The turnaround in the space of a year hasn’t just been outstanding, it’s been outrageous.
Not only are we looking at a team in Liverpool who have leaped a seemingly impossible distance from seventh to somewhere in the top three – and in all honesty, I don’t see them finishing lower than second – this is a team who may win the Premier League who haven’t competed in the Champions League, or any European competition for that matter. Pretty much unheard of in the Premier League.
Brendan Rodgers has been the chief architect of the turnaround at Anfield. Steven Gerrard – not Luis Suarez – has been the Liverpool manager’s most important ally in this charge for the league title; an importance that goes beyond the midfielder’s wearing of the captain’s armband.
Liverpool may finally get their Premier League title next month. If they do so, it will be Suarez whose name will be launched into the stratosphere alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; the three most likely candidates to vie for the Ballon d’Or at the end of the year. If Liverpool capture the league title, the Uruguayan will be voted in as the Player of the Season.
But it’s Gerrard who has arguably been more deserving. The numbers in front of goal, scoring and assisting, from last season and this don’t vary too much for either player. It’s another example of how effective Rodgers has been this season.
What has been important is the leadership and influence of Gerrard in this title race. The captain’s huddle immediately after the 3-2 win against Manchester City on Sunday was inspiring. It would have hit a chord with the rest of the Liverpool players as much as the supporters.
Gerrard’s influence on the pitch this season, certainly in the second half of the campaign, has been akin to what we’ve seen over the past 18 months from Philipp Lahm at Bayern and in the recent past from Xavi at Barcelona.
Incidentally, Gerrard’s reinvention – another wonderful masterstroke from the manager – has seen him occupy a position more in tune with Sergio Busquets. The La Masia graduate is unfashionable in comparison to his midfield and forward colleagues, and he’s certainly a controversial figure due to his less than savoury antics on the pitch in the past. At present, and without any doubt, Busquets is Barcelona’s most important player.
To paraphrase Juanma Lillo, a midfielder says a lot about a team and what kind of football they play. Most top teams around Europe have good to great goal scorers, but the base of a team’s play comes from deeper in midfield, the area where a player’s influence can be even more invaluable than a striker’s goals.
Gerrard isn’t a natural anchor, but he’s taken to that role expertly. What has been interesting to watch is that his development in that position has for now completely negated the need for a specialist holding midfielder. Like Busquets at Barcelona, Gerrard doesn’t use force and power to dispossess the opposition; his reliance is instead on intelligence, positioning and the ability to intercept.
Gerrard’s position as a deep-lying player means he can drop deep into the back line alongside his centre-backs, help retain possession by continually offering himself as a point of reference, but also, and fundamentally, act as the vocal figure that is lacking in the defence.
Liverpool have long been in need of a replacement for Xabi Alonso, a creator in the midfield but also a player to link the back four to the attack. Gerrard, though not as accomplished as his former teammate, is very much the metronome for Rodgers’ team.
Not only do Liverpool have a standout leader – vital in title races such as this – they also have a player who offers enough security at the back for players like Daniel Sturridge and Suarez to concentrate fully on getting the goals.
For Gerrard’s transformation from marauding attacking midfielder to disciplined anchor in the centre of the pitch, all the while retaining his influence on this Liverpool team through consistently excellent performances, he should be under consideration for the Player of the Year gong.
Far more impressive has been his ability to adapt and continue to drive this team forward than the free-roaming exploits of, say, Yaya Toure at Manchester City, who isn’t under the kind of instruction Gerrard has taken on this season, or a striker of Suarez’s calibre, who has always been considered an immensely talented centre-forward.
If Liverpool win the league title, Gerrard’s reinvention, a product of the progressive mind of the manager, will be the most impressive act of any player this season. From a purely footballing sense and without the tangible rewards that may come next month, the new Steven Gerrard has been wonderful to watch.