Last weekend, Brendan Rodgers elected to bench Steven Gerrard against Stoke City on the 16th anniversary of his Liverpool debut.
The immediate assumption was that the Reds boss wished to portray the image of a manager unconcerned with such sentimentalities, but revealed after the 1-0 victory that he was actually oblivious to the unique occasion. “I felt quite bad, there are about 20 pictures of him and I’ve put him on the bench. At least he came on for 20 minutes or so at the end,” Rodgers informed reporters.
Yet, whether by coincidence or design, dropping Gerrard for his own festivities sent out an important, symbolic message that Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic must now be selected as wisely as possible.
Sacrilege to some segments of the Anfield faithful – especially after Gerrard officially ended his England career after the World Cup so that he could participate proficiently in the follow-up campaign to Liverpool’s second-place finish last season – particularly in the Champions League.
But the Liverpool icon is now 34 years of age, and although debates can be had whether it’s his form or Liverpool’s that’s taken the more significant hit this season, with the Reds currently lying in eighth place in the Premier League table, clearly time is beginning to catch up with him.
Gerrard’s the type of character who wants to play every week. Like Chelsea’s John Terry, he’s played through niggling injury after niggling injury for the majority of his career. Yet the simple paradox is that the less demanded of the England centurion now, in terms of game-time, the more his Anfield tenure can be prolonged.
Take Frank Lampard for example – a veteran midfielder whose career has mirrored Gerrard’s with almost miraculous similarity. Two seasons ago, aged 34, his game-time gradually reduced, dropping from 49 appearances across all competitions in 2011-12 to 40 in his final season at Chelsea. Had the former England man been pushed to continue making the 55+ appearances of his late twenties, its unlikely Lampard would still be playing at Premier League level today, forging a vital part of Manchester City’s title defence in a free-scoring cameo role.
Gerrard’s more than capable of doing the same, especially in the more advanced capacity, similar to Lampard’s, that worked to great effect against Leicester City in midweek, but only if his fixture schedule is managed correctly.
Rodgers hasn’t always got it right this season; I still believe the midfielder could and should have started against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, in what may have constituted the last major European occasion of his career.
But Stoke City, through their battle-hardened tenacity, especially in midfield, is the kind of team you should be protecting a 34 year-old veteran from, and Rodgers’ decision to bench Gerrard against the Potters was vindicated by the subsequent 3-1 victory at the King Power stadium.
Moving the Liverpool captain further forward undoubtedly had an influence, but Gerrard looked fresher, fitter and sharper than many of his performances this season. His passing, creativity and crossing was vital to the Reds’ win and he capped it off by finding net in open play for the first time in his last 18 Premier League goals.
It’s no coincidence that we saw a revitalised Gerrard against Leicester following his first league benching of the campaign, whereas he’d previously amassed the most minutes of any Liverpool player in the Premiership this season, barring Simon Mignolet.
Gerrard’s absence is an important experience for the rest of the Liverpool team too. He’s been at the heart of it for over a decade – the inspirational figurehead, the ultimate leader. That can create an unhealthy sense of dependency, the subliminal idea that the rest of the starting Xi can let responsibility lie with him or that they require Gerrard to put in a top performance, but retirement is now on the horizon for the 34 year-old.
The players need time to adapt their mindsets – other likewise leaders must be allowed to emerge – just as the club overall requires a transition period to successfully cope with their captain’s eventual departure. It’s not only Gerrard who will benefit from him being rested on certain occasions.
Of course, the dilemma is that Gerrard is still Liverpool’s best midfielder, in any role, by quite a significant distance. Keeping him on the sidelines is a test of Brendan Rodgers patience, as much as it is the Anfield skipper’s.
But with Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson both emerging as integral stars for club and country, the time feels right for a gentle, almost unnoticeable passing of the reins. Likewise, having a weakened, less active Gerrard spend another four years at Anfield, compared to two of more fruitful participation, can only benefit Liverpool’s first team and the club as a whole.