As has become customary with the close season approaching Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard has been linked with a move away from the club and debate has raged as to whether now would be the right time to cash in on Anfield’s cult hero. While previous Summers have raised little doubt in the minds of the Kop faithful and a definitive “no” to whether he should move on, some believe now would be the right time for both player and club to part ways.
Liverpool are certainly going through a transitional period with new ownership and structures behind the scenes and the probable long term appointment of Kenny Dalglish as manager after the ill-fated short reign of Roy Hodgson. In past years Gerrard has been very much the type of player a side could be built around. In fact he’s less a player you could build a side around as one you simply had to.
Rafa Benitez understood the England international’s tactical indiscipline and accommodated it building a side of functional rather than expansive footballers around him. Even the more creative and technically gifted players of that era – Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kujt – were sent out with strict instructions to hold the shape of the side in tact and allow Liverpool’s roaming match winner to do what he did best without fear of disrupting the structure of the team.
This was often a necessity under Benitez with Liverpool relying time and time again on Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres to win games for them. Often more creative influences – Yossi Benayoun, Robbie Keane – fell by the wayside to accommodate Liverpool’s two biggest assets. The question at this point in Gerrard’s career is whether he is still that same player. One who could arrive on the ball anywhere in the final third, bursting into open spaces and tearing opposition defences apart. On the evidence of this season it seems the answer is no.
Most point to the replacement of Roy Hodgson with Liverpool icon Kenny Dalglish when looking for reasons for Liverpool’s upturn in fortunes this season. A fact often overlooked is the removal through injury of Steven Gerrard from the side. Liverpool have been more productive without Gerrard this season than with him.
Liverpool have only lost 4 of the 15 league games Gerrard has not started in this season compared to 8 of the 20 with him in the first XI. Liverpool have averaged 0.4 points per game more when he has not started. That would yield an extra 15 points over the course of the season. Take a look at the Premier League table and see where Liverpool would be now with an extra 15 points. In the title race.
While the numbers don’t lie it’s impossible to discount the unquantifiable positives. The emergence of a talented group of younger players in the Liverpool ranks will need more experienced heads around them to blossom. You only have to look at the number of goals per game Liverpool conceded under Hodgson when Jamie Carragher – another player deemed to be past his best – started, 0.33 goals less per game when he was there to organise and lead those around him.
It is telling that two of the worst defeats of Hodgson’s reign – losses to Newcastle and Blackburn, both putting three past Liverpool – came with Carragher missing from the back four. Gerrard – like Carragher – can be hugely influential in the development of Liverpool Football Club over the next couple of years with or without the same energy and engine he once displayed so regularly if he is willing and able to adapt.
In Gerrard’s absence and with some ambitious transfer dealings in the January transfer window Liverpool have developed a number of talented match winners. Where once there was only Torres or Gerrard Liverpool now have players capable of pulling opposition defences apart.
Not just the big money signings in January – Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll – but the emergence of Raul Meirelles and Dirk Kujt as genuine goal threats as the season has progressed could not have been guaranteed in a side that contained Gerrard in that free role behind a lone striker. If Maxi Rodriguez can carry his form of recent weeks into next season then where exactly does Steven Gerrard fit into this vibrant attacking lineup?
It may well be the case that the Steven Gerrard of years gone by simply doesn’t fit at all, thankfully though he won‘t have to. A deeper role holding a position in the middle of the pitch could allow Gerrard to dominate games while allowing those ahead of him to go and play. It seems the natural progression for an injury prone player who came into the first team at a young age and won’t have the legs to keep on running forever.
For Gerrard to continue to drive Liverpool’s success he could just need to go through a transitional period himself as the club does the same. It worked for Paul Scholes who continues to be one of Manchester United’s most consistent performers sitting deeper and orchestrating United‘s passing. Moving into a similar role alongside the ever improving Lucas, creating a partnership that dictates play and provides the platform for those ahead of them to play freely could be where Gerrard’s Anfield future lies.
Would anyone really pay big money for a player who would be 31-years-old by the time next season starts and who is rarely fit for a full season? Would the likes of Real Madrid or Inter Milan look to pay £20m to finally prise Liverpool’s captain away? Despite the paper talk it seems unlikely. Provided Liverpool Football Club and the player himself are able to embrace the natural change to both their games, keeping Gerrard this Summer could prove to be the driving force behind Anfield success for seasons to come.
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