Following Liverpool's hard-fought and entertaining 5-3 win over Stoke City a little over a week ago, fans and pundits alike were excited to see the newest development in Steven Gerrard's game: playing as the deepest midfielder out of three in the centre of the Reds' team.
Fast forward to the 2-2 draw against Aston Villa and many were already prepared to consign it to the dumpster marked "failed experiments."
As ever, a more measured inspection of the role Gerrard is potentially going to operate in reveals that it is neither proven to be a success, nor likely to be dropped off so quickly.
The Role of the Regista
So what is asked of Gerrard in his deeper role? Why is Gerrard the man Brendan Rodgers has opted to put there ahead of Lucas Leiva or Joe Allen?
Essentially, to (try to) get the best out of the captain who remains a massive force in the dressing room yet a difficult player to fit into the Reds midfield who aim to press high, exert a lot of pressure on the opposition and still maintain balance and shape.
Gerrard's range of passing, his vision and tendency to try the unexpected and improbable—see his lofted pass for Luis Suarez winning the penalty vs. Aston Villa—comes to the fore when he as allowed space and time on the ball. In the helter-skelter world that is Premier League football, such commodities are at a premium—but while Liverpool dictate possession and control games, Gerrard will find such space behind the midfield line.
Placing him in front of the defence allows him to collect the ball early in transitions and build-up phases of play, before exploiting the movement ahead of him quickly.
Naturally there is a defensive element involved with sitting in front of the defence, but more on that shortly. Essentially, Gerrard's on-the-ball talents are what Rodgers wants to harness and playing at the base of midfield is where he may be best placed to do so.
Why So Poor vs. Aston Villa?
Liverpool went into the game at home to Villa expecting to dominate possession, pin Villa back and make the most of the excellent movement of their front four to create chances. Aston Villa would naturally have occasions when they counter-attacked, but the hope would have been to minimise this threat and out-create Villa in either case.
It didn't happen; Villa took the game to Liverpool early on, swamped the midfield and used the pace on their flanks to pin Liverpool's full-backs very deep.
Therein lied the problem with Gerrard: he's not on the team to operate as a defensive midfielder, yet in a two-man midfield (alongside Jordan Henderson) that's exactly what he had to become. Gerrard did not play the role against Villa that Rodgers has spoken about using him in for the future.
That is why the Villa performance is no indicator at all on whether this can be a success. In a two-man midfield as the holder, the protector, Gerrard is lost. This is not the same as playing as the role he operated in against Stoke.
While hard work and a willingness to tackle have more or less always been part of his game, tracking midfield runners and sitting in one particular position have most decidedly not.
As Villa broke forward, Gerrard was exposed. He couldn't or didn't know how to protect the defence and missed a succession of runs through the centre of the team—though this is not a new problem for Liverpool, regardless of who fills that defensive midfield spot.
It's a glaring weakness of the team and Villa exploited it wonderfully, from their point of view.
How to Protect Gerrard
The protection of Gerrard in this role is paramount to Liverpool having major success with it.
Henderson gets through a lot of work, is improved technically and tactically, but Liverpool still need another real force alongside him ahead of Gerrard in a 1-2 midfield.
Both Allen and Lucas can play the ball-winning role, of course, but neither are completely dynamic and have yet to show they can offer enough going forward—Henderson has, though he needs to up his goal tally.
There must be a Fernandinho-type, clearly not on the same level as the Reds aren't going to be shelling out £30 million at present, but someone who can win the ball consistently, carry it forward and add an extra threat in the final third.
Pressing, pressing, pressing and pressing again are absolutely key in the two ahead of Gerrard if he is to be allowed to flourish in the deepest role. He has to be competent in winning the ball when necessary, true, but he is.
Against Stoke he won four out of five tackles, attempted six headed duels and made eight clearances and two interceptions, so defending is not something utterly alien to him. Holding his position correctly, not charging out to the flanks to leave the centre unprotected and decision-making with his timing are all aspects of the game and the role that he can learn further with game time.
Will It Be a Success?
Impossible to say. Gerrard does have to reign in some of his natural tendencies to chase the game and drift into space, which is tough to do when he's been used to doing it and having others cover behind him for so long.
However, he has the technical side of the game to make it work, both in terms of passing and defensive work.
Would Liverpool want him in that role against Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United? Well, that's another question entirely, and one which Rodgers might have to answer quickly—the Reds play Everton in a massive Merseyside derby next week, one that will have serious implications on the top four. Liverpool have to win; they have to get their team selection right.
It was badly wrong against Villa and though damage was repaired at the break, it cost the team two points. That must be rectified against Everton.
As for Gerrard...whether he is the longer-term man for the job or not, the Reds surely, surely have to buy a new defensive midfielder. Preferably one with experience of playing in the deepest role but who can also perform in that aggressive, protective, box-to-box role ahead of Gerrard as the regista.
It is workable for Liverpool and could elongate the career and effectiveness of their captain, but it likely means no further central role for Philippe Coutinho (bar a diamond shape) and a huge importance placed on the central pairing ahead of him.