Liverpool : about Gerrard’s new role
Liverpool´s captain is running the show in a quite defencive position those days… A switch which might not last long, according to Florent Toniutti.
Is Steven Gerrard about to initiate a new era in his career? For a few weeks now, the legendary captain of Liverpool has turned into the utmost defensive midfielder of Brendan Rodgers´ squad. And this is the position he was occupying upon the Reds victory against Arsenal (5-1, and 4-0 after only 20 minutes played). As time passes, Gerrard´s endurance is wearing thinner and forces him to get to this lower position in front of the defence block, where he can spare himself and can cover smaller areas.
Although not appealing in the long run, using Gerrard as a 6 nevertheless remains a circumstantial option for now. For several seasons now, the midfielder in charge of covering the defence has been Lucas Leiva. And, like many times in recent years, the Brazilian has been forced to step back to heal a knee injury, in this case, one that occurred after a match against Aston Villa in mid-January. From this point on, Gerrard has gone to the lower position in Bredan Rodgers´ eleven. From there, Gerrard can back Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho. And this positioning seems to be paying off, including three successes against rivals for the European qualifying positions (4-0 to Everton, 5-1 to Arsenal and 3-0 to Manchester United).
More exposed than Pirlo
The match against the Gunners offered Gerrard a good opportunity to show his skills. In this new position, Stevie-G is not involved in pressing, he just follows it. In front of him, in the axis, Sturridge, Coutinho and Henderson are harassing their opponent when they try to make the first pass. With the occasional help of Sterling and Suarez, those three aim at protecting their captain, preventing any pass or direct move in the area close to Gerrard. Against a team like Arsenal, who relies so much on ball possession, it allowed Gerrard to avoid any one-on-one in the midfield. He in turn was able to display his talent to decipher ball trajectories, to anticipate and intercept passes.
However, as soon as Liverpool has to defend its own half of the pitch, Gerrard can show his warrior-spirit. Whereas Pirlo would always be flanked by two bodyguards, Gerrard will often leave his position, in front of Skrtel and Touré, to go and get the ball back on the sides. For instance, against Arsenal, he helped Cissokho who was facing Oxlade-Chamberlain… (sometimes excessively even, like when he offered the penalty-kick to Arsenal), or he tried to compensate for the moves of Wilshere or Özil, who tried to outnumber Liverpool by their position switches. In a nutshell, whereas Gerrard protects the whole defence line while Liverpool is pressing, he starts his activity when the rest of the team has come down to a full defensive formation. And while Gerrard is looking for one-on-ones, Coutinho and Henderson stay in the axis to protect their defence… and go up for pressing again if their opponent tries to play the ball back to the axis.
If Gerrard´s new positioning worked well against Everton and Arsenal, it might not be as efficient against weaker teams, who often leave the ball possession to the Reds. The domination of Liverpool over Arsenal was based on a huge effort of the offensive block to prevent the transition of Arsenal, by directly targeting the first pass. This, in turn resulted in a really low number of one-on-ones in between Özil and Gerrard. However, against a team that would play mostly compact and low, Liverpool’s offensive players would focus on finding solutions in the last 20 meters. Position switches and other moves that are then required would disorganize Liverpool’s pressing if their opponent got the ball back. The final consequence would be that Gerrard would face counter-offenses with much less protection.
The first passer for the Reds
In addition to this slight inadequacy, Gerrard´s low position also implies that he can´t reach the last 30 meters as often. He was nevertheless involved in 5 of the 13 last goals of Liverpool (although free kicks represent a large share of this stat) and thus, the Reds are indebted to him. When Liverpool owns the ball, Gerrard impacts the first pass. By coming down in between Skrtel and Touré, he helps the Reds gain safety over the first pass. With three players able to deliver it, Liverpool is easily able to get over one man pressing. Arsenal paid the price for not realizing this, and Giroud couldn´t do much until after the first half one players went up to back him. Unfortunately the Londonians, who were trying to play higher, also exposed themselves, and a pass from Touré behind their backs initiated the fifth and last goal for Liverpool.
On top of influencing the first pass, Gerrard also plays a role in backing the offense. From his low position, he often stays away from the turmoil of the midfield, and is given plenty of time to reorientate the game once he gets the ball. He can use a wide range of passes, either complete side switches with long balls, or- and there he has an asset over Luca Leiva- by finding the “killer-pass”, that will go through two opponent lines. He performed such a pass against Fulham and allowed Daniel Sturridge to draw. When Liverpool is attacking, his role reminds of the one that Fernandinho plays in Manchester City.
For the moment, positioning Gerrard lower seems like a winning solution for the Reds. The results have been striking until now, and what´s more, the eternal captain of Liverpool is losing nothing of his influence on the game, both defensively and offensively, as his statistics bear out. However, in the long run, this option will be restricted to high stakes matches where Liverpool would accept, or be forced to play mostly by counter-offensives. The rest of the matches, which are the vast majority of the matches of the season, Gerrard would quite likely be more useful on a higher position, which is impossibly right now, as Lucas Leiva is down. All in all, what seemed to be a coaching trick a few weeks ago, is in fact a true success for Brendan Rodgers. If Liverpool´s coach would not turn his whole strategy upside down, Gerrard’s low position could offer an extra tactical option…a precious joker, as the key matches of the season’s end are on their way.
Translated by Rackham and Jennifer Hofmann – Original Version.