The general feel from the games Liverpool have finished with 11 men is that Brendan Rodgers’ system can achieve the right results once the players gel and are able to be patient on the ball. But the most effective display of this philosophy actually came from the 2-1 loss against Manchester United, where even with 10 men Liverpool were at least equal to their opponent. So what was so different about this game that Liverpool were better despite losing than the 5-2 win over Norwich where the victory margin could have been so much greater?
Simply put: Steven Gerrard. Now, I’m not going to say Gerrard has been poor this season because it isn’t true. But he has only been world class once, and that was in the United game. Certainly United fielded a very weak midfield for the game and that almost certainly was a contributing factor, but I guess when your best midfielders are both pushing 40 you have to compromise somewhere. What was however markedly different about this game and the rest Liverpool have played this season was Gerrard’s tactical discipline.
It is interesting to note that the last time Gerrard really bossed a game was in the same fixture in Dalglish’s tenure, a 3-1 home drubbing of United where Dirk Kuyt famously scored his first Liverpool hat-trick after Suarez destroyed their defence. In that game too Gerrard sat deeper and did not venture forward overmuch, instead allowing Meireles the freedom of the area between United’s midfield and back 4. And United, who would go on to win the title, never got a sniff of ball in midfield that day either.
So how is it that Gerrard was so good in these fixtures? Gerrard is a driven player, a real-life Roy of the Rovers, and under Benitez was unleashed as a staggering attack force; and it’s not like he was bad before. Yet under Hodgson, especially for England, Gerrard has shown that he is capable of playing a deep role and that he can stay there and not desert his post while no one is watching. During these two Liverpool games Gerrard did exactly that under different managers with different philosophies, systems and formations, and in both cases produced a master class of midfield play of the kind he’d not achieved regularly since 08/09. The only other example in recent memory was his single-handed demolition of Napoli in the Europa League under Hodgson, when facing elimination from the competition due to having won only one other game in the group phase and being 1-0 down with the clock running down at Anfield, a freshly recovered Gerrard blew the Italians away in Roy of the Rovers style with 3 goals in 15 minutes.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that when Steven Gerrard is tasked with doing exactly one job and is actively prevented from doing any others by his manager, then Steven Gerrard remains one of the best midfielders in the world. But if there is even a little bit of leeway for Gerrard to innovate, to play out the Roy of the Rovers fantasy, then his impact on the game wanes. While he will produce moments of brilliance these pale into significance given the amount of time he spends doing a different job than the one he should be doing, allowing the opposition to get back into the game. Given that he is the team’s captain and the club’s talisman, this can have disastrous effects on the team’s performance.
This was especially apparent in the game at Norwich. The EPL strugglers had as many shots on goal as Liverpool did despite losing by 3 clear goals. After the non-penalty call on Suarez, Norwich seemed for some significant time to be the side in the ascendency, and this was almost entirely due to Gerrard’s continual absence from his post. It even affected Joe Allen to the tune of his worst passing performance in the league. Liverpool won the game comfortably in the end only because Luis Suarez had his shooting boots on; his shooting accuracy on the day was well above his average.
Against Stoke it seems Gerrard either undertook several roles or was tasked with several roles by the manager. The result was that he gave the ball away more than any other player, and each loss of possession for a possession-based team means a loss of momentum. Fortunately this was Stoke at Anfield, which means Pulis was perfectly happy for the game to end 0-0; in the same circumstances Arsenal came away with the 3 points in a convincing win. Gerrard tried to be Roy of the Rovers against a side that cannot be undone by such tactics, and Liverpool limped off with a 0-0 draw at home.
The question is: does Gerrard actually have the patience to play in Rodgers’ system on a season-wide scale? He can certainly do it once, as he proved against United. But can he do it every week? Joe Allen obviously can, but he’s a different type of person and a different type of player. Some, including myself, wonder whether on merit alone Gerrard is an automatic starter if Lucas, Allen, Sahin and Shelvey are all available for selection. Shelvey may seem increasingly close to the kind of player Gerrard was at the same age, but at least Rodgers can temper such young talent to suit the system and Shelvey seems better at short passing anyway. But old dog Gerrard might not be able to learn new tricks, and Rodgers’ philosophy is not based around having an individual who will try to take the game by the scruff of the neck at every opportunity, not even as Plan B.
When the chips are down and the backs are against the wall there probably isn’t a single player in the world you would rather have on the pitch than Gerrard. He’s mainly remembered for Istanbul, for the “Gerrard Final” against West Ham in the FA Cup, and for the staggering late goal against Olympiakos in 04/05 – comebacks that only he could engineer. Liverpool in 08/09 was mainly in the title race because in the first half of the season the defence was so poor that Liverpool regularly conceded the first goal and often went in down at half time; cue Roy of the Rovers, with Gerrard rescuing game after game. But when it’s just another game, especially against a side that Liverpool “should beat”, Gerrard doesn’t seem to have that same focus and that filters through the rest of the side. Now that there are no expectations of where Liverpool should finish in a season the pressure on Gerrard just isn’t there; most of the time he’s just trying to force the issue because everyone is looking to him to carry the side and get the result, but using force is not the way Brendan Rodgers’ system works. But with 10 men against United at home and a referee who isn’t friendly? Cue Roy of the Rovers in a game where a draw would be a good result. Sadly, Gerrard is 32 and wasn’t enough to overcome the officials, but it’s telling that his contribution in that game stands out from the rest this season and from the non-Napoli performances under Hodgson – no expectation, no threat of destruction, no world class Steven Gerrard.
If Gerrard is to be a force in this Liverpool side, and if this team is to regularly perform around him, Brendan Rodgers will have to produce a master class of man management. Otherwise Rodgers will need the willpower to drop his captain to the bench and leave him there for the rescue jobs at which he excels.