Our captain is giving us a bit of dilemma about how we operate as a team. Brendan Rodgers wants his midfielders to be full of energy, pressing high up the pitch and hassling the opponents. Steven Gerrard, at 33, doesn’t quite have the legs that the likes of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen do, both ten years his junior.
Recently the manager has moved to solve this problem by shifting Gerrard further back, to act as the holding player that allows the other midfielders the freedom to work this way. With his range of passing, it also allows the skipper to start attacks quickly from deep, playing a direct ball forward to a striker or pinging a pass out to the flanks.
Defensively however, it makes us very vulnerable. A perfect example came in the Aston Villa game, where Gerrard received the ball under pressure and tried to play his way out of trouble, only for the ball to get away from him and Villa’s quicker and more agile attackers pounced on it.
If we are to give the two advanced midfielders the freedom that Rodgers wants, we need our holding midfielder to be a player who will get stuck in, be strong in the tackle, and recycle possession as quickly as possible. Gerrard wants to be on the ball too much for this to happen, and just as importantly, has too much quality on the ball for us to ask him not to use it.
It is also clear now that Gerrard is too wary of injuries, probably rightly so, to go into the sorts of challenges that we need our defensive midfielder to be doing.
Earlier in the season we were often seeing Gerrard partnered with Lucas in midfield, which wasn’t dissimilar to our old pairing of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. With Gerrard being the deep playmaker that Alonso was and Lucas doing the dirty work the way Mascherano did. That was a well balanced midfield, but Gerrard and Lucas naturally have their own stamp that they put on the roles, and it wasn’t quite as effective at bossing the midfield area as the Argentine and Spaniard were.
Brendan Rodgers has also made it clear that it isn’t his preferred system, as he would rather ‘invert the triangle’ and have one defensive player behind two attacking ones. So in this sense, what we are asking of Gerrard now would have been like taking Mascherano out of the team and making Xabi Alonso the playmaker and the ball winner all in one. You might get away with it in the odd game, especially at home, but for me it’s playing with fire as a long term solution.
With Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson all able to mix and match fairly well in a two or three man midfield, it may be worth us looking at pushing Gerrard onwards as an attacking midfielder. It would mean a bit more responsibility and discipline on the other players to make sure there isn’t a big gap left in midfield and that we still get an extra man up the pitch to do the pressing. Though with energetic forwards like Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, we do get this anyway, and Gerrard will simply be able to occupy that space in the hole and not worry too much about defensive duties.
It’s a position he occupied to a lot of success under Rafa Benitez, with the skipper and Fernando Torres linking up very effectively. Though, at that time he was a more agile and powerful player, roaming into space and running in behind. Now he would have different responsibilities, being a player more in the mould of Juan Roman Riquelme, who simply occupies the number ten position as a pivot, and looks straight away to supply the forwards or wingers.
Even with his more defensive role this season though, he is still near the top of the lists for assists and chances created. Make this his main focus, from a more advanced position, and we should find him creating a lot more clear cut opportunities for our strikers. And let’s not forget that the man is also a fantastic goal scorer, we just haven’t seen it this season because he has rarely had the chance to get forward without compromising his defensive responsibilities.
In the long term, it may not be how Brendan Rodgers pictures his ideal team being set up. But if no major signings are to be made this transfer window, we need to make best use of what we have available. And letting Gerrard off the leash one last time might give us that something extra we need to push on and secure this vital top four finish.