Let it sink in: while we impatiently tolerate the international football break, Liverpool still continue to occupy dizzy heights of the Premier League not consistently enjoyed since that season under Rafa.
Brendan Rodgers was predictably complimentary of his side after their win over Crystal Palace. But while he expressed delight in Liverpool’s latest fearsome striking duo, there were a couple of other statements he made that resonated with me:
“But I was probably as disappointed as I’ve ever been because we played counter-attack football and we didn’t keep the ball so well.”
“I felt today that in the final third of the pitch, it was hard to argue with the fact that we were outstanding – the movement, the combination play to arrive in there. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do behind that because the lack of control in the game was disappointing.”
I was encouraged by these words. Because they referred to a growing trend that, to some fans, has been observable since the season opener against Stoke. The words were spoken by a manager who seems to understand that mixed performances aren’t sustainable in a long term campaign aimed at finishing in the top 4. At some point, Liverpool have to stop grinding out results and have to return to controlling the game, controlling the ball, stifling their opponents.
Liverpool’s midfield – Gerrard plus one other
It’s clear that Rodgers sees this issue being addressed predominantly by central midfield, especially given that most of his frustration that was visibly obvious on the touchline was directed at Henderson and Gerrard. Liverpool are running thin on squad depth in these positions, a fact exacerbated by the injury to the under-rated Allen, and other players in the squad causing the application of Henderson in other positions besides midfield.
Steven Gerrard on the other hand – is undroppable. He’s our captain, our leader; Liverpool’s cultural soul on the pitch. A born and bred Scouse voice that more than any other player, understands the hearts and minds of the wider red family looking upon him and his teammates.
However, Gerrard too has been guilty of some poor work in central midfield of late. As an example, while the team configuration (4 centre backs) was questionable against the Saints, Lucas and Gerrard didn’t help by sitting too deep and ultimately playing into Pochettino’s strategy of pressing high up the pitch. In no matches this season has Liverpool’s midfield partnership controlled the full game, a statement backed by the high number of shots conceded thus far this season. There’s far too much defending being required at the moment – and while that may sound like an odd statement, recall that the mantra of Rodgers’ desired style is to control games. (Check the stats below for some key numbers regarding Liverpool’s performances vs. their key rivals).
A critical part to improving the numbers above is in the centre of the pitch. The midfield has raised questions in nearly every game, and Gerrard is key to those concerns.
Age is just a number
Already a few fans have suggested that Gerrard’s age that is starting to catch up with him. At 33, he has already started to display, albeit inconsistently, shades of the qualities that an ageing player tends to illustrate: a growing lack of mobility, a gradual decline in general pace and acceleration, a tendency to run out of steam towards the end of matches.
Yet, we have so many examples, still today, of aged stalwarts who still contribute, week after week, to their team’s success. In the EPL, the most revered of these are Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard, the latter, like Gerrard, also having played in every single game of Chelsea’s season thus far. Abroad, veterans like Andrea Pirlo (Juventus) and Francesco Totti (Roma) have also featured extensively for their clubs.
Veteran success, of course, is not unheard of. Milan famously won a Champions League crown vs. Rafa’s Liverpool in 2007, inclusive of a 38 year old Paolo Maldini in defence. Closer to home, Gary McAllister’s brief spell at Liverpool under Houllier is often remembered with affection. Javier Zanetti played himself into the appearance record books at Inter. Barcelona’s recent successes occurred using the matured talents of Xavi and Puyol.
Where does Gerrard fit into the team?
Predictably, the debate isn’t that simple when it comes to Gerrard. The Liverpool captain’s current strengths are obvious; he’s arguably the best finisher in the team, and its most obvious leader. Perhaps the “Hollywood” pass is considerably more direct than Rodgers would sometimes like, but few pull it off better than Gerrard.
The issue is how to best place him in the line-up given these qualities. Assuming everyone is fully fit, and assuming Liverpool make use of a three man shape in midfield (433 / 4231 / 3412), Gerrard ultimately can fit one of 4 positions.
As a defensive midfielder (DM), Gerrard appears limited. It’s a role which he occupied in the very early stages of his career, but immediately the concerns are whether or not he has the legs for it. The position requires mobility he doesn’t appear to have anymore. The other argument against Gerrard is that Lucas is the “proper” DM in the side, while Henderson or Allen, even though they aren’t classic DM’s, possesses the required mobility to perform a makeshift job in the role (Henderson displayed this reasonably vs. Palace, while Allen displayed this in many of the games in the first half of last season).
