“We never got the control in midfield against [Villa’s] diamond and could not build our play, so we needed to change the structure of the team, but there is absolutely no question Steven can play the role and I don’t regard it as a setback, not at all.”
The words of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers after Steven Gerrard’s astonishingly poor first-half performance against Aston Villa. This in a week where Liverpool conceded five goals to two bottom half of the table teams in Stoke and Villa, with Gerrard as the deepest midfield player. A week where the half-hearted conversations of a ‘title challenge’ were seen quashed by Liverpool fans, an indictment of what this team can realistically achieve, which is still a top four spot.
However, implosions were rife on social media at half-time against Villa where Liverpool went in two goals down. Fans wanted Gerrard axed from his learning curve position with immediate effect. This may seem a tad harsh but you only have to look at the captain’s first half performance to realise how far off the pace he was.
Villa’s energetic trio of Fabian Delph, Ashley Westwood and Karim Al Ahmadi were running proverbial rings Gerrard for 45 minutes creating chance after chance. Kopites nails were being bitten faster than you can say ‘sign a DM.’ Once Villa’s midfield were in tandem and pressing high up the pitch, Gerrard was always going to be in trouble as he had no time to work his magic on the ball.
He did to some extent have the luxury of time against Stoke, although this was against a midfield which included the lethargic duo of Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam. This would infer that if you have a tireless midfield where pressing the ball high up the park isn’t an issue, you can negate Gerrard’s technical qualities and make him virtually a passenger.
Gerrard admitted after the game: “It didn’t work for myself or the team, Villa put a lot of men around me and every time I tried to get the ball under control in the first half they swamped me. It wasn’t one of my better 45 minutes.” The simplicity with which Villa neutralized Gerrard’s game is surely enough to suggest that this new role isn’t for the captain.
Well, if that wasn’t enough, maybe his second half performance was. He flourished when given more attacking licence and less defensive licence with Lucas behind him, and soon after Joe Allen. Picking out Luis Suarez with an exquisite pass which then lead to a penalty that Gerrard expertly tucked away. He seemed far more at home with two extra midfielders to share the burden and also far more comfortable when he wasn’t the sole defensive proprietor. Naturally, further up the pitch he performed better.
Yet, the Liverpool manager still sees promise with Gerrard in the position he dubbed the ‘Andrea Pirlo role’. One thing is certain, Gerrard is nothing like Pirlo. They are polar opposites in terms of footballing characteristics and styles. Pirlo has been performing in this position for a decade since Ancelotti gave him his berth at AC Milan. He has perfected it, subsequently having it named after him. Although it does help when you have star-studded midfield partners such as Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Rui Costa, Kaka, Danielle De Rossi, Francisco Totti, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal to help you fulfil your capabilities.
Pirlo played the best football of his career in his first season with Juventus, a campaign where the Turin side comfortably secured the league title going the whole season unbeaten. He played his best football because he had two box-to-box centre-midfielders in Vidal and Marchisio to do the dirty work. Pressing the opposition high gave Pirlo, the maestro, time and space to showcase his divine footballing beauty. A system that suits the Italian perfectly.
Gerrard doesn’t have the caressing patience on the ball that Pirlo possesses. He never has and he never will. To compare Gerrard to Pirlo is antagonistically unfair. Gerrard has qualities that Pirlo doesn’t aspire to, it is just this particular role where Pirlo is unequivocally superior. The sooner comparisons between the two are put down the better. (Until Gerrard grows a Pirlo-worthy beard at least!)
Nevertheless, one thing is for sure, Liverpool urgently needs a defensive-minded midfield player. The young Saul Niguez of Atletico Madrid the latest to be linked. The lust for a defensive midfielder has intensified with Lucas out injured for a considerable period. Whether the Liverpool manager recognises the need is questionable after his positive comments about Gerrard in the ‘regista’ role and also during a transfer window dominated by the ‘Salah saga’.
This then begs the question; does Rodgers see this role filled by Gerrard in the long-term? After the “there is no question Steven can play this role” remark, one would presume that we will be seeing Gerrard in this position again. A worrying forecast given the Villa game.
