Identifying Steven Gerrard's Tactical Evolution at Liverpool
Most of those who were there remember the afternoon fondly.
It was April 1999, and a typically fraught Merseyside derby at Anfield stood at 2-1 to Liverpool when the gangly, academy-produced right-back Steven Gerrard replaced Vegard Heggem with 20 minutes remaining in an attempt to add defensive solidity.
It was the teenager’s eighth appearance in the Premier League, most of which had been just like this one—a late entry off the substitutes’ bench to try to give the team fresh energy and fresh legs.
Further goals from Patrik Berger and Francis Jeffers took the score to 3-2 to the hosts—as Everton pushed forward in search of an equaliser, Liverpool’s defence began to creak. Goalkeeper David James was coming under siege, but luckily he had his young teammate to help him out.
Gerrard came to Liverpool’s rescue with two goal-line clearances in the dying moments to secure the Reds the points. It was the first time he’d ever bailed out his colleagues in red, and it was never destined to be the last.
Back then there was no way to tell just what a symbol of the club Gerrard was to become. No one would have even dared to dream about just what that skinny right-back was going to achieve. Everyone assumed that he would remain a right-back.
The following season saw Gerrard largely switch to midfield, although he was still seen as cover for another academy product in right-winger David Thompson. Rigobert Song had been signed to play on the right of the defence, whilst Jamie Carragher was ahead of Gerrard in the race to plug any gaps in the team.
It was the 2000/01 season which really saw the current Liverpool skipper nail down his place in the side.
Mainly playing on the right of midfield in Gerard Houllier’s Reds side, Gerrard benefited from performing alongside the likes of Gary McAllister, Dietmar Hamann and Danny Murphy, as the 22-year-old blossomed amongst Houllier’s treble cup winners. He started and scored in the 5-4 win over Alaves in the UEFA Cup Final, bursting in from the right flank and cracking home a low shot.
He wasn’t a conventional right-winger, but Gerrard’s ability to pop up in goalscoring positions was proving vital, which made his next move to a more withdrawn midfield role a slightly puzzling one.
Gerrard scored just 17 goals in the next three years as he took on a more withdrawn position in the side, still occasionally popping up with important strikes but seemingly suffering from everyone’s desire to see England produce a proper midfield anchorman. He was playing alongside Hamann and, this, didn’t have to do all of the defensive work, but he was doing more than was needed.
This was the period in time when Gerrard―installed as Reds captain in late 2003―was being shunted around by England too—a positional uncertainty seemed to take hold of his career. Then Rafael Benitez arrived.
With a shield of Hamann and Xabi Alonso, Gerrard was suddenly let loose.
His swashbuckling displays led Liverpool to their remarkable Champions League success—although Benitez received plenty of criticism for moving his captain back out to the right flank for the majority of the 2005/06 season, Gerrard responded with 23 goals and his unforgettable FA Cup Final showing against West Ham.
The arrivals of the likes of Momo Sissoko and Javier Mascherano in the following years saw Gerrard pushed further forward than at any time during his Reds career. This move allowed him to form a devastating pairing with Fernando Torres that was as good as any front line in the world for a couple of years. Liverpool finished second in the EPL during the 2008/09 season thanks to Gerrard and Torres scoring 41 goals between them.
The departures of Alonso, Mascherano and Torres, along with his increase in years, gradually saw Gerrard move back into the position that he has always insisted is his best—right at the very heart of things—and it is difficult to argue with him given the performances he’s put in.
Now, with Lucas Leiva acting as his protective screen and Joe Allen and/or Jordan Henderson willing to do most of his running for him, Gerrard can simply exert his authority on matches from the centre of the pitch—leading his young team like only he can.
The fact that he’s played every minute of every league match this season shows that it is a position that agrees with him, but the Liverpool captain has shown his ability in all the positions he’s played for the Reds and will continue to do so.
That scrawny young right-back has done pretty well for himself, wherever he’s played.
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