Just a few days ago Brendan Rodgers assured skipper Steven Gerrard could play for another five years, probably laying the ground for a contract extension in order to ensure that the Liverpool legend finishes his football days at Anfield.
While the 32 year-old is still performing at the highest level, the Reds’ chiefs should not overlook that the fact they’re going to have to be ruthless, even with one of the greatest players to grace the shirt, and finding a replacement – or replacements – to cover the big gap the no.8 will leave at the Premier League club should be a top priority.
“He’s 32 years and super-fit at the moment,”, Rodgers claimed when asked about Gerrard’s extension deal, adding that he could see another three to five years left in him, “as long as everything holds up with his body”.
Both statements imply that the present and future level of performance of the captain are subject to his physical condition being kept at the standards he is showing at the moment, but also hint the possibility that the course of nature could drop that level eventually.
The Reds’ boss is certainly right in what he says. Gerrard is in a good form, has been consistent throughout the season and perhaps could perform that well for a few more years. But time, ageing and his style of play naturally invite many to think differently. The England midfielder will turn 33 in May and, despite possessing a great long pass, shooting capacity and the experience that fifteen years at the top level provides – physical condition is key in a box-to-box midfielder.
Gerrard’s style of playing is physically quite demanding and a sharp drop in his condition would have immediate repercussions on his individual numbers and, ultimately, the team’s performance. Liverpool cannot afford to wait for this to happen, and the fact that Rodgers has made Gerrard play every single minute of this Premier League season so far – proudly pointing the fact out to highlight the player’s good form – should not do anything but stress the urge to bring new blood into the squad.
To keep relying on Gerrard as a key member of the squad can also have a negative effect on the tactical aspects of the side. It is relatively simple to observe that the more a team channel its football through one player, the more predictable it becomes. Luis Suarez is undeniably the focal point of the current team in terms of goals and offensive threat, but Gerrard has a bigger impact on the rest of his team-mates’ performance, improving their level when he has a good game and decreasing it when he is neutralised by the opponent. Liverpool’s fate is condemned to suffering the longer Gerrard is the centre of attention.
Every time a club faces the last steps of a key player, the tendency when looking for a replacement is to look for a carbon copy of the one that is about to retire, but fifteen years younger. This narrow-minded way of thinking only makes the task of finding the replacement harder. Ideally, you would like to find a footballer with the same playing features, inexperienced enough to accept the secondary role while learning from the fading idol.
Unfortunately, football is not always that easy, and Liverpool should not obsess with replacing Gerrard with another Gerrard. It will be crazy to deny that his goals, positioning and understanding of the game will not be missed, but even more will be his leadership and ability to take responsibility when the team is in need. And that can be found in more than one player, more than one position, and – more importantly – while Gerrard is still in the squad. Besides, it could also release the skipper from a good amount of the pressure he has on his shoulders and get the best out of his last years.
A role like the one Ryan Giggs has at United would be the ideal evolution for Gerrard – and for every key player approaching the end of his career: the Welshman brings experience to the team in important games, but doesn’t have the pressure to win them or the need to feature in every game.
Rodgers mentioned Javier Zanetti or Andrea Pirlo as examples of players performing at the top level at an advanced age for a footballer. Great examples, but the reality is that they are few and far between and for every player like them, there are another hundred that, when facing their mid-thirties have to retire or – in the worst scenario – crawl around the pitch prolonging the inevitable moment of hanging up their boots and distorting the way they should be remembered.
Liverpool, therefore, shouldn’t rest on their laurels and give priority to figure out how life without Gerrard is going to unfold. It can be done while the captain signs a new deal and enjoys his last years at Anfield, and it will definitely make the goodbye less traumatic for the club. Waiting for his last kick will only make the legend become a myth, and myths are harder to replace.