Liverpool FC are missing Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard through injury while entering their most testing phase of the season so far: here’s a look at why they will miss their captain Steven Gerrard more than forward Daniel Sturridge.
In a span of 17 days, Liverpool FC will face off against Tottenham Hotspur (A), Cardiff City (H), Manchester City (A), Chelsea (A) and Hull City (H). This is a harrowing fixture list any which way you look at it, but the situation is aggravated by the injuries sustained by Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. To underscore their importance to the team, one only needs to keep in mind that Daniel Sturridge is the third highest goal scorer in the Premier League this season (with 9 goals), and Steven Gerrard is at the top-spot (tied with Mesut Ozil) for the highest number of assists provided (6).
This season, Liverpool fans have been fawning over the attacking intent and edge displayed by Daniel Sturridge; especially since he stepped up and provided goals when Luis Suarez was suspended at the start of the season. The two strikers have been seen as the team’s greatest asset, and the injury to Sturridge was seen by many as a killer blow to Liverpool’s attack. Many declared that Luis Suarez would find it harder to score without his partner in crime distracting defenders with his runs. And in fact, that was the impression one got in the Hull City defeat, where Suarez failed to get on the score-sheet. However, Liverpool have coped well since, and their football seems to have regained some of the fluid passing style Rodgers has always wanted to instil. Granted, these have been in performances against ‘lesser’ sides like Norwich City and West Ham, but it would be harsh to not credit the players with the thrashings they have dealt out to these teams.
The Sturridge – Coutinho Problem
Brendan Rodgers has not figured out the best way to field his three best attacking threats – Suarez, Sturridge and Coutinho – in the same 11. He has often had to resort to playing Sturridge just behind Suarez, and Coutinho in a left attacking midfielder role. Unfortunately, this setup does not optimise either of their talents. Sturridge’s best moments have come when he’s been played right at the spearhead of attack, while Coutinho is too much of a natural number 10 to flourish in any other part of the field. When played to the left, not only is his impact on the game blunted, but he constantly drifts inside and shows zero effort to mark the opposing right full-back, leaving the whole left-flank exposed.
With Sturridge injured, Rodgers has reverted to a 4-2-3-1 with Coutinho as the number 10 and Suarez leading the line. And it has reaped great rewards, with Liverpool scoring 9 goals in 2 games. It is noteworthy that in these two matches, Coutinho has been part of the most frequent pass combinations. He passed to Stevie Gerrard 20 times against Norwich, well above the runner up combination of Joe Allen passing to Glen Johnson 15 times. Against Norwich, Coutinho is actually part of all of the top three passing combinations. Compare this with the game against Hull City (where Coutinho only came on in the second half), where the top 4 combinations were between the back line and the goalkeeper.
It becomes apparent how pivotal Coutinho is to Liverpool’s game upon looking at this data. It is also heartening to see Joe Allen‘s name recurring in there, as his ability to conduct metronome like passing at the center of the pitch was one of the main reasons for Rodgers bringing him to Liverpool. But no matter what the Barcelona tiki-taka fanboys might be telling you, football is about more than just passing. And what better way to justify this than to use the example of the living embodiment of complete block-buster footballing brilliance that is Steven Gerrard, the captain of Liverpool Football Club.
Stevie ‘The Man’ Gerrard
Having already observed how well Liverpool have coped with Sturridge’s absence, let us try to see if Steven Gerrard will be nearly as easy to replace. If his contributions to the games so far are anything to go by, let’s just say it’s well nigh impossible for any one player to make up for his absence. To illustrate the point, the diagrams below show the contributions of Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard, respectively, in the game against West Ham.
Notice how much more densely covered Gerrard’s diagram is? If you find that impressive, now just think about these two facts: (1) Henderson and Allen played the full 90 minutes, while Stevie was taken off in the 56th minute, and (2) at 33 years of age, Gerrard is a full decade older than the two players.
Lucas Leiva will be the one to take up the position left vacant by Stevie G’s injury, but there is little hope that he will be able to contribute all over the pitch the way Gerrard has been doing in many games this season. The entire midfield will have to step up as a unit to fill the void. To better quantify his contributions this season, other than being Liverpool’s leading provider of assists (6), Gerrard has the maximum key passes per game (2.7), highest average passes per game (67.7) and maximum accurate long balls per game (7.1), all while maintaining an impressive 86.8% pass success rate. On top of all this he is the leading goalscorer amongst Liverpool’s midfielders (3 goals), and averages 2.5 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per game.
If anyone is still unconvinced about how big a loss Steven Gerrard will be in this key series of fixtures, they need to also remember that there is a reason why he is, and has been for a glorious decade, the Captain of Liverpool Football Club. It’s not just an honorary (read: meaningless) title; every match that he plays, he is the embodiment of a leader on the pitch. There was a moment in the game against West Ham where Stevie holds on to the ball in midfield till the last moment (he’s being closed down by West Ham’s midfielders) and finally passes the ball out to the left. Instantly he turn towards Philippe Coutinho and screams at him, gesturing that he needs to stay sharp and move towards the ball to receive the pass. This dressing down of the little Brazilian happens at a time when Liverpool are 2-0 up and well in control of the game. That moment really sums up the man that is Steven Gerrard, professionalism personified and a leader of men par excellence. His absence is a major blow to the team at this crucial juncture of the season. If the oil money fuelled galacticos of Man City and Chelsea start to get the better of the players, will they turn to the center of the park and wonder why no one is there shouting at them to get their chins up?
When Luis Suarez was suspended at the start of the season, everyone assumed Liverpool FC would fall flat on their faces. But Dan Sturridge stepped up to the plate and raked in the goals. This piece is in no way meant to take away any credit from the Englishman, who is a virtuoso forward on his day, and an absolute asset to Liverpool FC.
With Steven Gerrard out of action, one hopes that history will repeat itself and someone from the squad will step up to fill the captain’s mighty boots. Or rather, and perhaps more likely, the team as a whole will recognise that all 11 need to step up their game to make up for the loss of their captain.