There are very few things which could make the debate surrounding Steven Gerrard – and the number of “top”s which should feature in an appraisal of his ability – more boring, a contribution from Gareth Southgate being about the only one that springs to mind.
Yet as the presence of a hobbling Gerrard was easily negotiated by Arsenal’s attackers in their 2-0 victory on Saturday, drifting around him with the cautious ease more akin to strollers avoiding an unidentified turd in a park, it was hard not to cite Alex Ferguson’s deliberately-provocative comments and imagine the pleasure Gerrard’s anonymity would have brought the Glaswegian and his disciples.
Not that Ferguson’s comments should be taken without a pinch of salt and a large strip of chewing gum, mind, as for all his deficiencies, there have been few more complete and consistent midfielders than Gerrard this century. Nevertheless, whether the England captain still should be a guaranteed starter for his hometown club, particularly in the big games in which he used to thrive, is a problem Brendan Rodgers has the unfortunate task of tackling.
With Gerrard currently sitting top and third in Liverpool’s assists and goal tables for this season, respectively, it may seem fickle to question his worth. Similarly, to point out that every single one of these came from a set piece – two penalties, a corner and a free kick – would be to downplay their importance as well as the midfielder’s prowess in this area. It is no coincidence that Gerrard also made three of England’s five goals at EURO 2012 from wide areas – his delivery is superb and invaluable to Liverpool, something Brendan Rodgers alluded to recently.
Nevertheless, his ability to dictate matches against average sides should not mask his undeniably-diminishing contributions in the big games.
During his golden years between 2005-2009, Gerrard was virtually undroppable and often saved his best performances for the big games, as Carlo Ancelotti and Alan Pardew would testify- if the latter could stop talking about himself for one second, that is. During this period, Gerrard’s remarkable skill set was complemented by an equally impressive energy. When stationed higher up, his powerful running and finishing made him one of Europe’s top midfielders.
During his golden years between 2005-2009, Gerrard was virtually undroppable
Yet as his pace has inevitably diminished, as has his efficacy. Despite the fact that his adaptation to a deeper position alongside Lucas has been relatively smooth, transition has not overcome his long-standing problems. For every raking crossfield ball that makes the MOTD reel and evokes Alan Shearer’s weekly dose of emotion, there is probably two or three that went out of play, while his relative defensive impotence (positionally at least) was exposed in England’s visit to Ukraine, when he was stationed at the base of a dysfunctional midfield. Against Arsenal, Lucas did a good job of stunting the influence of Mesut Ozil, while his midfield partner did a good job of stunting Liverpool’s creativity by, in the main, doing very little at all.
It is a mark of the way Gerrard has carried teams in big games in the past that his increasing number of off days are becoming so noticeable.
Gerrard no longer powers past opponents, they tend to glide past him. He no longer has Xabi Alonso, the sort of defensive playmaker that allowed him the freedom to influence the game up the pitch. He has had the role of provider thrust upon him. And when opponents stifle the creative talents of Liverpool’s nauseatingly-nicknamed SAS strike force, particularly in the absence of Phillipe Coutinho, Rodgers’ side look extremely blunt. Like many games including Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea at home last season, Saturday showed that Liverpool carry little threat or creativity from the centre of midfield.
Despite his eulogies, it may simply be a lack of alternatives which will ensure Rodgers sticks by his man. Liverpool do not possess the sort of all round midfielder that Gerrard once was or Aaron Ramsey is showing himself to be. What they do have, however, is a number of specialists who, in tandem, could provide Liverpool with a better balance.
Despite his eulogies, it may simply be a lack of alternatives which will ensure Rodgers sticks by his man.
In Joe Allen, for example, Liverpool may have found the sort of player who, if given time to develop, can dictate games in the simple manner Paul Scholes did towards the end of his career, while Jordan Henderson – despite gait-gate – is the bundle of energy Gerrard once was and the tactically astute player he has arguably never been.
Given their youth and relative inexperience it would, almost certainly, be a step backwards in the hope of rewards further along the line. Indeed, it could be argued that, given Liverpool’s immediate need for Champions League football, it would be an unnecessary risk. Nevertheless, with his contributions only likely to go one way, may be something Rodgers has to consider. He would have to brave to do it, but – if only to add to the number of clichés in this piece – fortune may just favour him.
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