Just like pleas for and from Mario Balotelli to have a partner up front, so too does Steven Gerrard. That’s just the simple reality right now.
Even during the Reds’ swashbuckling title-challenging season of 2013/14, problems had surfaced with Rodgers’ experiment of deploying Gerrard as the deepest of two or three midfielders. It was just that the frontline were managing to score a lot more goals that concealed these problems. With the new-look frontline looking blunt and clueless, this has left Gerrard and the Reds’ defence even more exposed and hence blamed for the Reds’ recent awful run of form.
The first time Rodgers played Gerrard in the ‘quarter-back’/half-back/deep-lying playmaker role was at the start of the year, away to Stoke City. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva was in the team that evening, and was expected to start in his usual position shielding the back four, with Gerrard and Jordan Henderson ahead of him. However, it soon became apparent that Lucas and Henderson would support the front men, while Gerrard sat in front of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure. Liverpool prevailed 5-3, thanks to Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, and all seemed well. But the fact was that Stoke’s equalising goal from former-Red Charlie Adam came from a misstep between Gerrard and Henderson, while Stoke’s third and consolation goal was due to a lack of protection in front of the two centre-backs. Problems were already obvious in this very first attempt.
Hidden Problems Persist
A week later saw the Reds pull arguably their worst first-half of the season Anfield, going down 2-0 to Aston Villa before pulling one back just before the break. That day, Rodgers opted for a more conventional 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders – Henderson and Gerrard. This partnership in midfield should have worked, as meant to be argued here, but the problem here was deploying a midfielder like Henderson. The former Sunderland man has the energy to run box-to-box and harass opponents, but in doing so this leaves Gerrard exposed on occasions. Villa’s midfielders were aware of this, and their midfield three played very narrow and overwhelmed Gerrard.
The two games in February after the Reds’ 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal continued to expose the defensive frailties of the Reds with Gerrard in front of the back four. Admittedly, Gerrard’s deep-lying position saw him play that exquisite outside-of-the-foot pass – while unbalanced, mind you – to find Sturridge for Liverpool’s first equaliser against Fulham at Craven Cottage. But Gerrard’s lack of cover for the full-backs saw the Cottagers exploit Liverpool’s exposed right-flank to score the opener, while in the 4-3 win over Swansea a week later, no midfielder could get close to former-Red Jonjo Shelvey as he struck his effort from the edge of the box.
These are just some examples of how Rodgers’ Gerrard experiment didn’t work out on first thought last season, even before Gerrard’s unfortunate, ‘title-defining’ slip against Chelsea. This problem has just worsened during this very challenging season, with Rodgers resorting to shuffling Gerrard between the currently favoured defensive midfield and the offensive midfield position Gerrard once shined in under Rafa Benitez’s reign.
This season, a deep-lying Gerrard was first exposed away at the Etihad, where Stevan Jovetic’s second goal was initiated from a driving run from midfield in Liverpool’s half, where Gerrard was meant to be patrolling. Further on in the loss at West Ham, as the Reds were down 2-1 and pushing for an equaliser, the defence had no midfielder that they would usually pass to, as Gerrard started drifting forward to try to force the issue. Though Mamadou Sakho should have known better, he instinctively headed a long punt by West Ham to his side’s midfield zone. Instead of being picked up by Gerrard, Stewart Downing was first on the scene and played Morgan Amalfitano in for the Hammer’s third.
Rodgers, to be fair, has noticed this problem and has been trying to rectify it. The most recent example of this was when he deployed Gerrard alongside Joe Allen in the 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, while for the first-half of that haphazard, fortunate victory at QPR, Rodgers positioned Gerrard just behind Balotelli. Both didn’t work out too well, as almost nothing was created during the defeat at St James’ Park, while Gerrard’s ineffective first-half display against QPR saw Rodgers place Gerrard back in the deep-lying role after the break.
Two Options for Gerrard
There really is two options to try to solve this problem – one of many plaguing Rodgers and his Reds at the moment. One is to play Gerrard alongside a specialist defensive midfielder, who will simply sit in front of the defence and do nothing else but shield the defence, maybe Emre Can or Lucas – akin to Benitez’s highly successful midfield partnership of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso in 2008, where Mascherano swept up in front of the back four while Alonso freely created from deep. The skipper can then choose whether or not to stay deep and with lesser defensive responsibilities on his mind, attempt to dictate play with slightly less to worry about. Gerrard could also pick more moments to bomb forward as he sees fit, hopefully providing another body in the opposition penalty box. Allen or Henderson aren’t pure defensive midfielders, and shouldn’t be considered as one to sit in front of the defence. Their energy would surely be better used higher up the pitch.
rodgers needs a specialist in front of his back four
The second, more radical (or retrospective, as some may see it) option would be to return Gerrard to the position he become so effective at under Benitez, in the hole behind the striker. As mentioned at the start, Balotelli needs a partner, but Sturridge is continually absent. So say Sturridge is unavailable, Gerrard could be that partner-of-sorts Balotelli requires to spark some form. With two of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho or Adam Lallana on either side of Gerrard and Balotelli, the skipper would utilise his past experience to find space and involve all three frontmen as much as possible, while being a significant goal threat himself.
gerrard’s previous success here could provide the badly-needed spark
This could happen even when Sturridge returns. Pairing Balotelli with Sturridge would be the most natural thing, and Gerrard could play in-behind the two, with little responsibility to defend. However, it would be more feasible for Gerrard to return to midfield in this situation. With either the aforementioned trio of Sterling, Coutinho or Lallana at the tip of the diamond, and Can or Lucas at the base protecting the defence, Gerrard could be right smack in central midfield alongside Allen or Henderson. With the skipper seated slightly deeper and with more freedom, the other, more energetic central midfielder would be tasked to support the attack while retreat when defending.
both ways sees gerrard given relatively more freedom regardless of his position
Questions have been raised by the effectiveness of Gerrard as he gets older. Time will only tell, but right now the Reds’ skipper is still of great value to Rodgers and it is simply up to the manager to find a suitable position for him. Though sooner or later the team should be built around Sturridge/Sterling, right now the team would be best suited to be built around Gerrard’s strengths.
The manager found a solution – albeit temporary and not the most effective – last season, utilising Gerrard’s extraordinary passing ability to feed the once-fearsome frontline, but now Rodgers has to find a way to fit Gerrard’s capabilities around a more conservative style in the hope this poor start to the season will not totally ruin the fine work of last season.