The only path to sustainable success is stability. The only way a side without extraordinary financial backing can succeed in an environment as tough as the Premier League is through having a defined plan bought into by all its players. Perhaps what has been most disappointing to Liverpool supporters about the start to the season isn’t the points dropped, but the fact that their side is at best showing only incremental improvement in understanding Brendan Rodgers’ system from week to week.
Regardless of whether or not you think the style is correct, the fact is that Rodgers only wants his side to play one way. All of his summer business was geared to it, with Fabio Borini and Joe Allen brought in to speed up the learning curve and Liverpool’s only true Plan B in Andy Carroll shipped out. Liverpool haven’t played in Rodgers way enough this season, and that’s the frustrating part. When they do, they look threatening and dangerous. Some of the play against Manchester City and Sunderland flowed beautifully, regardless of the finishing problems. Yet too often that standard hasn’t been met, with players losing patience too quickly in the final third and rendering all possession before that sterile.
Steven Gerrard has been the worst culprit, not only because much of the creative burden in the final third is supposed to stem directly from his gifted right foot, but because he’s not merely breaking up opponent attacks with his sloppy play. Liverpool have been torn apart on the counter numerous times after a simple pass has gone straight to the opposition. It’s hard to take, especially when it’s happening so often, especially when it’s Steven Gerrard.
The man’s not going to change. He’s 32. It’s been 409 times he’s played for Liverpool and every game has been approached the same way, with the belief that he’s the player who has to make the difference. We know the name son, highlight passes and surging runs. Except now the legs aren’t quite as strong, otherwise surely that layoff against Sunderland would have been converted like it was 2008. Except now the diagonals are running out of play and the corners are awful. Except now when the going gets tough, the tough suddenly look disinterested and make Joe Allen play for two men.
Jonathan Wilson noted as much in his fantastic article in April. “Gerrard was at his best when he could be let off the leash, when the situation was so desperate that he could be released from responsibility and told simply to swash buckles and storm barns all over the pitch.” Liverpool’s own Roy of the Rovers, and that stereotype has only become more apt since Benitez left. Napoli in 2010, Newcastle in 2011, Everton in 2012, all felt the storm of an inspired Gerrard.
Is it all doom and gloom? Is it time for Gerrard to be phased out so this new, slicker Liverpool engine can properly start purring? No, at least I hope not. The man still offers a unique set of skills unmatched in Liverpool’s midfield. Nuri Sahin needs time, Joe Allen is already trying to be both himself and Lucas, and Jonjo Shelvey doesn’t have the experience or the talent. Liverpool should be better when they play their talisman, not worse. Wilson’s argument of Gerrard’s gravitas destabilizing those around him doesn’t hold now. Joe Allen has been the Player of the Season so far, often rotating fluidly with Gerrard, and Nuri Sahin was himself the big boss at Dortmund. When Gerrard looks engaged in the system Liverpool look a different class, the problem is that’s happened too little this season.
West Brom was awful, an 82% pass completion rate and only 70% in the final third. Three shots from the edge of the box that were a waste. Manchester City was slightly better, the overall pass completion rate was down to 78% but Gerrard doubled his chances created, including the rare assist from the corner for Martin Skrtel. The Arsenal game looks worse than it is because of Gerrard’s culpability for Podolski’s opening goal. He also created five chances with an 84% completion rate in the attacking third. It’s really not his fault that Liverpool are impotent in front of goal (except when it’s him missing the chances).
Sunderland offered the biggest positive, as the skipper was moved deeper into midfield despite both Rodgers’ and Gerrard’s insistence that he has a role to play behind the striker. 99 passes, almost double what he’s normally been contributing this season, with an 85% completion rate. Patience, with around 40% of his passes backwards or square (as compared to Allen’s 54% but Gerrard’s job is to provide most of the creativity to the forwards). His most passes were to Sterling, showing a willingness to spread play calmly to the flanks. Most importantly, Gerrard looked alive, even in a role that didn’t best suit him and one that he’s stated he doesn’t see himself in. Hopefully that’s not a one off due to the exacting week the city and club have been through.
Where is Gerrard’s best place in this side? It needs to be a position that accommodates both the player and the team. There needs to be protection behind Gerrard so that he can show off his hero act, with the odd errant pass that comes with it. One of the wide forward roles may be a good fit, if just so that Raheem Sterling’s legs don’t fall off from overuse. Rodgers’ system requires the front three to be fluid and interchangeable anyway, and Suarez and Gerrard have shown the ability to link dangerously in the past.
It’s a hard job that the supporters want Gerrard to do, he was restrained and beneficial to the system against Sunderland, but created zero chances. He tried to boss the game against Arsenal, creating five chances, but sold Suarez a dummy that led to the Gunners’ opening goal. Of course the only reason fans are being so harsh on their idol is because the man has spoiled us by being consistently superb for over a decade. Perhaps a wide forward position offers the best compromise, with enough scope for expression but within the confines of the way Brendan Rodgers wants to play.