Free as a bird: Steven Gerrard
Local lad Steven Gerrard is a living and breathing legend at Anfield. At 32, Gerrard is nearing the twilight of his career and while his critics claim that he will never be the same ‘box to box’ player he once was in his pomp, the Whiston-born midfielder could still do a job for his beloved club Liverpool and get them back fighting amongst the top four.
Being the all-action footballer, he is, Gerrard performs at his best when he is permitted to move freely, like a bird and fly into attacks, without the shackles of having to track back to defend or having to drop into his own half to pick-up the ball to start off moves.
As a Liverpool youth player, Gerrard was a rough and rugged ball winning midfielder, but what his former managers Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez saw in him, they knew his natural talents would be wasted in a restrictive role in the centre of the park. To them, Gerrard was more than just a defensive midfielder, and they believed he would be best suited in a more advanced attacking role, either out wide, or behind the strikers.
The young Gerrard was moved around midfield, even deployed as a right winger for a time under Rafa Benítez, until he found his rightful platform in the team, ‘the Gerrard role’, behind the forwards. With a balanced midfield set-up, led by deep lying playmaker Xabi Alonso, Gerrard was allowed the freedom to drive forward at will and exploit opposition defences.
During the best years under Rafa Benítez, Liverpool were derided as a one-man team or two-man team when Torres arrived at Anfield, but it was Alonso, and not Gerrard or fellow Spaniard Torres, that played the pivotal role in Benítez’s team. The pass-master was the man that made Rafa’s Liverpool ‘tick’, constantly on the move, keeping the ball moving and the game flowing, while his wide range of passing opened up opposing defences.
Alonso epitomised the club’s pass and move mantra. His creative play-making allowed the Liverpool captain to push into attack, and be deployed as a second striker. Javier Mascherano balanced the midfield with his defensive labour, winning the ball when needed and moving it on to Alonso or another player in a more advanced position.
However that midfield equilibrium was shattered in the summer of 2008, when Rafa Benítez wanting to strengthen his squad committed the most detrimental mistake of his tenure as Liverpool manager.
In 2008, the two American owners George Gillet and Tom Hicks backed the Liverpool manager into a corner, when they told him that he had to sell to generate cash for new players. The Spaniard selected Alonso as the player he would sell to get his man, left back turned midfielder enforcer Gareth Barry from Aston Villa.
In an instant the Liverpool manager had literally shot himself in the foot when he attempted to offload Alonso to Juventus and sign Barry, who he felt could play in a variety of roles that would benefit his squad rotation system. However the deal for Barry collapsed, and the unwanted Alonso stayed at Anfield for another year.
On the first day of the 2008-2009 season, Alonso suffering with a dead leg, was on the bench at the Stadium of Light, but by the start of the second half, Benítez threw him on and it was his assist that created the winner for Torres. That season was the first and only time under Benítez that Liverpool ran deadly rivals Manchester United right to the end in the race for the Premier League title, finishing only four points behind Fergie’s men.
Alonso never forgot the betrayal and feeling unwanted by the club and the manager, he left for the Bernabéu in the summer of 2009.
With the cash from the sale of Alonso, Benítez’s plan was to bring in Roma’s Alberto Aquilani and Stevan Jovetić of Fiorentina, and form a new four-man midfield composed of Mascherano, Lucas, Gerrard and Aquilani, and in the manager's words “with Jovetić (playing) between the lines.”
However with financial difficulties at Anfield, Liverpool were unable come up with the funds to sign Jovetić and what they got instead was a crocked Aquilani, who they had to wait three months to see make his debut and once he made his long awaited bow, the Italian never looked like a player that was ever suited to replace Alonso.
In the first post-Alonso game at White Hart Lane, Gerrard, Liverpool’s top scorer with 16 goals the previous season, was forced to drop into central midfield, a role the England man was more than capable of performing. But with the Liverpool No.8 in a deeper role, the team had lost one of its main attacking threats and lost the game 2-1 to Tottenham, The defeat was the first of eleven the club suffered that season, compared to only two defeats in the previous season.
In the Basque playmaker’s absence, Rafa was compelled to make adjustments to his team set-up. Holding midfielder Mascherano, instead of concentrating on his own duties, in breaking up attacks and covering the space in front of the back four, had been burdened with a more creative role, passing and moving the ball forward, something that the tough-tackling Argentine had not been accustomed to.
Non of Liverpool squad members had the passing abilities to replace the departed Alonso, and with Gerrard dropping deeper in matches, trying to compensate for the lack of a deep-lying playmaker. Liverpool’s form suffered and they finished outside of the top four and since then, Anfield has not witnessed any magical European nights in the Champions League.
New boss Brendan Rogers has handed the veteran Liverpool captain new on-field responsibilities. In matches, he can often be seen dropping deep to collect the ball from his own defenders and rather than finishing off moves in the opposition’s 18 yard box, his new role sees him starting off moves and leaving the match-winning to Uruguayan marksman Luis Suárez or new boy Daniel Sturridge.
Over the past four years, Gerrard’s attacking role in the team has gradually regressed and under Hodgson, Dalglish and now Rogers, the Liverpool captain is being pigeonholed into the central midfield position, which many fans who had watched him play as a teenager believed he would eventually occupy for the club.
It is a role he has the capacity to fill, but in this position, the team and the manager have not been able to get the best out of him.
Gerrard’s best years were when Alonso was at Anfield. His presence in the team, meant it was the Alonso that started off the moves deep in their own half, and allowed the Liverpool captain to push forward and play virtually as a second striker just behind Torres. The Liverpool captain’s goals per game ratio improved considerably with Alonso in the team.
In Alonso’s last season with Liverpool, Gerrard netted 24 goals in 44 games in all competitions, compared to only 12 goals in 49 games in the following season when the Spanish midfielder had moved to Real Madrid.
As like any player, injuries and age maybe a factor to his performances but playing the 32 year-old Gerrard in a such constrained and disciplined role, is making use of only 60% or even 50% of his God-given talents, which could be the difference between a win or a defeat, something that Liverpool Football Club in the current state it is in, can not afford.
There is no doubting his abilities, and if used in the right way, Gerrard could be the inspiration that his club - overly depended on the goals of Luis Suárez this season- desperately need to climb up the league table. The answer to Liverpool’s problems, could be to set Gerrard free, so the team could get the best out of him..