Sooner or later it always comes back to Steven; at least that’s how it’s seemed for Liverpool’s talismanic captain throughout the last decade. Whilst owners, managers and talented colleagues from all corners of the globe have come and gone, Gerrard has remained. An unrelenting red spirit, albeit an inevitably waning force.
At 34yrs old Gerrard has enjoyed a superb club career for Liverpool, frequently lifting those around him with a drive and determination to succeed at any cost. Throughout the tumultuous past decade however, the aura of invincibility that once surrounded the Liverpool icon has gradually begun to ebb away.
Injuries caught up with the Captain, his body no longer able to sustain the surging drives and powerful shots that so encapsulated him at his peak. Likewise, the wear and tear Gerrard exhibited was on display throughout Liverpool’s squad, as players capable of easing the pressure he felt to deliver success, left in search of pastures new.
Physically unable to influence games in the manner he used to, during Dalglish’s second reign as manager Gerrard’s body forced him to get used to being rested and rotated. Making just 18 appearances during an injury hit campaign in 2011/12, his status as an ever-present starter for Liverpool was finally questioned. It seemed possible that his role for the Reds had changed, would Gerrard follow in Lampard’s footsteps to become a luxury impact sub?
Any considerations didn’t last long however, as despite Dalglish’s tenure signalling the first signs of the club attempting to transition their captain and prepare for the day when he would no longer be able to contribute as a starter, all of this changed once Rodgers was appointed manager.
Understandably keen to win the support of Anfield’s infamous stalwart, Rodgers’ staff devised a fitness programme to ensure Gerrard played as much football as possible. Decreasing the amount of intensive training the Captain underwent and using game-time to steadily build up his fitness, Rodgers was able to profoundly limit the risk of injury to Gerrard; 2012/13 would see him start 36 out of 38 games in the league.
Without getting bogged down in any political motivations behind Rodgers’ decision to restore Gerrard as an integral member of Liverpool’s first team, it’s more useful to simply look at the football. During the 2012/13 season Rodgers took a player who’d started just 39 games in the previous two seasons combined and insisted upon having him start and finish games for most of the campaign. Gerrard’s only absences in the league would eventually come from a muscular injury; there was no attempt to rest him, nor any idea of rotation, Rodgers had decided to make Gerrard integral to Liverpool once more.
Last season saw a change in tact from Liverpool’s manager, with his Captain deployed as a lone holding midfielder after an ill judged and prolonged flirtation with a double pivot of Gerrard – Lucas proved to be ineffectual. However, whilst this change in shape was designed to ease the workload on Gerrard’s aging legs and utilise his impressive passing range, there were plenty of signs that such an alteration would prove to be merely a temporary solution to the issue at hand.
Though many Liverpool fans will tell you that Gerrard finished the season excellently once he adjusted to his new position, the key role he played in the Red’s 11 game winning streak has largely distracted from visible areas of concern in the Captain’s game.
Having played the majority of his career as an attacking midfielder Gerrard has never had the positional awareness of a defensive minded enforcer (ala Mascherano). Instead, Liverpool’s talisman always thrived off having time to view the picture in front of him and using his excellent technique to deliver probing passes into the final third.
In his new position as a deep lying playmaker of sorts, the time Gerrard thrives upon is no longer a given, instead it’s earned by the hard work of the shielding pair ahead of him, the most effective of those being that of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen. Last season this system worked to great effect for the majority of the time, with Gerrard adequately protected enough to pick out key passes and provide off the ball defensive work where he could. Yet just 5 games into this PL season and the myriad of weaknesses that accompany such a shape have been brutally and routinely exposed by Liverpool’s opposition.
Without an effective pair in front of him Gerrard has struggled, regularly targeted by opposition managers aware of his vulnerability to being tightly pressed. With less time on the ball his passing range has been greatly limited and he no longer possesses the mobility to dribble free of his marker in midfield and find space on his own. Worse than the captain’s personal struggles however, is the detrimental effect his situation seems to have had on the team as a whole.
Eager to prevent Gerrard’s weaknesses from being exploited further, Rodgers has so far tried both Lucas and Henderson alongside the skipper to offer defensive protection and (varying amounts of) energy. Given the laboriously overwhelming weight of evidence that suggests Gerrard in a two spells bad news for Liverpool, this seems a baffling choice by the manager. Not only has Gerrard never performed to his potential in such a system but it also requires the player accompanying him to sacrifice their positive contributions to Rodgers energetic pressing style. Henderson has been a prime casualty in this respect.
By limiting the contribution of those he’s partnered with Gerrard, Rodgers has prevented his side from recreating the exciting and intense attacking style that earned them such a high finish last time around. The transitions are slower, there are less threatening runs from midfield and there can often seem a gaping chasm in midfield for opposition to run through.
Many will say it will all be fine and indeed it well could be. Injuries should eventually clear up enabling Rodgers to protect his captain adequately, (whether through rotation or tactical set ups) but the way in which Liverpool’s style of play has been compromised to accommodate one player (albeit one of it’s greatest) should be cause for concern for all Red’s fans. With Gerrard in the side the much-praised tactical flexibility the manager has exhibited in the past can easily give way to tactical rigidity as Rodgers seeks to find a way to protect Liverpool’s captain often to the cost of Liverpool’s overall approach.
Compromising core ideals for the sake of individual players was understandable last season, as the electric potential of Suarez and Sturridge (& latterly Sterling) was obvious for all to see. However, with Gerrard now a year older and teams a year wiser to the lengths Rodgers has gone to to conceal his Captain’s weaknesses the time to beginning transitioning Steven may finally be at hand.
With the added demands of Champions League football meaning some players may be asked to perform three times in ten days it’s crucial that Rodgers realises Gerrard can not be among that group. Though perfectly capable of influencing the game when fit and firing, relentlessly fielding the skipper would an exercise in futility. Whether rotating the Captain is within Rodgers’ plans is so far difficult to tell as injuries to Allen & Can have prevented fans the chance to see what the manager would do when faced with an increased fixture list. It seems the sensible approach, so the time to judge the manager may yet have to wait, but the concerns this period has thrown up should and cannot be ignored for long.
Gerrard and Liverpool will always be synonymous with each other and the issue of how to manage the twilight of his career is an understandably sensitive topic, but the time for making him so integral to how Liverpool can play has long since past. Following last season’s heroics Rodgers no longer needs to earn favour amongst the Anfield faithful and given the spirit he’s keen to foster within Liverpool’s youthful squad, the loquacious coach from Northern Ireland can no longer overly focus on protecting a fading icon.
Steven Gerrard eh? Why always him?