Steven Gerrard has been pivotal in giving me some of the best nights of my life over my years as a Liverpool fan. He has always been that player that all Reds, like me, can rely on and turn to when the team is in their hour of need. Over the years we’ve all become accustomed to seeing Steven almost single handedly drive the team on with his marauding, powerful runs, world class assists and a long list of fantastic goals. He truly is one of the club’s great players, if not our greatest player.
Now 33 years young, Gerrard recently found his career in somewhat of a transition period. Not only did he find himself within a team that was trying to implement the philosophy of a new, young and progressive manager but for the first time he also found many fans and experts within the media questioning where and how he could fit into this new philosophy. At this late stage of his career could he take on board the new ideas, new approach and new way of playing? Could you teach an old dog new tricks?
The trademark bursts from midfield were becoming more and more sporadic as the physical demands on the 33 year old’s body took its toll. I was one of many that felt Gerrard’s best place in this new look Rodgers team would be further up the field, where he could use his game intelligence to interlink with Suarez and Sturridge and leave the likes of Henderson, Allen or Lucas to be his legs in the engine room.
Kop favourite Rafa Benitez, who is regarded by many as one of the best tacticians in European football, often didn’t appear to trust Gerrard in a central role, commenting that so much was his desire and willingness to win, it meant he often tried to do too much within the team. This meant tactically he could sometimes be naive and rash in not tracking runners or failing to retain the ball in key areas due to trying to force the play.
The then manager’s view coupled with Gerrard’s willingness to create, and be involved at the top end of the field, led Rafa to deploy him as both a right midfielder and in 2009 just behind Fernando Torres, in which both turned out to be his most prolific seasons in a Red shirt. Surely this proves Stevie was a creator? A scorer of great goals? A person whose first thought was always to attack?
So as we as fans faced more questions than answers, I will be the first to admit that I was openly concerned when Brendan Rodgers spoke of his planned new role for our captain as a deep lying defensive midfielder. Having played that role myself for a number of years I felt compelled to tell people that I felt Gerrard lacked the defensive mindset and strict tactical discipline needed to be a success in that role at the top level. Not to mention the fact his aging body meant he was unable to fully deliver the pressing game which has now become synonymous with a Brendan Rodgers side.
The early teething problems that Gerrard experienced in his first few games in the new role did nothing but inflate my view that “DM” was not the role for him. Games against Stoke, Hull and Villa exposed Gerrard’s lack of legs in the role particularly when played alongside Lucas. Both looked static and struggled to press in pairs which always left one of them exposed and as a result the opposition found it easy to get shots away. At this point I was very concerned screaming for anyone from Yann M’Villa to Fernando Reges to come in and sure up our midfield but here is when things began to change…..
Huge credit must go to not only Gerrard for adapting his game and learning on the job but also to Rodgers for sticking to his guns, analysing these first few games and beginning to work on a system that could not only get the best out of Gerrard’s qualities and class but also still allow us to play the high pressing game that the manager so craves.
This new system started to show its potential with a unbelievably disciplined and assured performance from Gerrard in the 4 – 0 demolition of Everton. This involved Gerrard being surrounded in midfield by the superb Henderson, and youthful running & creativity of Coutinho and Sterling. The pressing and tactical discipline from the other 3 midfielders allowed Gerrard to be free to dictate play, drop between the centre backs and start attacks using his wonderful range of passing to change and set the tempo for the game.
The ever growing maturity of Sterling not only in his final ball but also his tactical awareness has allowed him to help out in midfield in giving an extra pair of legs to compliment the pressing and work rate of both Henderson and Coutinho. Rodgers has continued to build on this approach in rotating Allen, Coutinho & Sterling around the fulcrum of Gerrard, changing the personnel based on the opposition and the level of control and numbers he feels we need in midfield. Gerrard has flourished! He is now the proud leader of a young, dynamic, exciting team and has been central to everything that has been good for Liverpool in the last few months. He controls, educates and supports the rest of the team whilst providing cover to his back four and a platform by which we now build attack after attack.
With Liverpool now riding the wave of an 8 match winning streak and heading towards their first genuine title push since 89, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to admit I was completely wrong to doubt our iconic skipper. Through the tactical awareness and boldness of our manager along with the sheer and ever lasting class of Steven Gerrard, Liverpool now look a team that can compete with the best not only this season, but for plenty more years to come.
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