“Unfortunately at this stage I can’t say that without Steven Gerrard we would be alright because I don’t believe we would.” – Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic has carried the team for the better part of a decade now but prior to this season supporters and neutrals alike had begun to note Gerrard’s diminished influence on the game since his return from a career threatening groin injury. The trademark swagger around the pitch had been subdued, the thundering volleys from 35 yards had disappeared and the last ditch tackles after covering half the length of the pitch were a thing of the past.
As an attacking midfielder, Gerrard’s performances through the years have always been judged on his goals and assists return. The numbers under Hodgson and Dalglish’s reign showed that Gerrard was a mere shadow of his former self. From a career high of 24 goals in 2008-09, Liverpool’s No. 8 had not been able to even manage double digits.
Under pervious managers Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, Gerrard played the role of a central midfielder. Both managers looked to capitalise on Gerrard’s incredible passing ability and make him dictate the play. Unfortunately though, Hodgson’s system played Gerrard too deep for him to exert any real attacking influence on the game. Hodgson set his team up to play on the counter attack but left Gerrard too deep to join in. He could neither get into scoring positions himself nor carve out opportunities for others.
Things improved under Kenny Dalglish, but a cruciate ligament injury to Lucas meant Gerrard was left with Charlie Adam or Jay Spearing as midfield partners for the rest of the season. Neither had the quality to play as an effective foil and thus Gerrard’s performances, along with the team as a whole, suffered.
Injuries played their part as well, as Gerrard’s body started to succumb to years of exertion and overuse. The recurrence of a groin injury ended his 2010-11 season in March and he was only able to rejoin the action in September 2011.
Since the arrival of Brendan Rodgers at Anfield, there was a lot of speculation on how Liverpool’s talismanic captain would fit into the new manager’s plans. Football pundits had been critical of Gerrard in the past, citing his positional indiscipline and his tendency to play the ‘Hollywood ball’ too often thereby losing possession. Several questioned on how he would be able to adapt his game to Rodgers’ system based on short passes and a patient build-up play.
A quick look at the heat map in the 3-0 away defeat against West Brom at the start of the season reveals that Rodgers initially intended to play Gerrard in the No. 10 role behind Luis Suarez. Gerrard had his best season playing as an attacking midfielder under Rafa Benitez. Playing just off Torres, Gerrard was able to quickly pick through balls which allowed the Spaniard to run in behind the defence. The space left by defenders tracking Torres allowed Gerrard to push forward and get into goal scoring positions himself.
Against West Brom, Gerrard spent a majority of the 90 minutes playing high up the pitch in the space between the opposition defence and midfield. Gerrard also occasionally drifted to the right to attempt crosses into the box. However, the experiment of using Gerrard as an attacking midfielder under Rodgers failed. Suarez was a very different striker to Torres and preferred the ball coming to his feet. Rodgers’ patient build-up also allowed defences to get organised and mark potential scoring zones. Thirdly, Gerrard’s diminished pace and shooting ability due to age and injury rendered him largely ineffective and The Reds found themselves struggling to carve out goal scoring opportunities.
Gerrard struggled to create space for himself and could not find a way to link midfield and attack. The Huyton born midfielder looked at his most dangerous when he drifted to the right but this left plenty of space in the centre for the opposition to take advantage. Also, with only Suarez in the box to aim at, Gerrard could not muster up clear cut chances for his side.
Rodgers was quick to identify the problem and chose to switch Gerrard back to central midfield. A position in which Gerrard himself wanted to play but had struggled in the last couple of seasons. Rodgers chose to play Joe Allen as the defensive midfielder while the position of attacking midfielder was rotated between Shelvey, Sahin and Henderson.
The primary creative responsibility of the team lay with Gerrard. He was now playing the ‘quarterback’ role for Liverpool. Gerrard’s performances as a deep lying playmaker improved and he was able to steadily influence the game more as the season progressed. Allen shielded the centre backs and retained possession while Gerrard was given the license to patrol further up in midfield and carve out goal scoring opportunities. However, with a makeshift defensive midfielder in Allen, Liverpool’s midfield sometimes found itself dangerously exposed. The lack of a willing runner at attacking midfield also meant that Liverpool were left short in numbers in the centre of the park when Gerrard drifted to the wings or pushed forward in attack.
