Steven Gerrard is a difficult player to criticise. His quality and consistency on the field for the past seven years has led many, most notably, Zidane to say, ‘is he the best in the world…yes, I think he just might be’. But this season has been as underwhelming for Liverpool FC as it has been anticlimactic for its captain. Instead of captivating the Anfield faithful and Premiership masses alike Gerrard has found form and fitness to have eluded him at principal moments of the campaign leaving some, ludicrously, questioning his continued value to the club. Before blindly laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the player it is much more prudent instead to question his subtly changed role for the team under the guidance of Rafa Benitez.
We are used to seeing thrusting runs, exocet-like volleys and a confident presence in Steven Gerrard reserved for only a few talismanic figures in the league’s history. Yet this season has seen the aforementioned at a premium and while I must subscribe to the view that Gerrard has failed to perform to the stellar standards of old there are two distinct tactical reasons why he is catching the eye less for his contributions and more for his unusually despondent body language. The first is, quite simply, the absence of Xabi Alonso. I think it is difficult to overstate just how much the Spaniard’s quality is sorely missed at the rear of Liverpool’s midfield. Alonso’s class, vision and distribution has left Gerrard without passes coming into feet as regularly as they did last term and, crucially, in the places on the pitch where he can maximise influence. The weight of Alonso’s departure and the direct implications it would have on his own game was not lost on Gerrard, ‘[I was] devastated. But there was nothing I could do about it,’ he said in an interview with The Telegraph. This year he has had to rely on Mascherano and Lucas who – despite their respective qualities – cannot be considered in the same league as Alonso in terms of the cohesion he offered Liverpool. Benitez is an astute tactician and understands the need for an assured, creative distributor to compliment Mascherano’s destructive tenacity, hence the purchase of Alberto Aquilani. But the Italian has hardly featured, making the gamble a detrimental facilitator of this season’s nosedive, leaving two defensive midfielders without the breadth of skills to stamp a positive, incisive mark on a match. The repercussion has been a severe curtailment of Gerrard’s attacking output and – perhaps more worryingly – the loss of momentum generated by last year’s title charge.
A second tactical distinction (inextricably linked to the first, it should be added) is Gerrard’s actual position on the pitch. Last season he was played behind the striker and responsible for many of Torres’ chances at goal. The Spanish forward’s movement allowed the deeper Gerrard fractionally more time and space to operate in, resulting in far more trenchant contributions to matches. This year, the loss at Old Trafford a case in point, he virtually played as an auxiliary forward (click here for further analysis) which many have failed to register. This unequivocally alters his role in the team; Benitez did not want him orchestrating the midfield and controlling matters in the middle of the pitch. His orders were to positively influence matters in the final third, which he did. His burst from deep led to Torres’ headed goal and late on Gerrard fashioned two more chances that the Spaniard would have ordinarily converted. The headlines in the morning papers point to an anonymous Steven Gerrard yet, in fairness, he did what was required of him and could so easily have been responsible for three goals scored at Old Trafford. These margins are extremely fine and, though this does not exonerate his entire season, it surely falsifies much of the criticism that the England international is not doing his job for the team.
Finally, the deployment of Steven Gerrard in such an advanced role has polarised opinions for more than two seasons. The argument against it is that Liverpool want Gerrard on the ball as much as possible and this would happen most viably in a central role. The argument for it is that when tucked in behind Torres the club were within touching distance of the Premier League crown after thirty eight games. I still genuinely believe that Benitez has made Gerrard a better footballer; garnered him with a sense of tactical awareness that was previously missing and made him a more polished decision maker (i.e. why make a crunching tackle in the left back’s position to start a counter when, ideally, he should be the one the ball is given to?). However this season has seen a multitude of factors diminish the evident qualities Gerrard possesses and, alarmingly, espouses this sustained dip in form with a lachrymose on-field demeanour. Zidane said of Gerrard, ‘He has great passing ability, can tackle and scores goals, but most importantly he gives the players around him confidence and belief. You can’t learn that – players like him are just born with that presence.’ If Benitez’s men cannot learn to imbibe confidence in one another without Gerrard, a continuing worry is just how long the captain can afford to be off-colour.