Simon Bracken argues that effective management of Steven Gerrard is key if Liverpool are to get the best out of their ageing captain.
Outside of the badly needed three points, one of the most pleasing aspects of the 2-1 victory over West Brom for Liverpool fans was seeing Steven Gerrard playing further forward for the last 20 minutes. After Lucas came on Gerrard moved in behind Balotelli and showed signs of the talent that made him such a formidable prospect in that position.
Liverpool struggled to get going until Jordan Henderson took over the game and scored what proved to be the winner but Liverpool’s most fluent football came after Gerrard moved forward. He linked well with Balotelli to create two opportunities for the Italian and took a few shots of his own.
Whether Gerrard would admit it or not, he played the best football of his career in that advanced position under Benitez. He has always seen himself as a traditional central midfielder but that has never been his best position. He was at his best driving forward getting into the final third, scoring and creating goals, rather than dictating play.
Time has not been kind to Gerrard and he has been stripped of the ferocious athleticism that was the basis of his game and as a result he is no longer capable of playing in the same way. Ever since he arrived at the club Brendan Rodgers hinted that he saw Gerrard’s future in a deeper position and at the start of this year he made the change.
Driven on by the chance at a first Premier League title, Gerrard performed brilliantly and looked to have adapted surprisingly well to his new position.
However, after a heartbreaking end to the season and a disappointing World Cup he has looked the 34-year-old central midfielder that he is. He has been exposed as the holding midfielder by pacy forwards, although he certainly isn’t helped by the full backs pushing so far forward.
Rafael Benitez on the other hand always suggested that he intended to push Gerrard further forward as he got older. Speaking in 2008 he said,
“I don’t see him becoming a central defender, he is too good a finisher. The natural progression for him when he becomes a little older and loses a bit of pace or stamina is to be a striker. He will never lose that eye for goal or accuracy in his shooting.”
At the moment Gerrard is often effectively a central defender, far away from the opposition goal where his “brilliant range of passing” usually just ends up with one of the full backs. So far this season a number of teams have effectively nullified Gerrard in possession by man marking him taking away the only positive his brings to the side in that deep position.
If Liverpool are under pressure his relative lack of defensive awareness is a major problem especially given he doesn’t have the pace or numbers around him to bail him out.
This issue may be what led to Rodgers trying Gerrard out further forward on Saturday and it was a promising showing.
The former England captain demonstrated that he is still a threat in advanced areas with the winning goal against Poland last season but he just doesn’t get into those positions in the current Liverpool set-up. In fact, that was the last goal Gerrard scored from play and he hasn’t scored from play for Liverpool since his vintage strike at Man City in February 2013.
Gerrard is still one of Liverpool’s best finishers and most creative players so surely it would be in the team’s best interests to play him in a position where he can do damage. He may not have the energy to play 90 minutes in the hole, especially given the high energy pressing game Rodgers wants but he definitely doesn’t have the energy to cover his teammates defensively for three full games in a week.
Perhaps Gerrard would be more effective for Liverpool if he played less. Leave him on the bench in games where Liverpool will have less of the ball, such as the upcoming match at the Bernabeu and use him as an impact sub who could genuinely change the game. He could still play the deeper role in games that Liverpool expect to dominate the ball where his defensive deficiencies would not be a severely tested.
Rodgers needs to manage Gerrard wisely, otherwise his final few years at the club will probably only tarnish his legacy.
Simon Bracken, Pundit Arena.
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