Time for Liverpool to prepare for life without their contract rebel?

In another dose of traditional tabloid scare-mongering, the British media are having a field day over Steven Gerrard’s contract situation and the midfielder’s subsequent admission that he would consider joining another club, rather than retiring, if he’s not offered a new deal.

The Liverpool skipper’s current terms expire at the end of the season and, perhaps spotting the opportunity to ruffle some feathers around Merseyside, Manuel Pellegrini’s even claimed he might offer Gerrard a stay in the Premier League next summer with Manchester City – what a controversial move that would be.

But let’s take a quick reality check. This is the Steven Gerrard that’s spent his entire career, a total of 678 competitive appearances, at Anfield. This is the Steven Gerrard who came close to joining Chelsea in 2005, after Liverpool had won the Champions League title, before realising the millions of broken hearts he’d leave behind. This is the Steven Gerrard who’s rejected virtually guaranteed trophies at Real Madrid and Manchester United, to name a few of his suitors over the years, for the sake of his boyhood club. This is the Steven Gerrard that’s sacrificed his own career, reputation and legacy to stick with the Reds through the darkest era of their recent history. He’s not about to jump ship now.

Furthermore, the former England international’s current situation isn’t even that unusual – Chelsea have a policy of only offering one-year extensions to players over 30, which is now being adopted throughout the Premier League, and the last time Gerrard’s contract was up for renewal in 2013, Liverpool didn’t sweat a single, nervous bead over letting it run into its final twelve months.

When you’re an ageing club captain, allegedly taking home around £7million per-annum, contract negotiations are bound to be a niggling, arduous process. But at this point, it would be absolute, unprecedented madness for Liverpool not to offer their club idol extended terms.

The speculation surrounding Gerrard’s future however, and more specifically, reports suggesting he may be forced to take a pay-cut as his game-time reduces, do highlight a very important issue; Liverpool need to start preparing for the inevitable – life without their talismanic skipper.

Likeminded successors to the Liverpool legend have been mooted before – Ivan Rakitic, Will Hughes, Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and Paul Pogba to name a handful from over the last few years. One could even argue there’s a couple amongst the Anfield ranks already; Jordan Henderson’s development has accelerated miraculously since he became the 34-year-old’s regular partner in central midfield and Raheem Sterling – although a completely different breed to Gerrard – is already echoing his skipper’s one-club-talisman status.

But now, the mission to find Gerrard’s eventual replacement needs to be taken far more seriously.  Whether his influence on the starting XI has begun to wane remains open to debate – like the chicken or the egg, it’s hard to tell whether it’s Liverpool’s or the midfielder’s form that’s taken the biggest hit this season. He’s certainly struggling to replicate those world-class displays in the holding role that became so intrinsic to Brendan Rodgers’ game-plan last term.

Not that one season – or more accurately, a spell of ten games – should become the affirmation that Gerrard’s 15 years at Liverpool are coming to an abrupt end. He’s made 70 Premier League appearances over the last two campaigns – more than he’s managed at any point since 2008, when his footballing powers were arguably at their strongest. He’s scored and created goals, albeit predominantly from set pieces, regularly enough too, and those 70-yard cross-field passes are still a recurring feature of Liverpool’s build-up play.

Regardless however, time is inevitably catching up with the Anfield veteran. Last year, he was protected by Liverpool’s intensity; Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen like energetic guard dogs either side of him, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez all pressing with considerable velocity from the front.

Without that insulation, Gerrard’s struggled this season and even found himself targeted by Liverpool’s opposition. West Ham and Aston Villa, who both recorded shock wins against the Reds, adopted the same strategy to nullify the England centurion – get a quick forward to man-mark him, reducing the midfielder’s capacity in possession, before exposing the space behind him on the counter-attack.

Likewise, despite retiring from the international scene after Brazil 2014 specifically to focus on Liverpool’s extra demands in Europe, Brendan Rodgers, controversially, opted to bench Gerrard against Real Madrid in midweek. Theories why remain interpretable; is the midfielder no longer capable of making two appearances in the same week? Was Brendan Rodgers making a point regarding Gerrard’s form? Does the Liverpool boss view his captain’s reducing mobility and stamina as a burden against opponents as awesome as Real Madrid? Admittedly, sides like Los Blancos aren’t too common.

Either way, the winds and fires of hell couldn’t have prevented Gerrard from featuring at the Bernabeu twelve months ago,  so whether Rodgers’ concerns were based on fitness, fatigue or form, their seriousness cannot be overstated.

And one need only look at the plight of Manchester United to consider the consequences of not giving Gerrard’s slow-down the attention it deserves. Amid the circus surrounding Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it’s been long-forgotten that the Red Devils also said goodbye to Paul Scholes in the same summer. Now two years since the ginger maestro hung up his boots, United’s midfield is still in absence of a likeminded, world-class orchestrator.

Gerrard’s eventual departure will inevitably leave a monumental hole behind at Anfield. He’s been at the epicentre of the club’s highs and lows for the last 15 years, he’s a connection to Liverpool’s past and the local working-class community. The Reds icon’s retirement will undoubtedly have a hugely debasing effect on the club.

But that’s why Liverpool must prepare now, whilst there’s still time to instigate a subtler, gentler transition. Whether in the form of a direct replacement or remoulding the starting XI around a different emphasis, the time has come for Liverpool to consider life without their skipper and their capacity to cope when he eventually retires.