Captain, legend, and Kopite through and through, Steven Gerrard is closer than ever this season to achieving his greatest goal. The Premier League title has eluded Gerrard and also Liverpool as a club. His commitment and passion for the cause during his entire Liverpool career has been unquestionable and in some ways, that alone is enough to deserve a winner’s medal. It has slipped through his fingers however, year on year. This season though, it seems as if he will finally achieve his ambition. The demonstrable passion has never waned, but it is his performances on the pitch and physical effect on the team that has been just as vital in helping attain his objectives.
As he progressed further into his 30s, I believe Gerrard must have realised that his time as a supremely effective box-to-box midfielder must be entering its twilight. Between Brendan Rodgers and himself, a plan was devised to capitalise on the captain’s attributes that are independent of age. He has certainly not yet lost his pace and athleticism entirely, still tracking back with incomparable vigour and completing vital interceptions, but dropping deeper has allowed him to apply his energy in a more precise zone. As fans, we first began to see the duo’s plan in operation towards the end of last season but its full effects have not been felt until this year’s title chase.
Steven Gerrard’s time as a holding midfielder did not start fantastically well at all. Long-standing attacking drive still all too obvious, he would commonly be caught out of position, fly into too many rash challenges, and give the ball away a little too frequently. In what is widely referred to on the continent as a ‘regista’, Gerrard’s new position required him to dictate play from a much deeper position than one he was used to. Being far more familiar with runs beyond a striker and providing direct assists, he had to realise that the killer ball was now not always required from him. Rodger’s acquisition of the tricky Brazilian Philippe Coutinho to play in this advanced role meant that the Kop favourite could immediately look for him and deliver inch perfect passes.
It was clear to most that Gerrard had the capability to play anywhere on the pitch to an exceptionally high level, though it was accepted that he was best deployed behind the main striker at the time. We need look no further than the triumph in Istanbul. Despite his contribution across the entire pitch in the second half; including scoring the crucial first in the comeback, he was playing nominally as a right back since the interval. Did anyone pass him in this unfamiliar position? Not a chance.
No, Steven Gerrard certainly possessed all the traits necessary to fulfil a more withdrawn role. With a clear directive, he would have no difficulty in producing the quick feet and 10 yard passes required to keep possession in a congested midfield. By dropping back between his centre halves, Gerrard has the additional time and space that allows pin-point ‘Hollywood’ passes to be a regular occurrence. He is without a superior in this regard, and the rapid switching of play has proved to be the downfall of many a defence this season.
Meanwhile, Rodgers has helped him to realise the greater requirement for self-discipline when playing further back on the pitch. As mentioned previously, his combative approach and desire to win the ball back quickly had led to a quickly accumulating quantity of bookings. This was such that, in the four matches prior to and including Manchester City last Sunday, Gerrard had the threat of a 2 match suspension looming over him. Being only 1 booking away from accumulating 10 across the season meant that any indiscretion would leave him absent from Liverpool’s team for a vital couple of games. However, he passed this particular test with flying colours, not only avoiding a caution, but it did not seem to have a derogatory effect on his performances which were as commanding and assured as ever from in front of the back four. These last few matches have been as important as any in teaching him that he can stay on his feet when the ball is not there to win and only sticking a leg out when securing possession is the likely outcome.
On Friday, Brendan Rodgers expressed his admiration for Steven Gerrard’s performances this year, and not for the first time. The Northern Irishman has been reluctant to single out any individual for praise or criticism at any point during the season, but even he had to make an exception here. Week on week, he has been admirable on the pitch and his role as a club ambassador has been phenomenal. He declared that Gerrard’s latter trait has covered his impact on the team on a weekend. “I think his form sometimes gets lost a wee bit with Steven because his leadership quality in the team is there for all to see,” the Liverpool manager said. “We mustn’t forget that he’s arguably the best in European football in a controlling role at this moment in time.”
How right he is. The balance between a vocal influence and tremendous footballing ability has raised his global stock as a holding midfielder. While certain individuals may possess particular traits that match Gerrard’s; Pirlo’s passing or Yaya Touré’s strength for example, there is no one who can boast such a refined combination of them all.
There are several factors to the Liverpool captain’s domestic performances this year that are greatly encouraging for England in the summer. With Gerrard at the pinnacle of a core of various Englishmen playing their football at Anfield, it gives Roy Hodgson plenty of options to choose from in Brazil in terms of tactics and personnel. The magnitude of the influence he can still impose on the game from a withdrawn role has freed up a generic midfield slot for the precocious talents of Wilshere, Barkley or Lallana.
The game intelligence and discipline that Gerrard has been forced to display will perhaps prove to be even more important in World Cup football than matches on these shores. The threat of suspension is a much more constant fear for all players. Only 2 bookings will cause a player to miss the next match. For The Three Lions to be without their inspirational captain would be horrendous news. However, he has shown to any remaining doubters that even in a position that most associate with players who like to ‘put their foot in’, he is able to perform to his maximum without running this risk. The levels of self-control and footballing intelligence cannot be applauded enough.
The way that the Anfield favourite continues to adapt his game to optimise his contribution is admirable and I hope it convinces everybody that football will be the loser when he finally does retire. His absence at both club and international level will be felt strongly, and maybe only then will some recognise the true depth to his achievements.