A “cornucopia of catastrophes” heads the list of catchy, alliterative phrases that came to mind when describing the exploits of The Reds thus far this campaign. These poor performances have been well documented by pundits and journalists worldwide who are all too willing to pounce on the discernable yet annoyingly relevant topic of “what is wrong with Liverpool this season?”
The aspect that I would like to put under the microscope today is the club’s poor management of Steven Gerrard and what role the iconic number eight should play for The Reds in the foreseeable future.
The introduction of the “diamond”
You would be hard pressed to find an article pertaining to Liverpool FC this season that doesn’t include a reference to the club’s breathtaking performances last season and the tactics behind it. Mine will conform to this to a degree, and for the sake of fellow Liverpool fans, I’ll keep it as brief as possible as to not evoke too many painful memories! Brendan Rodgers’ decision to adopt a 4-4-2 diamond formation at the beginning of the year was influenced by two major factors. One being the scintillating form of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez: their cohesiveness and effectiveness made it ridiculous for Rodgers to even consider dropping either of them. The second being the dilemma of what role Steven Gerrard should play. The answer that the Liverpool boss came up with was to play him in a deeper position, almost as a third center back. This withdrawal relieved Gerrard of doing the dirty work usually associated with midfield play, but enabled a few of his best qualities to come to the fore. These include his exquisite range of passing and set piece delivery, as well as his lauded leadership qualities. This tactical shake-up employed by Rodgers almost proved to be a championship winning one, but frailties at the back as well as costly personal errors saw the title be claimed by Pellegrini’s City.
The blame game
Due to the Reds’ abysmal performances thus far, many fingers have been pointed as to who is to blame. A very popular choice is Mario Balotelli, whose sluggish movement and hesitance to press opposition defenders is in stark contrast to the “SAS” of old. Others have labeled Liverpool’s laughable defence as the perpetrators, and they definitely have a strong case. However, if one takes a closer look, it becomes apparent to one that the poor management of the Gerrard situation is at the forefront of Liverpool’s tentative defence and lack of creativity in attack. In many games this season, Gerrard’s ability to play long, inch perfect passes to either of his wingers have been nullified by the opposition designating a certain attacker to man mark him. This constant pressing halts Gerrard from being able to lift his head and pick a pass.
Restriction of Jordan Henderson
It is something of inevitability that due to his age, Gerrard is simply unable to cover as many miles in midfield as he once did. This inability is what compels midfield partner Jordan Henderson to stay close to Gerrard to “do his running for him” as many have stated. In my opinion, Henderson was an unsung hero of Liverpool’s attack last season, as his running power often dragged defenders away and opened up space for the likes of Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez to exploit. The robust midfield man is also not short of technical ability, as his clever one twos have created plenty of chances and goals for Liverpool in the past, most recently during the Reds’ 2-1 triumph over West Bromwich Albion in October. Henderson’s duty to stick close to his skipper restricts him from joining in the attacking play, which is undoubtedly a factor in the Reds’ impotency up front.
It would be ludicrous to claim that Gerrard is the reason for Liverpool’s poor defence, with the faltering trio of Glen Johnson, Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel all having massive holes in their individual games. However, Gerrard too is irresponsible defensively and his positioning leaves a lot to be desired. On countless occasions this season have opposition attackers been able to have free runs at the Liverpool back line, due to there being no presence in midfield. This is what leaves the defence exposed. Once again, I blame poor management for this problem, as one of the key areas in which reinforcements were required over the summer was defensive midfield. The club failed to address this, and as a result, Gerrard has been played in a position wherein his flaws are exposed. To put just how important a midfield cog is in the modern game, let me present to you a predicament in which Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea found themselves in, little over twelve months ago. During the first half of last season, Mourinho’s outfit were equipped with a defence much less miserly than their current one. They had conceded two a piece to West Brom and Newcastle, and three against Sunderland and Stoke: a scenario that seems almost unfathomable in the present day. Mourinho identified the deficiency in his squad: they lacked a defensive midfielder that The Special One deemed fit to nail down a starting spot for the Blues, hence the purchase of Nemanja Matic. To illustrate what an impact the Serbian had on Chelsea’s defence, one should consider that in the 21 games contested prior to his arrival, the Blues conceded 19 goals and in the 17 games with him as a part of the squad, they conceded just 8. That is a decrease in goals per game of 53%, remarkable when just one player is added to the starting eleven.
The way forward
Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that Lucas Leiva should be given a larger role than is currently the case, and I held this viewpoint prior to his encouraging performance at the Bernabeu. Whilst the Brazilian will not be able to cover much more ground than Gerrard, he is more competent defensively than the former England skipper. His ability to read the game, as well as exemplary positioning would benefit the Merseyside outfit greatly. Lucas is undoubtedly the best option as far as defensive midfielders go for the Reds right now, as Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen naturally do not suit this position, and what Emre Can has to offer in the final third would be severely restricted by playing him here. Lucas’ inclusion as the starting holding midfielder would allow Gerrard to be used as an impact sub, to be introduced in the final 20-25 minutes of games, where he can take up an attacking role. I feel that the Brazilian should make the defensive midfield role his own until January, where a more accomplished one should be top of the club’s shopping list. Whether one is available and willing to join the Reds, and the hierarchy are prepared to invest yet again is up for debate.
Recently former Liverpool player Patrik Berger had this to say about Steven Gerrard’s current role:
“He’s 34 but still has such quality. In my eyes, he’s playing in the wrong position. He should be higher up the pitch, shooting, creating chances, finding solutions. He’d be more useful elsewhere. He still plays well where he is, but he isn’t used where he can make the difference. He still has the quality to do that."
This is a viewpoint that I agree with, considering the fact that Gerrard has created more chances (25) than any Liverpool player other than Raheem Sterling (26). The Liverpool skipper ranks third in the league when taking into account key passes made (24), with only Southampton’s Dusan Tadic (29) and former Liverpool winger, Stewart Downing (30) getting the better of him. This proves that Gerrard can be effective in the final third, and if he were utilized in this position, I would back him to bag a decent amount of goals, as his finishing is second to none.
My concluding point is that Steven Gerrard can, by all means, still be useful to Liverpool, if he is utilised sensibly. The number eight is an absolute cult hero and doesn’t deserve his legendary status to be diminished because of poor decisions in management. At the current moment, he is being picked on sentiment and it is to the clear detriment of the team. Whether Brendan Rodgers has the nerve to make such a big decision is something many will be keen to find out, but it is one he simply must make. If he does not act soon, Liverpool may find themselves at the bottom of a chasm, one from which escape is impossible.
By Hamzah Ebrahim - Liverpool fan - @