Those of us who believe that a declining Steven Gerrard has been holding Liverpool back this season have been given some serious ammunition since he injured his hamstring a fortnight ago. Since then, we’ve been given a vision of Liverpool’s future without the man who has carried them for so long, and witnessed performances that much better reflect Brendan Rodgers’s long-term plan for the Reds.
Finally, we see the high intensity football that characterises the Northern Irishman’s approach to the game. A high tempo, incisive passing game when in possession of the ball, and a smothering, high energy pressing game when the ball needs to be recovered.
Gerrard at 33 no longer has the legs for either. When he plays, Liverpool are a little slower in possession, and as the minutes tick by, ever looser in midfield, as his tank runs dry.
In the captain’s enforced absence, Liverpool’s midfield has been transformed. Lucas, in particular, has benefitted from Gerrard’s layoff and from having two willing and energetic runners to aid him defensively in Allen and Henderson, rather than just the one. When Gerrard plays, Lucas has much more ground to cover, his relative lack of mobility is exposed and he often ends up looking overwhelmed, all as a result of the captain’s inability to close down space and track opposition midfield runners. Against Spurs and Cardiff, the Brazilian looked much more comfortable and closer to his assured best.
Joe Allen’s form has been key, at last showing the kinds of qualities that saw Rodgers shell out £15 million for him the summer before last. The Welshman has been as crisp in the tackle as he has been in his passing. His snappy and incisive distribution has been central to the increase in tempo in Liverpool’s play, and his energetic and clean ball winning high up the pitch has been instrumental in keeping the Reds on the front foot.
Jordan Henderson has been equally impressive. Allen’s ability to cover ground and Liverpool’s improved ball retention has allowed the England U-21 captain to get forward, running beyond Liverpool’s strike force and creating havoc as he goes.
Critically, the hole that has appeared in Liverpool’s midfield an hour into every game is conspicuous by its absence since Gerrard picked up his injury. The Reds look much more compact – more difficult to break down, less susceptible to break away attacks, better able to track midfield runners and better able to condense play. Their more compact shape and greater balance allows them better dominate possession and the opposition.
After last Sunday’s demolition of Spurs, Jamie Carragher ribbed his old team mate, suggesting he’d not be able to get back into this team. If Liverpool continue to play in the current fashion, Gerrard, so often the club’s saviour and talisman, may be forced to agree.
Liverpool in the hunt for the league title – a case of ghosts of Christmases past for Reds fans of a certain vintage. Does it hold portents of Christmases yet to come? If the evidence of recent weeks is anything to go by, Liverpool fans have real cause for hope