Liverpool’s loss will be the MLS’s gain, but Gerrard’s departure is not right for the club and could have been avoided.
As the Liverpool captain struck two penalties against Leicester City on New Year’s Day, only the very few pessimists at Anfield would have believed that there was any truth behind the reports that Steven Gerrard might be set to leave the one football club he had served. Gerrard knew. Even as he went either way to put two spot kicks past Leicester’s Ben Hamer, and heard the Anfield faithful roar in approval, Gerrard knew this won’t last beyond a few more months.
On 2nd January, Gerrard gave substance to the rumours circulating about his uncertain future by announcing that he had decided to leave Liverpool at the end of the season. At the age of 35 come the end of May, the Liverpool captain would be driving out of Melwood for the last time. One of the greatest players Liverpool and indeed the Premier League have seen will cross the Atlantic for a taste of MLS action. With the hang over from the news coming to an end now, is this the right decision by Gerrard?
From the player’s perspective – yes, it is. Gerrard has a lot yet to offer as a player. Against Wimbledon in the FA Cup, it was the timeless Gerrard that came to his team’s rescue with two excellent goals. Even at his age, he is good enough to walk into most teams. If he wants to have a crack at football in another country, now is the time. But it doesn’t sound like Gerrard to look for greener pastures. From his interview, where he talks about his reasons behind leaving the club, one thing stands out – a visibly upset Gerrard’s mind was made up after a recent conversation with Brendan Rodgers about his role at the club. Rodgers apparently wanted to manage Gerrard’s game time at the club, something that didn’t go down too well with the Liverpool captain.
For someone who has been a stalwart at the club for close to 15 years, this might be something tough to hear, but Rodgers has a valid argument. Gerrard is no spring chicken anymore. He is not even the same force he was two seasons ago, and for the sake of the team, changes need to be made by Rodgers to accommodate fitter and quicker players who will serve Liverpool in the future. This is not to take anything away from the quality Gerrard still brings into the Liverpool line-up, but is Rodgers really being unreasonable by asking his vastly experienced 34 year old captain to not play a primary role for his club?
And there is evidence to suggest the Liverpool performances might improve with players that have more legs in their midfield. Arguably their best performance of the season came in the 4-1 win over Swansea – a game in which Gerrard warmed the bench. Liverpool played a back three for that game, and it is difficult to say if Gerrard’s presence would have improved Liverpool’s gameplay. The only players he could have started in place of were Jordan Henderson – who is more suited to Rodgers’s off the ball pressing tactics and who got two assists in that game – or Lucas, the Brazilian midfielder who is more defensively tuned than Gerrard for a defensive midfield role. Lucas is probably the one whom Gerrard might have played in place of, playing the deep lying playmaker role. But, with Liverpool’s obvious defensive frailties this season, Rodgers would have to be forgiven to prefer a natural, out and out defensive midfielder.
A few would like to see Gerrard even in a sweeper role in the middle of the back-three, the kind Daniele de Rossi performed for Italy at Euro 2012, or recently Michael Carrick and Daley Blind have performed for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. It is a role that would give Gerrard more time on the ball, and would help Rodgers utilize his vision and eye for a pass without sacrificing the mobility in midfield. Indeed, Gerrard did drop into defence to form a back three as the wing-backs bombed on ahead when Liverpool played the diamond midfield 4-4-2 system last season, with Gerrard at the base of the diamond keeping the game ticking. But this was not a prudent defensive choice even at that time, with Liverpool conceding goals that were masked by their excellence in attack. Now with goals fewer to come by this season, such a luxury probably cannot be afforded.
While Gerrard accepts it is probably for the benefit of the team that Rodgers wants to manage his game time more, it could probably have been better worded by his manager. The presence Steven Gerrard has at the club for the youngsters and the fans is probably more than Frank Lampard did at Chelsea, or Ryan Giggs did at Manchester United. And here perhaps is the Catch 22 situation for Rodgers. While Lampard and Giggs were happy to step down to the lower profile roles they played in terms of game time by their mid thirties, Gerrard is too big a player at Liverpool to be relegated to this stature. Where Lampard and Giggs had many great players around them to share their stature with, Gerrard probably only has ever had only three in his entire career. The thought of being asked to play second fiddle at a club where he has always been the heartbeat has somewhere injured the passionate Gerrard to the point where it borders on hurt.
For the man who was the saviour against Olympiakos, the leader in Istanbul and the messiah at Cardiff against West Ham, who has time and again dug his beloved Liverpool out from grave situations, it was simply not acceptable to watch on from the sidelines. Perhaps this could be touted by some as arrogance, because is it not the duty of a player of Gerrard’s stature to rescue the club when they are at their lowest, in whatever role it may be? Should Gerrard not stay to help rebuild the club after all they have gone through this season? Or is it that after countless sacrifices he has made for his club, Gerrard has finally decided to put himself over Liverpool?
Jamie Carragher recently talked about how dangerous Gerrard could be as an impact player in games – with twenty minutes to go, the opposition players knackered, and more space to spray his masterful passes in. He felt that is the way Rodgers must use his captain now, as an impact player who would terrorize opponents and rouse Anfield as soon as they saw their number 8 stripped and ready for action to try and rescue the game. Whether Rodgers painted a similar picture for Gerrard we will never know, but one does wonder if this decision benefits Liverpool as a club, which now suddenly will have an identity crisis. Who from the current team is iconic enough to take over the mantle from Gerrard? Their best performer has been a 20 year old, and in a team already without characters in the dressing room, Gerrard’s absence will be felt like a deafening silence.