Liverpool’s current mini-renaissance stretched in stuttering fashion to a four game unbeaten run following the 0-0 draw against Sunderland at Anfield, but in the process, it has presented Brendan Rodgers with an unexpected conundrum : how to deal with life after Steven Gerrard?
Gerrard remains iconic to Liverpool fans, the local lad who has left an indelible stamp on the Premier League and to a lesser extent world football. A survey of fans by the club’s official website saw him chosen as the greatest ever player to grace the Anfield turf in the red of Liverpool. Whilst it is a debatable point (my preference is for Kenny Dalglish), it serves as a reminder to the club, and the rest of football, the esteem in which the man from Huyton is held. It also gives a fair indication of an unwanted problem facing Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool hierarchy. How does the club preserve the 34 year old without impacting adversely on the team’s season?
The recent unbeaten run of four matches (two of which were draws, one a win against 10-man Leicester and the other a scrappy home victory against Stoke City) should set alarm bells ringing for Rodgers. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the current squad of players is incapable of stepping into Gerrard’s shoes. The victory against Stoke was only achieved when Gerrard came off the substitute’s bench, whilst even his late introduction against Sunderland was unable to lift Liverpool’s performance above mediocre yesterday.
In one respect, Brendan Rodgers decision to manage Gerrard’s game time is laudable, but on the other hand, it highlights the lack of an obvious successor. Emre Can may develop into an inspirational box to box player, but he is unlikely to be given an extended run in the team during the current season as the central midfield places seem to be earmarked for a combination of Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva. In comparison to Gerrard, the options available appear one-dimensional. None of these players has proved capable of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and galvanising their team mates. There are countless examples of Steven Gerrard pulling the team towards glory through the sheer strength of his performance. Two obvious examples are the 2006 Cup Final against West Ham and that one unforgettable night in Istanbul when Gerrard dragged his colleagues screaming and kicking to eventual Champions League Glory from a position that seemed beyond hope at half-time.
Liverpool stand on the cusp of a make-or-break 14 days. The next two weeks will define the club’s season. Firstly there is a do-or-die game against FC Basel in the Champions League. This dramatic scenario gives a delicious sense of deja-vu. How many times have Liverpool been in a position where they have needed to win their final group game to qualify for the Round of 16 in the Champions League? How many times has Steven Gerrard been the man who delivered? It is almost ten years to day that Steven Gerrard stepped up with minutes to spare to score a spectacular winner against Olympiakos and ensure qualification in the process. The rest, as they say, is history as one of the least lauded Liverpool teams in recent history went on to win the competition in Istanbul. We cannot, however, expect Gerrard to conjure up miracles upon request, his colleagues have to take responsibility. Collectively the players have to deliver as a team, and not rely on their inspirational captain every time.
Following on from that game is the little matter of a visit to Old Trafford for a Premier League contest against a resurgent Manchester United. This is a game that Liverpool dare not lose, and surely Gerrard will play in the Reds, next two matches. Gerrard will feel particularly distraught if Rodgers decides to omit him from either of these games. Both are crucial to Liverpool’s season and this is a time when the club needs the inspirational guidance of their captain on the pitch. Rodgers may choose to rest Gerrard for the League Cup tie at Bournemouth. This is not said to demean the Dean Court club, their performances this season have been inspired under their excellent manager, Eddie Howe. However, with Arsenal due the following Sunday at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers may choose to leave out his captain for the long trip to the South Coast so that he is rested for the visit of the Gunners. Rodgers should prioritise Premier League progress above all other competitions. After all, that is the measure of how well the club is progressing, or not, as the case may be.
One thing is certain, Liverpool will have to face up to life without Steven Gerrard in the foreseeable future. There are countless rumours circulating about who his employers will be next season. Will he be offered a new contract? Will it be sufficiently long to tie him to Liverpool for the remainder of his career? Will he seek a final payday away from Anfield, either at a Premier League club that can seriously challenge for honours or on a foreign field as he seeks one final shot at European glory?
No matter what the outcome, we should honour and admire Steven Gerrard for his commitment to the club and for the dignity and level of performance he has shown during his 16 years as a first team regular, irrespective of his decision. The next two weeks could go a long way in decidinig his future. I hope he remains at Anfield, as the thought of him playing elsewhere is like fish and chips without the chips. It is a possibility, but not an option I would choose.
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