Liverpool Tactics and Transfers: Steven Gerrard Role Means Nuri Sahin May Leave

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2013

When the loan signing of Real Madrid's Nuri Sahin was announced in the summer by Liverpool, it was seen as a big transfer coup for the Premier League side, with others such as Arsenal known to be interested.

Five months on though and the Turkish international has failed to hold down a regular starting spot, leading to speculation that the one-year loan might be cut short and that Sahin might return to former club Borussia Dortmund or perhaps Inter Milan (via

Sahin featured only intermittently last season for Real Madrid so it was always expected that he would take a little while to find his form and fitness at Anfield, but in early September it looked as though he was on his way back.

Goals against Norwich City in the Premier League and West Bromwich Albion in the Capital One Cup gave both himself and the team a big boost as they recorded their first two domestic wins of the season, but since then he has started only five more league games for the Reds and has yet to complete 90 minutes in the Premiership.

Ostensibly a playmaker from deeper midfield areas, Sahin spent most of his time during the last few months playing as a more advanced version, not quite a No. 10 perhaps, but certainly with the intent of creating from closer to the opposition penalty area than his own.

Questions were inevitably asked why such a talented player, whom Liverpool worked very hard to secure the signature of, was being played out of position—but the answer has eventually become clear.

Throughout the early part of the season and indeed up until now, Brendan Rodgers has persisted with club captain Steven Gerrard as one of the deeper midfielders.

First Joe Allen and then Lucas Leiva have played the "holding" role, with Gerrard alongside.

Sahin started as the more advanced in what quickly evolved as a 4-2-1-3 system, rather than the initial 4-3-3, but that position has since been filled by Allen, Jonjo Shelvey and most recently Jordan Henderson.

Results for some time were not consistent for the Reds and the midfield in particular was struggling to function. Soft goals were being conceded on the counter, not enough support was offered to the front men and, though the team dominated possession, perhaps not enough cutting edge in the passing was apparent through the middle.

The past six weeks though have wrought quite a change in that regard, with victories over Southampton, Udinese, West Ham United, Fulham, QPR, Sunderland and Mansfield Town being broken up only by a shoddy defeat to Aston Villa and a poor performance at Stoke City.

One of the standout players during that period has been Gerrard.

Whether it is simply the team having clicked after a little longer working toward playing the same system, whether it is a run of fixtures against teams not pressing so much in the middle of the park or simply because the captain has found his form once more, Gerrard is bossing games again.

His performance against Sunderland was a joy to watch for Liverpool supporters; the captain imposed himself on the game by taking up intelligent positions, using the ball effectively and, as he did at his best, creating goal-scoring opportunities.

With the three in midfield that Brendan Rodgers chooses to play, Gerrard has an "overlapping" role.

He is essentially featuring as a regista for much of the match, operating in or behind the defensive midfield line, but because of the solidity in the Liverpool team that holds an additional controlling midfielder—Lucas—Gerrard is able to step forward and be an attacking option as well.

Not quite in the box-to-box days of his youth, but certainly a surprise option from time to time.

With Liverpool playing a high-tempo, possession-based game whereby the ball is circulated constantly in attack, the player operating in the No. 10 role needs to be possess extraordinary technical skills as well as good vision, stamina and consistency.

Gerrard at his best was always a little too impetuous, a little too direct and impatient to play this role effectively and now might be lacking somewhat in the legs department, especially when the pressing of the opposition comes into play.

Henderson might not be the greatest technician but his first touch is very good and he has brought bundles of energy to the team over the past month, as well as doing plenty of the backtracking and running beside Gerrard in midfield when Liverpool don't have the ball.

The 4-2-1-3 very quickly becomes a true three in midfield with someone with the work rate of Henderson in the team.

Gerrard, then, is deployed deeper. With the opposition intent on closing out the space in their own defensive third as Liverpool probe, probe, probe their way around the penalty box, the midfield sits in front of the defence to deny the Reds any chance of easily breaking through.

This in turn leaves Gerrard with ample room to operate when he is sitting 30 metres behind the action, able to see all in front of him with time in abundance to pick his next pass—and no shortage of quality to execute.

Liverpool's attacking full-backs here offer another important aspect.

Taking Sunderland as the most recent example in the league, with both Glen Johnson (left) and Andre Wisdom (right) pushed up the field to support the build-up phases of play, Gerrard was able to drift a little wider of centre and pick up the ball in the full-back zones.

This not only gave him space to work in but also a better angle to pass from, rather than looking straight from the centre all the time.

The graphic below shows how Gerrard received the ball in the defensive channels with a high frequency, as well as in the expected regions of central midfield.

