With every year that passes, we grow closer to losing another of football’s greats. Legends come and go, and heroes are replaced, but few have etched a legacy for themselves in a club’s history with as much grace as Steven Gerrard has in his Liverpool career. Few will be quite as hard to let go.
After a player hits 30 or so, it’s only natural that whispers of their demise grow louder. Old injuries play havoc, critics fall over themselves to pen career obituaries, there’s talk of testimonials and coaching roles and form falls under intense scrutiny. Gerrard is no stranger to the phenomenon. He and his club have both endured some turbulent times and patchy performances as of late. For a player who turned the big three-o in 2010, his displays ever since have been largely lacklustre, pushing the debate of his true place in today’s Liverpool side further to the fore.
It’s almost heresy to criticise the beloved captain, such has his impact been in Liverpool’s recent history. He struck fear into the very hearts of Milanistas in 2005 and broke Hammers’ hearts in 2006, not to forget his infamous Olympiakos effort or the countless times he has emerged as a saviour in Merseyside derbies and face-offs with Liverpool’s Mancunian foes.
Unfortunately, for Gerrard and Kopites alike, those displays have become more and more infrequent. Age has restrained the Scouse hero and so too have the multiple changes in personnel and staff around him.
Under new manager Brendan Rodgers – an idealist, hoping to impress upon Liverpool the creative, passing philosophy that worked so well for him at Swansea – Gerrard has played every minute of every Premier League fixture, but now more so than ever his status in the squad is coming under fire.
Last season, under Kenny Dalglish, Gerrard played just 18 games in total due to injuries and suspensions. With him in the side, Liverpool won just 20% of their games. Without them, they won a much improved 45%.
It begs the question; does Gerrard improve the players around him, or hinder them? By the looks of it, given his lack of real impact under Rodgers, it may just be the latter. If so, will Rodgers be the man to relegate Liverpool’s eternal poster-boy to a reduced rank? Is he even brave enough?
Gerrard’s career reached its incandescent peak in 2008/2009, when Liverpool came within touching distance of winning the league, with the captain notching up 16 league goals along the way. In Rafael Benitez’s carefully crafted midfield system, he operated in tandem with Xabi Alonso, backed by the ruthless defensive qualities of Javier Mascherano, and was free to roam in the wide space behind Fernando Torres. His role was something of a second-striker, and he was given a licence to wander wherever he pleased. Perhaps Benitez’s genius lay in the fact Gerrard was unrestricted, given little direction, and allowed to run riot.
Gerrard does not have the same pace or the stamina. Defenders have found it easier to shackle him. Often, Gerrard’s diminishing ability to complete 90 minutes at his old pace has resulted in him taking on more of a defensive role, sitting deeper and limiting his forays into the opposition box. One way to adapt, certainly, but it also limits his impact. Liverpool already have one player tasked with shoring up the defence in Lucas Leiva; Gerrard’s retreat simply divides this responsibility, and leaves a substantial gap between the midfield and attack that Joe Allen’s short passing game cannot possibly account for. Central midfield tends to be bypassed by Brendan Rodgers’ preference for spreading the ball wide, so Gerrard in the middle of a trifecta of himself, Lucas and Allen, seems to see less of the action.
Gerrard could further develop the defensive side of his game, but surely that would be a waste of his finishing abilities, of which Liverpool are in dire need. A possible remedy would be for Gerrard to take a more proactive role, such as moving forward to an ‘in-the-hole’ position similar to the one he played in under Benitez with such success. It would require the captain to tame his urge to track back from time to time, but given his mature years he could be excused for staying in an advanced role further up the pitch, saving energy for the more important business of creating chances for the sometimes poorly supplied Luis Suarez, and contributing to the goalscoring himself.
Giggs and Scholes have done it. Why not Stevie G?
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for example, have adapted their game with such ease and elegance that it’s hard to see why Gerrard hasn’t done the same. At 39 and 38 respectively, Giggs and Scholes have taken on greatly reduced roles at their beloved Manchester United. The former moved to a left forward or central midfield role as opposed to his usual place marauding on the left wing, and managed an impressive 25 Premier League appearances last season for his lifelong club in the process. The trick, it seems, is accepting the limitations that age imposes. The likes of Giggs (or their manager) are aware of their bodies’ boundaries. They understand they cannot play in every game, and that often youthful energy will be worth more than their experience. It’s a balance that Alex Ferguson has down to a fine art.
The difference, however, is that neither Giggs nor Scholes were ever quite as relied upon as Gerrard has been at Liverpool.
This reliance has been an ongoing issue. In many ways, Gerrard sometimes tends to drag Liverpool down, when his greatest quality is in fact his ability to raise the team up. Perhaps it’s this expectation – the hope that at some point, when all looks lost, Gerrard might step in with a momentous display to save the day – that stops Liverpool from taking collective responsibility. All the weight for a revival seems to be perpetually pinned on Steven Gerrard’s tired shoulders – if he doesn’t step up to the plate, who will?
Whatever his output on the pitch, the most irreplaceable quality Gerrard possesses is his ability as a captain. Particularly suited to the role, as a local lad with a 14-year Liverpool career under his belt, his influence on new players and young starlets is not to be underestimated. Brendan Rodgers was quick to point his off-pitch role out when asked about the captain:
“He has been brilliant, I have to say. He’s done terrific for us with the younger players, by taking on even more responsibility than he has always done…the youngsters are able to look up to Steven and learn from his incredible example,” said Rodgers.
It’s these traits that make Gerrard so hard to replace; not just his abilities, but his presence, his leadership and his experience. There is no heir apparent, and there may never be, because players like him come along once in a blue moon. Sooner or later though, the cord must be cut. Either Liverpool learn to live without their local hero, or Gerrard changes his game enough so that they don’t have to.