Why Steven Gerrard is not an ideal fit for the lone holding midfielder role, and the tactical alternatives that Brendan Rodgers should explore.

Despite being perpetually on the hunt for an attacking midfielder in recent transfer windows, Liverpool FC have also been short of cover in one other position: defensive midfield. Lucas Leiva is the only natural defensive midfielder in the side, a problem that has fully struck home since the Brazilian’s recent injury. Brendan Rodgers has been forced to use captain Steven Gerrard in the holding role, something that does not come naturally to the Englishman.

Since taking over the reins at Liverpool FC, Brendan Rodgers has used atleast one holding midfielder in his sides, irrespective of the formation in use. But of course, the term ‘holding midfielder’ is somewhat vague, and it is important to delve deeper into the various avatars of this position before analyzing the implications for Liverpool.

Destroyers, Registas and Carriers

Jonathan Wilson recently wrote about the changing role of the holding midfielder. His assertion was that there are three variations to this type of player in the modern game: destroyers (like Javier Mascherano), registas (like Xabi Alonso) and carriers (like Fernandinho). It’s important to note that simply because a player is a good tackler doesn’t make him a destroyer (both Alonso and Fernandinho are effective tacklers, for example). Almost all holding players have aspects of all three variants in them, but most tend to have one dominant tendency.

As all 3 roles are versions of the holding midfield position, by definition they all require the player to be capable of winning the ball back. The real difference between the three is in the way they perceive the game. A regista like Alonso or Andrea Pirlo will constantly be focusing on how their team can open up the opposition, and will look to pass and move in a way that is most likely to create a gap in the opponent’s defence.

Lucas Leiva is the only destroyer in the Liverpool side

Lucas Leiva is the only destroyer in the Liverpool side

In contrast, a carrier like Fernandinho and Yaya Toure will look for opportunities to charge forward in a manner that disrupts the opposition’s shape, and creates a goal scoring opportunity either for themselves or for a teammate. A destroyer’s view of the game, in contrast, will be focused on reading the opposition’s plays, and preemptively positioning themselves in a manner that they can break up a move before it fully materializes. So, quite often, a destroyer’s job is essentially to out-think the opposition’s regista and/or carrier.

It is this difference in mentalities that is key to a player excelling in these roles.

Problems with using Gerrard as a Destroyer

Lucas Leiva fits into the mould of a destroyer perfectly, with his ability to intercept opposition attacks and tackle cleanly and consistently. Gerrard, on the other hand, is a typical carrier: he likes to take surging forward runs from his deeper starting position. Having played as a box-to-box central midfielder for much of his early career, he is far more mentally attuned to attacking and surging forward than he is used to defensive discipline.

Since the Aston Villa game, when Lucas Leiva sustained his injury, Brendan Rodgers has used a 4-3-3 where the three central midfielders consisted of Gerrard as the bottom tip of an inverted triangle, with Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho (or Joe Allen more recently) in front of him. This has yielded mixed results, with some lacklustre performances (like the draw against West Brom) and some excellent outings (the destruction of Everton).

Swansea vs Liverpool - Central Midfield Triangle

Liverpool’s Central Midfield Triangle (average positions from Swansea vs Liverpool courtesy FourFourTwo StatsZone)

Strictly from a statistical point of view, Gerrard has had a number of solid performances, with his lowest WhoScored rating being a respectable 7.55 against West Brom. But barring an Arsenal side that under-performed against the Reds, these have all been opposition sides without any great creative strengths in the center of the park. The likes of Gareth Barry and Ross Barkley might be decent players, but they’re a far cry from the class of playmakers the top teams have to offer. Even against Everton, Gerrard was regularly pulled out of position by the runs of Kevin Mirallas and Leon Osman, but no one in the Everton side was able to properly exploit these gaps.

Therefore, playing a carrier like Gerrard as a lone destroyer against sides that are strong in the middle of the park will always lead to serious defensive vulnerabilities. Liverpool have so far managed to survive, mostly thanks to their ability to outscore their opponents. But against sides like Chelsea and Manchester City, it will be difficult for the Reds to walk out victorious with such a defensively frail side.

Assessing Allen and Henderson

Jordan Henderson is a carrier, with a style of play quite similar to Gerrard

Henderson is a carrier, with a style of play quite similar to Gerrard

In order to evaluate alternate strategies, we first need to look at Liverpool’s other options for the holding roles. Despite it not being their natural position, Joe Allen or Jordan Henderson can also be deployed in the holding role. Both, in their own unique ways, are much more comfortable fulfilling a carrier role than a destroyer or regista. Henderson is actually quite like Gerrard in his tendency to ‘get stuck in’, and to want to move forward with the ball at his feet (though he has a higher affinity for playing quick short passes).
So it makes little sense to consider using the existing system (an inverted triangle in central midfield) with either of them in a lone holding role instead of Gerrard, as this will yield the same results as the current setup. So the solution has to come from the system, not just by moving players around.

Flipping The Midfield Triangle & A Carrier – Carrier Pairing

Yaya Toure's partnership with Fernandinho has been pivotal to City's performances

Yaya Toure’s partnership with Fernandinho has been pivotal to City’s performances

An alternative that Brendan Rodgers should consider is inverting the central midfield triangle, with two players instead of one playing deeper. The major difference between this and Liverpool’s current setup is that there will be two deep lying midfielders who will have to work in tandem. Looking at the options available to Liverpool, the two roles will be occupied by a pair of carriers. To better understand what that means, one needs to look at a team that has used a somewhat similar model.

The best example of a team playing with two carriers in holding roles is Manchester City. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho are both players who have, at different times in their career, made a name for themselves on the merit of their ability to attack. Like Steven Gerrard, both have a tendency to be where the action is. But as Didi Hamann stated, Yaya Toure can be a defensive liability in the holding role as he tends to push forward regularly. Thankfully, on the occasions that the younger Toure brother wanders forward, Fernandinho stays put to clean up. The reverse is also true, with Yaya usually staying behind on the occasions that his Brazilian teammate makes attacking runs.

A More Defensive Setup Worth Exploring

Essentially, while Steven Gerrard is a more than capable holding midfielder, it is unlikely that he will develop the sort of defensive intelligence that Lucas possesses. While he might be able to show restraint and not make his favored forward runs, it is the cerebral demands of the role that are likely to elude the 33 year old.

Brendan Rodgers can continue to use him against weaker oppositions, but any opposition side with a good regista in their ranks can quickly capitalize on this mismatch between player and role. Perhaps it is with this in mind that Rodgers chose to bid for ex-Barcelona player Seydou Keita. As it stands, he has to make do with the players at hand till the next transfer window. And in the absence of a destroyer (i.e. Lucas), Rodgers needs to explore playing Henderson or Allen to partner Gerrard in a holding midfield pair against strong opponents.