Is this the only conceivable way in which Rodgers can see Gerrard prolonging his Liverpool career effectively? One thing this role doesn’t necessarily require is stamina, but that shouldn’t be a mitigating factor to influence the thoughts of the Liverpool manager. The natural traits of the player should always come first in deciding where to install a player. So logically, this isn’t the role for Gerrard.
Liverpool’s best performance this season was against Tottenham away, there is no disputing this. And why were Liverpool so good? The brilliance of Suarez and Sterling of course, but it was mostly because of the midfield dynamic. A trio of Lucas as the anchor, Henderson and Allen the two ahead of the Brazilian.
This allowed Liverpool to play a relatively high line with the energetic duo constantly hassling the Spurs defenders and midfielders, which worked to absolute perfection. Something Gerrard wouldn’t be capable of as he simply doesn’t have the capacity to carry out the demands of a pressing game, which is completely understandable given that he is 33 years of age.
This was a day in which the Liverpool midfielders destroyed their glorified Spurs counterparts one by one. Sandro going off injured. Dembele subbed off on the hour. Paulinho sent off in frustration. Henderson was widely regarded as the man of the match against Spurs, scoring one, assisting another and an extraordinary 92% pass completion rate. This was further exemplified in the 2-1 loss to Man City where Liverpool were terribly unlucky not to win due to individual errors and refereeing mistakes.
Yet, since Gerrard has returned to the fold Henderson hasn’t been at this level. Does Henderson feel intimidated alongside his hero? Does he have somewhat of an inferiority complex when paired with him? One thing is for sure, Gerrard’s presence is restricting Henderson in the team, this proven with the Geordie’s well publicized performance against Spurs. He is almost performing the running chores of two players when Gerrard is with him, whereas when he plays alongside Allen they share the duties which then allow them both to demonstrate their technical skill in tandem. Maybe it’s time for a ‘passing of the baton’ to take place.
So where does Gerrard fit in at Liverpool? (Yes that question was just posed!) Given that the Reds are paper thin in terms of midfield options at the moment, it is obvious that the captain will be heavily involved from now until the end of the season. Gerrard still has an abundance of technical qualities, this is undoubted.
He can still affect a game positively with his pristine set-pieces and formidable spot kicks. He is arguably the best free-kick taker, in terms of delivery, in the league. He can still pull off those widely recognised ‘Hollywood balls’ every now and again. However he isn’t the same marauding midfielder he once was; he doesn’t have ‘the legs’.
But this can be used to Liverpool’s advantage. Used sparingly, Gerrard can have a massive impact. Coming off the bench into a role in which he can influence the Liverpool attack is definitely one to be considered for Rodgers. A famous example of this proving fruitful was when he came on in the second half against what was a very good Napoli side at the time, to score a breath-taking hat-trick and secure a place in the latter stages of the Europa League. Albeit a couple of years ago now, the principle still holds true. Giggs, Scholes, Lampard and the likes have all been subject to squad player status in the latter stages of their careers. Gerrard is no different.
But how does Rodgers perceive Gerrard? Does he still feel he can perform to the level of past glory days? He remarked, after Gerrard came back from injury, saying: “his influence in the team is critical for us”.
Is it? Even after the team proved what they can do against Spurs and City without Gerrard? Maybe his influence on the squad would have been a far more accurate thing to say, because that certainly does hold true. Rodgers must realize that there are players of similar and greater importance to the squad than Gerrard in this moment in time. Suarez, Sturridge, Sakho, Mignolet and Henderson greater. Coutinho and Lucas similar, arguably.
Gerrard’s influence in terms of players learning from him is very important; his influence in the dressing room is unquestionable. He will go down amongst most fans as the greatest Liverpool player to ever grace the Anfield turf.
Nevertheless, Gerrard’s indispensable status to the Liverpool team in 2014 is no more. This has left Rodgers with quite a predicament on his hands, one that must be dealt with, before it comes back to bite him.