In the 1-1 draw against Newcastle, Gerrard was heavily involved in play. Liverpool’s captain fired in 12 crosses and had 5 attempts on goal. Defensively Gerrard made 4 clearances and had 3 successful tackles. Gerrard spent most of his time at the centre but roamed all over the pitch. He also made several runs into the attacking third and drifted wide on several occasions. With Sahin not dropping deep to cover, the likes of Johan Cabaye were left with plenty of space to take advantage. Gerrard played well, but he didn’t have the influence of old. Gerrard wasn’t as much of an attacking threat and Newcastle were quite happy to drop deep to stifle Liverpool’s attack.
However by mid-December, Gerrard had started to find the back of the net with regularity again. Liverpool’s talisman has been directly involved in one or more goals in all but one of the last 10 games. Although playing in the same position, Gerrard has suddenly become much more of an attacking threat. Liverpool’s No. 8 has put in some vintage performances in recent weeks and has been a massive influence in the Liverpool’s recent upturn in performances. From being a relative misfit in Rodgers’ team, Gerrard has once again established himself an integral part of the side.
So what explains the upturn in form for Gerrard? How did Rodgers manage to give an ageing great slowly fading away into ignominy a new lease of life? The answer is deceptively simple. Balance.
Rodgers has realised that Gerrard’s advanced age brings with it certain deficiencies off the ball but he remains a supremely gifted footballer on it. Gerrard may not be able to press the opposition or track back as he once used to but very few players in world football have the passing range and vision as Liverpool’s captain. Rodgers has now found a way to optimise Gerrard’s talents without compromising on the team’s overall dynamic.
The return of Lucas Leiva from injury has meant that Liverpool now have a top class defensive midfielder to shield the back line. Lucas’ defensive prowess has allowed greater freedom for Gerrard and he has been able to make his forays forward with greater confidence. Statistics prove that Gerrard still puts in a good defensive shift but Lucas’ arrival has given him liberty to make more runs into the attacking third. The upturn in form of Jordan Henderson has meant that Liverpool now have a willing runner in midfield that the team sorely lacked in the early parts of the season. England’s U21 Captain has a tremendous engine and his tireless running has helped strike a good balance in midfield.
Liverpool’s last game against Manchester City saw Gerrard once again have a commanding influence on the side. Gerrard notched up another assist to reach his best ever tally of 10 in the League and also scored a goal which would be among the contenders for goal of the season. Gerrard controlled the strings from midfield and timed his runs into the opposition third with perfection. The captain had the highest number of passes of any player on the pitch and dictated the play against the English Champions. The heat map clearly reveals that Gerrard has been more intelligent in his positioning both in defence and attack. Gerrard has been getting into dangerous positions outside the opposition penalty area and hasn’t drifted wide as much as earlier in the season.
A special fitness programme adopted by Rodgers’ staff has resulted in Gerrard enjoying an injury free run. Persistent groin injuries had resulted in Gerrard’s trademark long range piledrivers becoming a thing of the past. However, Liverpool’s No. 8 has now started to trust his body again and is finally playing with the confidence of old. Two goals from long range in the last three matches prove testament to that. Both goals were not net busters but they were hit a with wicked topspin and with enough pace to comfortably beat the keeper. Gerrard seems to have developed a new weapon in his arsenal and more goals are expected to follow in the final third of the season.
All world class players seem to have the ability to adjust their game as they progress with age. Gerrard is no different. Like a fine wine, Gerrard has matured from a swashbuckling powerhouse to a master puppeteer. Over the course of the season, Gerrard has moulded his game to suit the Rodgers’ model and is now enjoying a second wind which could see him contribute heavily to the team’s cause over the next few seasons. The renaissance has been a source of pure joy for the Anfield faithful and they will hope he can drive the team to compete for top honours once again in coming seasons. Yet again.
*Data sourced from Squawka.com