the past 15 years was that of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. Alonso, even in his early twenties, was less mobile than even the current incarnation of Gerrard. He was however, able to dictate games from deep because he had the incredible engine of Mascherano alongside him. He was also more tactically astute and positionally accomplished than Gerrard is in the same position and as a result Alonso was also able to contribute far more defensively by regularly breaking up play despite a chronic lack of pace. Alonso and Mascherano were a wonderfully balanced double pivot that gave Liverpool a fantastic base in the middle of the park.
Fast forward to the present day and the pairing of Lucas and Gerrard are comfortable against the 12 or 13 average sides that occupy the bottom positions in the Premier League. However, they are both pretty one paced players these days and against sides with energy and/or genuine tactical quality, they struggle.
Southampton pressed the life out of Liverpool at Anfield and Gerrard and Lucas couldn’t cope. Arsenal simply overwhelmed them with movement. There is no real shame in that as Gerrard is 33 years old and Lucas has never been selected to get around the pitch ala Mascherano, but the fact that Brendan Rodgers seems unwilling to find a solution to such a problem is worrying.
If Liverpool want to achieve Champions League qualification then they will have to eventually start beating or at least not losing to the top 7 or 8 sides in the Premier League. Given that away matches against Everton, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham lie in wait before the end of December, that needs to start happening pretty soon. Alternatives to the Gerrard/Lucas axis exist and should be tested. Thus far, Rodgers simply hasn’t bothered.
Rodgers will invariably play Gerrard and Lucas together in the centre of the park for 90 minutes if they are fit. It’s incredibly rare that Gerrard even gets taken off for the final few minutes of a game let alone being rested on the hour mark, being allowed to start a game from the bench or being used in a different position. It is a quizzical pattern.
At Gerrard’s age you would think that his legs should be saved as often as possible. Having to manage his way through 90 minutes every week with an ageing body is not allowing him to cut loose and maximise the wonderful gifts that he still possesses. Neither is consistently having to play from so deep on the field. Long gone are the days of those trademark edge of the box strikes and tidy finishes when bearing down on goal. Instead they have been replaced with consistent, uninspiring, solid games played generally in the middle third of the pitch.
Physically, Gerrard is obviously not what he was but he is still more than good enough to offer an awful lot more to his side than he is at present. The problem is, he can’t really do it from the position he occupies in Rodgers’ side and nor can he do it when he’s playing every minute of every game. He’s invariably found far too deep to offer a goal threat and simply isn’t a natural defensive midfielder. As a result, he is often caught between two stools and is neither a creative force nor a defensive shield for his side. What we are seeing is a watered down version of Steven Gerrard. He’s still capable of playing well and this season he generally has, but he’s also capable of being far more effective than he currently is.
Think about this for a moment: What game has Gerrard dominated for the Reds since moving back into central midfield when Rafa Benitez left? Not many come to mind, do they? There was a derby at Anfield where he scored a hat trick under Kenny Dalglish but that apart there haven’t been many moments like those that will define his career when he eventually hangs them up.
That’s not to say he hasn’t played well, he has. But he is an extraordinary player with incredible talent. To quote the adage, he’s a special player who does special things at special times. Or at least he was when he was given the opportunity to. There is a sense of waste when you see him simply going through the motions in games, conserving his legs and doing a decent job for his side in midfield.
It sounds as if I am blaming this solely on Brendan Rodgers’ reluctance to move Gerrard out of central midfield but I believe the player himself must also shoulder some of the blame. As mentioned earlier, Gerrard has always wanted to play in this role. He’s always seen it as his best position. Well, whether Gerrard likes it or not, his best performances throughout his career have rarely occurred when he has played as a deep central midfielder. It is baffling to me why a player who achieved genuine greatness in advanced positions constantly wanted to go play in midfield. It remains so and one wonders whether Rodgers has the guts to get his captain out of this inhibiting role to release the shackles that Gerrard seems to embrace.
The thought of a Liverpool side taking to the pitch while a fit Steven Gerrard takes his place on the bench is almost impossible to imagine but that day has to come sooner rather than later. Gerrard can no longer be asked to play every minute of every game and quite frankly, his form doesn’t merit it either. Gerrard needn’t necessarily be relegated to the bench on a weekly basis, but other avenues should be explored to get the best from him. He can still offer great delivery from wide areas still and could be immensely effective playing further forward or being brought on late in games. Currently he is offering no goal threat from open play and precious little creativity and he should be even if it means coming off on the hour mark or coming on as a substitute now and again.
There is not one obvious solution to the Gerrard problem but perhaps there needn’t be just one solution. It will not be rectified by simply asking Gerrard to go and play as a number ten every week like he did with Torres. Nor would it be reasonable to expect him to play from the right every week. However, Gerrard still has numerous talents and numerous ways of hurting opponents. It would be nice to see them harnessed the way that Rafa Benitez used Gerrard’s attributes to benefit his side.
He played high up the pitch and wide so often because he had deadly shooting in and around the box and could deliver wicked crosses. There is little doubt that Gerrard’s shooting and distribution could still be highly potent weapons for the Reds but right now he’s offering no threat with either skill as he plays in the comfortable surroundings of his favoured deep midfield position.
Instead of winding down his career comfortably, wouldn’t it be nicer to see Steven Gerrard produce a few more glorious match winning moments, even if it meant that his involvement was reduced slightly? Sometime soon Anfield will rise and applaud arguably their greatest ever player off that famous turf for the last time. Does anyone really want that to come at the end of another 90 minute 6 out of 10 performance sitting in the centre circle?
Wouldn’t we all rather it come after he produced one final cameo where he rasped one final 20 yard drive into that Kop net? Wouldn’t we all rather be seeing such things now rather than the limited output that Steven Gerrard was able to serve up against Arsenal?
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