As a box-to-box central midfielder (CM), Gerrard again appears to lack the legs, especially when compared to his other 3 colleagues in the side. Much has been made of Lucas’ tackling statistics this season as a sign of his prowess as a competent DM in the team. But consider that Lucas’ tackling success ratio isn’t all that impressive (77%), coupled with such an early suspension for bookings accumulated this season. One has to wonder if the Brazilian is either constantly poorly positioned, has lost some mobility himself due to his injury history or is ultimately compensating for his midfield partner with the balance of the defensive work (probably a combination of all 3).
In the past, most have always believed Gerrard’s best work to be as the attacking midfielder in the centre; a classic #10 role, sitting at the top of the midfield triangle behind the striker. It’s the position that Rafa Benitez believed best suited Gerrard’s talents. But it’s also a position now better suited to Coutinho, whose pace, acceleration, and ability to spot the simple through ball seems better suited to the style that Rodgers ultimately wants the team to play.
That leaves – depending on how Rodgers wants the team to set up – the deep lying playmaker role, a role which many Liverpool fans believe Gerrard is perfectly suited to playing, ala Andrea Pirlo at Juventus. The role typically would require Gerrard to sit deepest, almost as if he is the DM, but instead, there’s a reliance on the 2 other midfielders to operate as box-to-box players, pressing effectively across the length of the pitch. The system works for Pirlo and Juventus because Vidal and Pogba are two excellent box-to-box players with versatility in attacking and defensive qualities while lacking little in energy and mobility. Milan’s famous application of the diamond formation had a similar setup with narrow box-to-box players (Seedorf and Gattuso) ahead of playmaker Pirlo.
This suggestion isn’t new – the excellent recent piece by Adam Griffies (@whatahitsonlfc) suggests a shape exactly along these lines. His suggestion of the mobile and versatile Allen and Henderson in the Seedorf / Gattuso roles ahead of Gerrard as a deep lying playmaker could possibly have even more exciting implications in being a more effective use of the available personnel.
Theory vs. execution
This all sounds good on paper – and Gerrard possibly has the qualities to make it work – but there are a number of issues that would need to be addressed. This season, Gerrard has already tended to operate, on average, far deeper than he should. The team has relied extensively on counter-attacking play, and while some of that is down to the injuries to key personnel, Liverpool managed to product pretty decent passing displays last season with similar players on the pitch.
In truth, Gerrard and Lucas haven’t performed well as a central midfield pair. Liverpool are 2nd in the table largely because they’ve been the most effective team in both boxes – but not in-between them. Too many shots for opposition have been allowed; too few chances created (thankfully Sturridge has been clinical!). And if Rodgers chooses to use a more classic DM than a deep-lying playmaker in his chosen system, there’s a real concern that the other two midfielders will ultimately be pressed to compensate for any lack of mobility in the captain’s performances.
As an example – in the recent game vs. Crystal Palace, it’s clear that Rodgers was concerned with Henderson sitting so deep and close to his defenders (see Jordan’s average position as indicated in the post match report) – but given the number of ball recoveries (11) and tackles (7) made by the lad, there’s a possible argument to make that had Gerrard been more mobile, Henderson may not have felt the need to sit deeper to protect the back 3 more effectively.
A statistical comparison of Gerrard and Lucas below poses additional pause for thought. Gerrard’s defensive numbers certainly appear a bit low for a player who’s spent most of his time in the middle 3rd. The numbers suggest the majority of the defensive work is being done behind them – and that’s something the team needs to address as a priority in controlling games more effectively. And while numbers are always dangerous for over-analysis, stats aren’t going to highlight the runs the captain didn’t make, or the passes he didn’t receive because he wasn’t positioned where a teammate needed him to be. It’s clear though that it isn’t working all that well, and needs to improve.
There’s no disputing it – the central midfield challenge remains a complex issue for Rodgers to solve. With Liverpool’s schedule in October and November looking fairly more intimidating and the promise of returns from injury for Johnson, Allen and Cissokho, not to mention Lucas from suspension, the good news is that the manager will at least have nearly all his options available from which to craft a reasonable solution.
But one thing is for certain – Rodgers’ decision about the midfield will define how Liverpool place in the table going into the Christmas period. The midfield conundrum needs solving. And many of us are hungry to see this gritty Liverpool develop the form to control games through possession and relentless, intelligent pressing.
If Liverpool can pull that off – it could be the difference in making the top 4 dream a realistic possibility.
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