As the final whistle blew at Anfield on Sunday, Steven Gerrard wore the look of a forlorn and dejected man. His beloved Liverpool had just lost to Arsenal at home, which coupled with the transfer-deadline day debacle, meant Liverpool's start to the season surely had not gone as per plan.
Gerrard, himself, had turned in a very poor performance, though it was a bit harsh that he got so much blame for the first goal when he gave the ball away 80 yards up the pitch.
Brendan Rodgers seems to believe in making Liverpool play the much fancied "tiki taka" way, and Steven Gerrard will no doubt form an important part of his plans. After all, he has been the solution to most problems for Liverpool in recent times.
But right now, is he?
Gerrard is a fine footballer. His technique, unquestionable. But at times on Sunday, he was too direct in the early phases of a move. He always had a tendency to look up and hit a hopeful long pass—also called the "Hollywood ball."
When it came off, it switched his team's focus from defense to attack very quickly. But when it didn't come off, which was the case mostly, it just seemed reckless, especially when there were better placed teammates available for an easier pass.
Now, had this been attempted by any lesser player, he would've been in line for a severe dressing down from the manager, and failure to comply with would've cost him his place in the team.
But this isn't any lesser player. This is Steven Gerrard, and therein lies the problem.
Brendan Rodger’s biggest task lies in trying to drill discipline into him and get him to truly adopt the short-passing approach because if it doesn't work out, you feel Liverpool would rather jettison their boss before their captain.
Gerrard is probably the most talented English midfielder of his generation, possessing practically everything needed to be a success, yet he has achieved so little of it.
Now, he obviously has tried hard to raise himself up to what is a king-like position at Anfield, and he has done that. Once there, it gave him more and more scope to try things, particularly with long-range shooting, which has provided much of his most sensational contributions.
For years and years, it has worked for him and the club, and the man has provided countless moments of real quality. But then off late, the very same aura has affected the team as a whole.
As Jonathan Wilson stated in his article for The Guardian:
The phenomenon of a big player dwarfing those around him, particularly when, as in the case of Henderson and Adam, they are low on confidence, is well-known. The tendency, understandably, is to give the ball to the star, to try to feed him at every opportunity: Cesc Fábregas described it happening at Arsenal in Thierry Henry's last full season, while an over reliance on Samuel Eto'o has clearly hampered Cameroon. Gerrard offers an excuse, an easy way for his team-mates to dodge responsibility.
He is "Mr. Liverpool," "Captain Fantastic" and in the eyes of Liverpool fans, he can do no wrong. His position in the team is assured, no what matter what his performance.
In his prime and pomp, he was certainly more of a benefit than a detriment. He gave real drive and goal threat for his side. At times, you could almost sense his desire to win pulling the team on. Some of his greatest performances have been delivered at key moments for Liverpool.
However, as it is with age, the injuries started to catch up with him. This coincided with Liverpool's fall from Champions League contenders and on his return, a less fit, a less agile Gerrard took it on himself to bring his beloved club back to its glory days.
His belief that he had to drive the game forward, that he had to do it alone, that he should have the ball passed to him, that he should shoot from anywhere and everywhere, has now started to let him and his teammates down more often.
It was very apparent at the start of last season where too often it looked like he didn't trust his own teammates and was always trying to make things happen himself.
While Gerrard by himself is a great asset to the team, bringing in not only his experience and authority, but also individual skill, it still takes a smart AND strong manager to outweigh the said authority and make him play in the system and for the team.
There is a grain of truth in the suggestion that he, despite being able to win games on his own at times, plays a disruptive role by not trusting them enough and trying to do everything on his own all over the pitch.
He wants to be everywhere, and he sometimes gets into an area he doesn't need to be in and the zone becomes over-occupied, leading to gaps elsewhere.
And that leads us to one of the biggest problems and questions with Steven Gerrard—What is his best position ?
The problem is not necessarily with Steven Gerrard himself, but how coaches use him and how fans perceive him. A lot of people (and some of his coaches) seem to think Gerrard is either a box-to-box midfielder like Lampard or a defensive midfielder in the style of Roy Keane.
No. Actually, he's not.
Gerrard is at his best as a marauding attacking midfielder. The player I would compare him to—bear with me—is Kaka. It might not be the natural comparison and aesthetically they look quite different as players, but Gerrard likes to operate in the same areas.
He doesn't glide past opponent like Kaka, he powers past them, but his attacking instincts are the same. He plays best and is most comfortable operating on a flank or further forward, just behind a striker in a central role. He needs to have freedom to attack, to run at opponents, he needs to be allowed to shoot and put in crosses.
Gerrard has never been a proper central midfielder. He lacks the required positional discipline and although his pace and conditioning helped him bomb between penalty boxes when he was younger and put in eye-catching last-ditch tackles, injuries and age have eroded his ability to react quickly which is required to shield his defense.
Gerrard was the closest that England had to the free-roving playmaker employed by a number of teams. This player has no defensive responsibilities and is tasked with playing most of his football in the opponent's third of the pitch. Gerrard has/had the guile and the know-how to unlock defenses. You just don't want to rely on him to protect yours.
Rafael Benitez had the right idea with Gerrard. He should either play out on the right or behind the main striker but never as a central midfielder with responsibilities as he can't be trusted. Gerrard was at his best in Benitez's system with two-deep lying midfielders behind him and Kuyt on the right. All these players could work to cover Gerrard's lack of positional discipline.
He was used in a system that made the most of his abilities. It is fair to say that Gerrard had his best years under Benitez. He won 10 games a season almost single-handed. But, he had players of the caliber of Alonso and Maschereno behind him, doing the dirty work.
After Alonso left in 2009, almost all of Liverpool's managers have felt the need to drop Gerrard into a deeper central midfield role. As already said, this is not his best position at all. He is a good all-round athlete who will give decent-to-good performances in a number of positions, including full back (if needed), but he has lapses in concentration and is too eager to think about going forward first when he is deployed in an out-and-out central midfield role.
In recent times, Lucas Leiva has performed the role of the defensive midfielder admirably, allowing Gerrard to abandon his defensive duties to an extent. The loss of Lucas repeatedly has forced Gerrard back to a deeper role. Joe Allen seems to have been allotted a role deeper than Gerrard, but that is one based more on rotation where Gerrard is frequently required to cover in midfield when his partners foray forward.
It all points to a major failing at Liverpool, in that a player of Gerrard's ability should have a team built around him, not have him forced into a role that doesn't suit his style. For Liverpool, it's a simple choice of whether they have a team or a side built around Gerrard. He is at an awkward age right now, given that Liverpool probably need two to three years time to build a team to be serious about the title.
That's not to say Gerrard is past it; he isn't. He's just not the all-action hero that he used to be. It wouldn't make sense to build a team around someone who will be close to retirement or retired already by the time you get to where you were aiming for.
This is a question that Liverpool Football Club faces. At present, it seems that there is no clear answer to the question because it doesn't look like Liverpool have found that answer. But when they do, the club should be the ones best placed to make that call.
That is the way it is in football. No matter how good and gifted an individual is, no player is bigger than the club.
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