A new Gerrard?
Steven Gerrard was employed as a holding midfielder in the 5-3 win at Stoke City on Sunday. The Liverpool skipper has the ability to thrive in any position but Adam Bate believes a change of mentality could be key to his long-term success in the role.
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 15/01/14 1:58pm
As Sir Ian Botham's cricket career entered its twilight years and his bowling lost its nip, his former England captain Mike Brearley opined that there might be a role for the erstwhile all-rounder as a specialist batsman. But the outspoken Geoffrey Boycott was adamant: Botham had become accustomed to doing everything and lacked the discipline to focus his efforts on making himself the very best batsman he could be.
Like Botham, Gerrard is one of his sport's great all-rounders. A physically robust player with strength and stamina, the ability to score and create, tackle and head the ball. If you were building a player with the key attributes to master the game's core disciplines, he'd look a lot like Gerrard. At his best, the Liverpool captain resembles the complete player, bestriding the field like a colossus and at the heart of everything.
Now it is Gerrard in the autumn of his career and he too must adapt to survive. But some have doubts about his ability to use his brain once the body falters. The infamous words of the great Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi have long provided a weapon for the critics. "Gerrard's a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player," Sacchi suggested. "Strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself."
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers appears to have decided that Gerrard does have the necessary nous to thrive in a role that requires expert positional discipline. Rodgers switched the skipper with Lucas Leiva for Sunday's 5-3 win at Stoke City in the belief that Gerrard's trademark passing qualities from deep could give the Reds a new dimension. "That's what he brings that perhaps Lucas doesn't in that position," explained former team-mate Jamie Carragher. "Lucas is great defensively but he adds more with the ball. From that position, he's like the quarterback."
Speaking after the game, there was a typically excitable tone to Rodgers' voice as he enthused about Gerrard's potential in that holding role. "I think you see in his range of pass he is someone I feel that has the profile to play that role," Rodgers told Sky Sports. "How he co-ordinates the game, his range of passing, his leadership, his personality. You need a player with big personality to play in that controlling role because you are on the ball a lot you've got to make choices whether to play deep, whether to play short and I thought he was outstanding in that."
Rodgers is quite right in his assertion that good decision-making is an essential tool for the holding midfielder to possess. But Gerrard's range of passing is not necessarily an easy fit with the demands of a role that necessitates a degree of caution. Surrendering possession in the final third is understandable. But giving away the ball in deep areas, even if attempting long passes, can be a problem if a team is committed to a possession-based game. If it's a quarterback Rodgers wants, it's tempting to conclude he's in the wrong game.
Consider the statistics of those Premier League players associated with the position. Arsenal's sitting midfielders Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta both boast pass completion rates of 92 per cent. For Lucas it is 91 per cent and Chelsea's John Obi Mikel also finds a team-mate with nine of every 10 passes. Even Manchester United's Michael Carrick and Manchester City's Fernandinho - holding midfielders with an eye for progressing the attack - have completion rates of 87 per cent.
As his interpretation of the role at the Britannia Stadium showed, Gerrard remains an altogether different beast. His pass completion rate against Stoke was just 76 per cent. That desire to look forward with his passing saw him surrender possession on 18 occasions, unusual for a player in that role and three times as many as Lucas, despite the Brazilian receiving the ball in trickier positions higher up the field.
It's not that Gerrard failed to do the conspicuous dirty work of the defensive midfielder. He won possession more than any player on the pitch and nobody on either side made more tackles. But the three goals that Liverpool conceded suggest that this tactical tweak was not an unqualified success, particularly given that a two-goal lead was surrendered. The holding midfielder must be expected to play a part in shutting down the game at that stage, something Liverpool failed to do.
More specifically, Gerrard was at least partially culpable for two of the goals conceded. Looking to dart forward rather than provide fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson with a simple lay-off option, a misunderstanding allowed Charlie Adam the opportunity to find space in a central position 20 yards out to blast home an equaliser. After the interval, the skipper then surrendered possession to allow Stoke to break and score a third through Jonathan Walters.
Gerrard himself seemed to hint at these teething problems in his post-match interview. "We've been working on it in the week," he told Sky Sports. "The manager has told me that going forward I'll play this role a lot more. It's going to take a little bit of time to get used to but I've played it many times for England and a few times for Liverpool in the early days so I'll be comfortable in there once I've got a few games in."
Heart of the issue
In a sense, this cuts to the heart of the issue. Gerrard can learn this role, but is it one he really wants? Is he committed to making a success of it? Or is it the lure of glory and responsibility that comes with being involved in events in the opposition area that still drives the Anfield hero? Perhaps the response to questions regarding the penalty award for a foul on Raheem Sterling was telling: "I was far away from it with this new holding role so I couldn't really tell."
Former Liverpool holding midfielder Dietmar Hamann, a player who embodies like no other the significance of the role after his game-changing introduction as a substitute in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, believes Gerrard's mind-set is key. "Naturally, when you get a bit older you get a bit slower and the further backwards you move," said Hamann. "I think he's so good he can play in any position but this is the position in which he can play the longest for. It's up to him. If he wants to put his mind to it he can play there for the next two or three years."
Another former team-mate Jamie Carragher recognises that a change in attitude is vital if his old friend is to embrace this new role. "I think the longer it goes on, the more he'll realise that he's not the Steven Gerrard of Istanbul, charging about the pitch creating goals and scoring goals," Carragher told Sky Sports. If Gerrard can make that change and adapt, he can succeed where Botham failed and extend his career at the top. If not, this could be an experiment that Rodgers is forced to abandon.