For the modern day football fan, Steven Gerrard is synonymous with Liverpool Football Club. He is something of a club icon, a hero on Merseyside. The idea of a 21st century Liverpool team without Gerrard is preposterous. Yet recent performances have suggested that this may soon be the case. Questions have been raised about the role of the ageing hero in a fresh young team. Gerrard’s weekend appearance against Aston Villa certainly raised more of these questions than it answered, the most pressing of which being: where exactly does Steven Gerrard fit in to this Liverpool team?
Gerrard’s recent injury which kept him out for five matches coincided with Liverpool’s best run of performances this season. A midfield trio of Lucas, Allen and Henderson flourished, with Henderson proving particularly adept in a more advanced position. Henderson’s proficiency in such a position – further enhanced by a clever assist for Liverpool’s opening goal against Villa – has encouraged Brendan Rodgers to experiment with Gerrard. As has been done with many ageing players over the years, Gerrard was moved in to a more defensive midfield position for the game against Aston Villa. It has been seen with Beckham, Giggs, and most recently Frank Lampard. The theory behind it is solid; operating from a deeper position should allow Gerrard to pick the ball up from his centre half under less pressure, before looking for a long through ball or to hit the wingers with his pinpoint passes.
Granted, Gerrard has an exceptional passing range, but the position requires so much more. Passing ability is not enough. Think of the finest defensive midfielders. All exhibit efficient distribution and disciplined positioning. They do not need to run much; a prime reason the position suits ageing players. Gerrard, however, was too eager to chase the ball against Villa. In a more advanced position, where the onus is on getting on the ball and creating goal-scoring opportunities, this is more acceptable. Yet when the onus is on defensive stability and protection this can negatively impact the team. Gerrard’s eagerness not only compromised his position, but exposed his defence.
Furthermore, this eagerness caused Gerrard to fixate on the ball, leading him to be less aware of what was happening around him. For example, in the first half Gerrard received the ball centrally after a weak clearance from Skrtel. Unaware that he was being flanked by two men, he took a heavy touch and was robbed of possession by El Ahmadi with only Skrtel and Toure covering. In this instance Aston Villa should have made more of the opportunity, with Westwood shooting straight at Mignolet. Just minutes later, however, Gerrard’s awareness would cost Liverpool. Agbonlahor broke for Villa in a rapid counter-attack and Weimann stole in from behind Gerrard to prod his low cross home. Gerrard was so focused on Agbonlahor and the ball at his feet that he did not check over his shoulder to notice Weimann swooping in. His body, rather than being open and aware of the danger around him, was firmly pointed in the direction of Agbonlahor.
The inclusion of Gerrard compromises the style of play which Liverpool exhibited with such prowess whilst he was out injured. With a midfield trio of Lucas, Allen and Henderson, Liverpool played short, sharp, intricate passes into feet to build an attack. With Gerrard in midfield, these passes become fewer, and increase in distance. Although the long diagonal balls that Gerrard plays with such finesse can damage weaker teams, clever sides will drop deep and allow Gerrard to pick his pass. This then condenses their defensive half of the pitch, making it harder for the wingers to find passes into the feet of Suarez or Sturridge after receiving the ball from Gerrard. Such a tactic not only nullifies the threat of Gerrard, but also of Suarez and Sturridge. To counteract this, creativity is required from the wingers. An over-reliance on the wingers can then weaken the success of the team. This season’s most frequent crossers of the ball, Manchester United, are proof of this.
Gerrard still has a lot to contribute to Liverpool, and this was emphasised when Lucas came on for Coutinho at half-time. Lucas’s inclusion gave Gerrard a greater freedom, allowing him to take up more advanced positions alongside Henderson. This freedom saw Gerrard dictate much of the play and create some openings for Liverpool, the most notable of which ending with Suarez being brought down by Guzan to award Liverpool the penalty for their second goal. But with Coutinho and Henderson also excelling in advanced positions it must be pondered where an ageing Gerrard will be included in future games, if at all.
Of course, Gerrard cannot be judged on one game. It is ludicrous to think that he will have been fully match-fit so soon after his injury, and even when he is match-fit it will take time for him to adapt to a new position, should Rodgers continue to play him there. Still, he must be fully aware that he needs to adapt, be it to the new position of defensive midfield or the tiki-taka style that dominated whilst he was out injured. Failure to do so may well mark the unthinkable – the end of the widely-celebrated Stevie G era at Anfield.