Throughout this week, Marco Lopes uses the success of Liverpool’s 2013/14 campaign to dispel seven different myths and claims about the club, players, manager and owners.
4. Steven Gerrard doesn’t have the legs (and Jordan Henderson isn’t good enough…)
One of the most defining aspects of Brendan Rodgers’ preferred style and system is the dominance of the ball. Ball retention, controlling the game (not just possession). It’s an aspect which, in its relative absence, raised the alarm bells of some fans that noticed an immediate problem with the 2-man midfield setup used by Rodgers in the initial period of the season.
The simplest way to understand the issues was to look at the manner in which Liverpool were conceding goals (& shots) back then. Away to Newcastle, Yohan Cabaye had substantial time on the ball outside the 18 yard area to line up his long range shot. No-one tracked the movement of Jonjo Shelvey from midfield for 2 goals conceded away to Swansea.
It became an issue of configuration, as Liverpool cycled through various systems to try and deal with the problem. 4 centre backs vs Southampton. 3-5-2 vs Arsenal. Eventually Rodgers discovered the (initial) sweet spot of 4-3-3, but the issues repeated themselves every now and then, no less loudly than in a 1-3 defeat vs Hull City.
The problem, of course, was mobility. A stifled midfield, often too deep behind the halfway line, anchored not due to tactical choice but more due to the aged legs of Gerrard and the less effective legs of Lucas, post his knee injury.
Mobility in central midfield became the defining riddle for Rodgers to solve. He couldn’t drop the inspirational leader. He didn’t have a team that can control the middle and protect the back 4 effectively. His keeper was facing too many shots.
Cue the re-birth of Steven Gerrard the regista – and the genesis of Jordan Henderson as the nucleus for energy in the midfield. Operating as the deepest lying midfielder in a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 Diamond, the captain’s legs became managed for him by the same concept that allowed the poetry of Andrea Pirlo’s football to thrive in his time at Milan, and now Juventus.
The captain’s superb range of passing was superbly exploited in deeper positions… except that’s not all he was doing. Gerrard’s metamorphosis into a tactically disciplined retainer of the ball, and creator of attacking tempo, turned him from potential liability into a key driving force for Liverpool’s dominance in attacking football.
Rodgers solved the midfield coverage problem through the extensive work rates of Coutinho, Allen, and in particular Jordan Henderson.
Hendo’s manifestation as one of the best box to box midfielders in the league was especially characterised by his contribution to the incredible relentless displays of pressing opposition players into mistakes, or turnovers. He turned into a critical part of the Liverpool engine, driving the turbine that protected both Gerrard and/or his aligning fullback behind him.
Of course, there are risks in this. And nowhere was that risk more cruelly exposed than against Chelsea, where Greek tragedies haven’t been written yet to convey the hurt we all felt for Gerrard as his slip became the defining moment for the fixture… and in some ways, the season.
But before we throw the tactical system out with the bathwater, let’s not forget that Chelsea only represent 2 fixtures of 38. And all of those 11 consecutive, hope-inducing victories came with Steven Gerrard leading from the core of the Liverpool shape.