Looking back at Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard’s role in the last couple of games, he has started as the defensive midfielder and has played much deeper than he has played, even in his more withdrawn role so far this season. This has resulted in some debate over what should ideally be his starting position in the side, with one of the few ‘one-club men’ of world football fast approaching the twilight of his career.
Pundits felt that a deeper role in midfield, a sort of a deep-lying playmaker a la former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso, would benefit the England skipper, and help lengthen his playing career. His eye for a pass and comfort on the ball meant that he was well suited to the role, especially considering the fact that at 33, he no longer has the legs to put in the all-action performances that fans have become used to over the years.
Gerrard had performed well in the deeper role, with Jordan Henderson shining in the more advanced role in midfield. However, Brendan Rodgers’ decision to play Gerrard as the defensive midfielder highlighted Gerrard’s limitations- he has lost his pace, and does not always get into the right place at the right time to snuff out dangerous situations as he missed a succession of runs through the center of the park, something that Lucas has become adept at doing for Liverpool. This showed in the team’s performance, and Liverpool shipped five goals in those two games- three against Stoke and two against Aston Villa.
If we compare the heat maps of Gerrard’s performances against Aston Villa last weekend, and against Manchester United earlier in the season where he put in a great performance in the deeper role, there is only a marginal difference in the positions taken up by Gerrard. But, if we notice closely, Gerrard had more freedom to roam about the midfield area and get involved with the ball- he made 40/49 passes against United compared to 30/41 against Aston Villa.
If we break the performance against Villa down further, we will notice that Gerrard played much further forward in the second, in a bid to get more involved in the play than wait for the ball to come to him. If we notice the heat map to the left which shows Gerrard’s positioning in the first half, it shows how deep he was playing compared to the second half when Lucas’ arrival allowed him to move further up the pitch.
In order to make the best utilization of Gerrard’s talents, he must be paired up with a more defensive minded player in the middle of the park, or Liverpool run the risk of being overrun in midfield yet again. Gerrard has the ability to pick out players with accurate passes, and his range of passing is outstanding, but he is not the player who should be playing the anchor role in midfield for Liverpool.
One of his best performances of the season came against Newcastle away from home, where he was granted to freedom to pull the strings with Jordan Henderson playing the holding role instead of the other way round. Gerrard made an incredible 88/96 passes that day, highlighting the kind of performance that can be expected from him when he is played in the right role.
That brings us to the question how long can Gerrard carry on, despite being played in the deeper role. He seems to be fitter, and has overcome the injuries that threatened to cut his career short during Rafa Benitez’s finals season at Liverpool. However, since the arrival of Brendan Rodgers’, Gerrard has spent considerably lesser time on the treatment table, and his new fitness regimen seems to be paying off.
That being said, Gerrard barely has a couple of seasons of top level football left in him, and if the Reds are able to bring in a top draw creative midfielder, Gerrard to could find his playing time limited, and could face the prospect of no longer being an automatic choice for Brendan Rodgers, just like what happened to Jaime Carragher at the start of his final season at Anfield.
However, his quality and vision could be a very useful weapon for Liverpool, and he could be the sort of impact sub that Liverpool have been crying out for. While he may not have the legs to put in an all-action display for 90 minutes week-in week-out, he still has the drive to perform such a role for 25-30 minutes as a substitute, as displayed by a few times when he has been brought on to have an impact on the game in the second half.
Steven Gerrard remains a valuable player for Liverpool, and it’s up to the manager Brendan Rodgers how he wants to manage the captain, but for Liverpool to progress in the next couple of seasons, Gerrard will have to be involved. How often should that be? Only Brendan Rodgers has the answer.