Steven Gerrard’s return to fitness recently has seen him used in a deeper midfield role, but where does his future lie? Alex Hess discusses…
COMFORTABLY the most iconic player of his generation not to have collected a league winner’s medal, Steven Gerrard could perhaps be the most frustrated footballer of the modern era.
Having spent much of his early career single-handedly carrying substandard Liverpool teams into barely-deserved Champions’ League berths, his later career has been largely defined by an ongoing positional grievance. Though he sees himself as a central midfielder, Gerrard has spent very little time actually playing there.
Of course, despite many of his tight-trousered media pals trumpeting this as one of football’s gravest injustices, the facts also state that it is no coincidence. Gerrard’s finest form – and his two most productive seasons – has come when playing predominantly on the right wing in 2005-06 (23 goals, Players’ Player of the Year) and as a second striker in 2008-09 (24 goals, Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year).
Despite having returned to a central birth since returning to fitness under Dalglish’s stewardship, doubts linger – and rightly so – as to whether he possesses the attributes to perform a role that requires such tactical responsibility. Much of what made Gerrard such a success in these more attacking positions, however, was his pace and athleticism, and as he approaches the tail end of his career – he turns 32 in the close season – it becomes pertinent to enquire where his future lies when these physical qualities inevitably wane.
Though it may be another year or so before his propensity to maraud beyond the striker from deep becomes impractical, it is unlikely that his self-moulded ‘Gerrard role’ of recent years (playing off and around an advanced forward) has much of a future. His most likely destination would appear to be sitting slightly deeper, dictating matters rather more subtly – a role he has minimal experience or success in as of yet.
The oft-cited and somewhat lazy argument that Gerrard ‘is good enough to play anywhere’ is to me a nonsense one – you wouldn’t want Lionel Messi playing at centre half, and Gerrard’s potential maladaptation to a deep-lying role would not be one borne of any technical limitations. Though the natural evolution would appear to be a Scholes-like retreatment to a deeper playmaking role, this would require the two qualities that have always been startlingly absent from Gerrard’s game: tactical discipline and subtle distribution.
Though he has always been able to pass a ball superbly, Gerrard has rarely done so with much sophistication, often opting for the spectacular raking ball for its own sake rather than an easier, more economical route forward. Although his undoubted vision would be well-suited to a sitting role, perhaps the most important attribute that the position’s finest exponents, such as Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo, display is, if not necessarily always keeping their play simple, then always knowing when to do so.
This is something Gerrard will have to learn if he is indeed destined for such a role, and indeed his vision and technique situated alongside the quietly destructive tendencies of the peerless Lucas would in theory make for an effective partnership. Against the better sides, Gerrard would also need to curb his impulse to vacate a deep position in order to involve himself in attacks, and indeed he has appeared to show glimpses of a newfound positional discipline in the middle since recovering from his recent injury – though this could well be the wilful misinterpretation of a lack of match fitness.
Despite its obvious dangers, a deeper role would still seem to be the most likely for the closing stages of Gerrard’s career – perhaps with Jordan Henderson’s energy, smart pressing and tidy first-time passing being honed at the peak of a midfield triumvirate. Such a reinvention would, however, necessitate a subtler and more mature approach from a player who has previously shown stubborn resistance to such notions, favouring dynamic attacking play instead. If Gerrard can indeed finally learn to combine his undoubted technique with the crucial ingredient of tactical restraint, perhaps his positional frustrations can be satisfied in tandem with the supporters’ yearning for silverware.