Sunderland were made to look not just bad, but abject by Liverpool as the home side outplayed, outfought and outpassed their opponents.

Gerrard was frequently at the hub of things, making the most passes in the game out of any player (88 passes) and completing the highest percentage out of any midfielder on the pitch (92 percent; only Wisdom completed higher with 96 percent).

Quick, short, incisive passing kept up the tempo of the game for Liverpool, and as Sunderland sat off deeper in an attempt to keep the forwards from the penalty area, Gerrard was afforded two options.

The first was to advance into the space ahead of him, something which he tried several times and managed to get room for a shot, though he didn't trouble the goalkeeper this time around. In recent matches though this has worked in his favour; goals against Aston Villa and Fulham (he scored a penalty vs. Stoke) were testament to this.

The alternative solution was to play his passes more direct.

Gerrard has at times been criticised for playing his "Hollywood passes" too often. There has been a lack of consistency in those passes finding their intended target because he is too rushed, too lacking in concentration or just plain out of form.

Right now he is none of the above, and getting better with every passing week.

Against Sunderland he was able to spray the ball in every direction from deep, completing 13 of his 16 long-range passes—double the amount that even Pepe Reina attempted and far and away more than any outfield player tried.

From inside his own half with the width and length of the pitch in front of him, Gerrard was able to assess his options, pick out a pass and complete it, changing the rhythm of the attack and keeping Sunderland very much on the back foot.

Of course, the pass which will live longest in the memory was his extraordinary ball from the right channel into the path of Luis Suarez, who tucked away Liverpool's third goal of the day. It was exquisite Gerrard—and perfect control and composure from the forward too—reminiscent of his days supplying ammunition for Michael Owen and, later, Fernando Torres.

This was the Gerrard of old that had been missing for some time and that, operating from his re-established deeper role, Liverpool might be seeing an awful lot more of from now on.

The questions might be asked, of course, of why Gerrard hasn't been allowed to be part of the attack when he possess such weapons in the final third and Sahin can offer similar traits in the deep role?

It's a viable poser, and one which presumably Rodgers knew the answer to when he was bringing the Turk in, but statistically Gerrard has outperformed Sahin this season.

In passing, even though Gerrard was one who consistently gave the ball away too easily earlier on in the season, he outperforms Sahin.

In every area of the pitch.

Defensive zone, attacking zone and final third of the pitch, Gerrard has completed a higher percentage of his passes than Sahin in each one. His overall season tally stands at 86 percent completed in open play, compared to Sahin's 83 percent—not bad considering he has played well over 1,000 passes this season.

In fact only Yaya Toure, Mikel Arteta and Michael Carrick have attempted more than Gerrard's 1,371.

Only Leighton Baines of Everton has made more key passes than Gerrard this season, and the Reds captain leads the entire Premier League for assists with eight so far—six of them have come since December.

Gerrard is creating a chance for his teammates on average every 32 minutes, with Sahin almost double that (57) in his time on the pitch from a more advanced position.

It's clear that the position he is being deployed in most recently is suiting Gerrard at this stage in his career, and it could feasibly extend his time at the top for a further year or two, given the extra space he can operate in.

Eventually teams will look to put a man on him in that deeper zone, perhaps the support striker or the most advanced midfielder, and at those times the likes of Lucas, Allen or Henderson—or any new arrivals—will need to take over the consistency and repetition of passing that Gerrard is bringing to the team.

But Rodgers will then of course still retain the option of pushing Gerrard further forward and hoping to catch out the opposition with his eye for goal and ability to get into the box, something which the Reds midfield still needs work on.

For now though the Liverpool midfield is functioning far better with Gerrard as the creative hub in a deeper role, and with Daniel Sturridge soon to be on the pitch for the first time with the captain, he will have a new athletic and pacey target to aim for.

It makes sense on one hand to retain the Turk, who has plenty of quality, pedigree and time left on his temporary deal—but with rumoured wages of around £100,000 per week while he's at the club, it's also not hard to see why the club might want to end his stint early.

Gerrard has yet to miss a single minute of Premier League action this season, remarkable for a player who has played in barely half of Liverpool's past two top-flight campaigns combined (39 of 76 possible games).

That is another reason why Sahin himself will be keen to end the arrangement—having played so little at Real Madrid last season, he will not want to spend another campaign on the sidelines.

For Liverpool's part, should they remove his salary from their spending they would have around £2 million more to allocate elsewhere.

Luis Suarez has been the biggest beneficiary of Gerrard's passing from deep so far, with three of his 19 goals this season being assisted by the captain, but it is Sahin who has been the biggest victim of the role the Reds' No. 8 now operates in.


Statistical data from EPLindex, and graphics from FourFourTwo StatsZone app.


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