The Tactical Evolution of Steven Gerrard from Barnstorming Mid to Regista
Steven Gerrard is one of England's greatest ever footballing exports, but even the finest have to learn to adapt, change and modernise themselves to stay relevant.
Football is a ruthless, cut-throat arena: As a cyclical sport, you can go from the talk of the terrace to the forgotten man in just two short years, and players must do everything they can to keep on top of their game.
Few careers echo this fact more than Gerrard's.
The Liverpool youth product burst onto the scene in 1998, filling in for an injury-plagued Jamie Redknapp, and then went on to partner him the season after. Initial impressions were poor, though, as he was played out of position and let nerves affect his game.
The crowd were bemused as to why manager Gerard Houllier stuck with him after turning in consistent sub-par performances, and rarely clapped him as they did the other Reds players.
He saw himself as a defensive midfielder, breaking up play and making key tackles, rather than a driving force, pushing his team onward. Fielded in a more advanced position, his confidence took a knock and he had to learn fast.
Under Houllier, he played a box-to-box midfield role, then an attacking midfield right-wing and even right-back under Rafa Benitez.
Perhaps this flexibility contributed to the seamless positional transition he completed this season?
Gerrard eventually made a name for himself—as you all know—as a barnstorming central midfielder.
The threat he carried surging forward with the ball at his feet was unlike any other, scaring midfielders into backing off and daring defenders to step forward and challenge.
He's always been able to thread the eye of a needle with a pass, and his ability to do that at full speed made him twice as ominous. The cannon he harbours in his right boot—the source of many, many clutch goals for Liverpool—makes him impossible to predict and near impossible to game-plan for.
Olympiakos, above anyone else, know firsthand the wrath of Gerrard's right foot.
For long stretches at the start of the 21st century, Gerrard was considered one of the best, if not the best, attacking midfielder in world football.
Praise flooded in from every angle, Liverpool won fans all over the world off the back of his brilliance and he dragged the club through some tough times.
Despite consistent managerial change at the club, contentious ownership issues and serial disappointment when it came to chasing the English Premier League trophy, Gerrard has been a beacon of excellence and consistency as a dynamic, goalscoring central midfielder.
But injuries and age have taken their toll on a one-time supremely fit body.
When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2012, his initial plan was to play the 4-3-3 he used at Swansea with Gerrard as one of the wider players.
His setup, which was possession-heavy and utilised a slow tempo, would not allow Gerrard to flourish in a true central role—he wouldn't have been allowed to break forward, so the principle agreement was for the England international to play on the right.
Unfortunately, once Rodgers had seen Gerrard play close up in training, it became clear he wasn't cut out for the role: Multiple groin injuries and ankle ailments had affected his ability to put himself about, and each year into his 30s removed half a yard of pace.
The attributes Gerrard had founded his game upon—pace, drive and carrying the ball forward—had disappeared, leaving a shell of a legend without a dedicated position on the field.
For the first few months, Rodgers persisted with Gerrard in different roles, but it didn't work out. Liverpool endured a poor start to the season and very few players acquitted themselves well.
So, in November 2012, Rodgers dropped him into a regista role to see what would happen.
In a word—magic.
His lack of pace or speed on the ball became a non-factor due to the increased time and space he received in deeper areas, and teams could only watch as he turned, looked up and picked a perfect pass.
His lack of pace is still an issue at times, and Gerrard requires a defensive midfield partner. The best deep-lying playmakers have defensive ability, too—even Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso's skills in this area go unnoticed by many—and Gerrard isn't at this level.
A physical, mobile, terrier-like character is required next to him, and should one be purchased, the Reds' midfield would be complete.
Gerrard's game was predicated on directness, but he always had a multitude of other skills in his locker. Now that his legs are vanishing, he can reduce his game to a signal controller-esque role.
The best players learn, adapt and change.
Rodgers arrived at the right time to rubber stamp the transition, and now Gerrard can continue as one of the finest Premier League footballers for another 12-24 months at least.
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