The debate around the captains’s role within the team has reached fever pitch post-Palace, with Rodgers claiming that Gerrard’s picked on merit, not sentiment. Brett Curtis urges the boss to change tact.
We need to talk about Steven Gerrard.
Plenty of Liverpool fans have been too quick to do so in recent years, blaming the captain when there have generally been bigger problems within the team.
Now those bigger problems are diminishing, it doesn’t mean those fans were right all along. Throughout the second half of last season, after Brendan Rodgers decided to permanently utilise him as the deepest midfielder, numerous Liverpool fans insisted Gerrard couldn’t play holding midfield.
Again, now he is struggling, it doesn’t mean those fans were right at the time.
It should be noted he did not begin either of the previous two seasons under Rodgers particularly well, before improving after Christmas, rightly making his eighth appearance (and first since the brilliant 2008-09 campaign) in the PFA Team of the Year last season.
Equally, however, he hasn’t looked as helplessly mediocre as this since injury dogged him between the deeply forgettable period of 2010-12.
The fateful slip which cost his side the title and the fateful header which saw his country exit the World Cup at the group stage, all within the space of a few months, have undoubtedly taken their toll.
The man himself described it as “the worst three months of [my] life.” Such setbacks are harder to bounce back from towards the end of a professional’s career, particularly for one perennially prone to beating himself up for mistakes.
It becomes even harder when, at a time when things are going very wrong for Liverpool, so much is still reliant on him, both tactically and emotionally.
But, at 34 years of age, why does that remain the case?
With his legs waning, why is he a regular 90 minute man, let alone a regular starter?
At Manchester United, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were regularly rested in their mid-to-late thirties: from 2007, with both men approaching their 33rd birthdays, Scholes averaged just over 21 league games a season, and Giggs 24, with plenty of those from the bench.
Even Frank Lampard, a player who missed only five league games from 2001-07, was gradually eased out at Chelsea. Former Reds boss Rafael Benitez predictably took pelters for often resting him during his brief time in charge, yet the midfielder had an incredibly productive spell as a result.
Rest helped those players’ ageing legs. It helped other options, which were abundant, gain independence and confidence in the absence of a legend’s presence. And it helped the manager trust those options, too.
Options. Not something Liverpool have been blessed with throughout Gerrard’s career. But, after spending over £120 million in the summer to address that exact issue, that should no longer be the case; in Gerrard’s position, it isn’t.
In Lucas Leiva, he has an experienced deputy who showcased the defensive stability he can still provide in helping stifle the reigning Ballon d’Or winner at the Bernabeu.
There are also three all-rounders in Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can, all of whom are younger than Gerrard when he led Liverpool in Istanbul approaching a decade ago.
Philippe Coutinho, whose battling qualities and lack of goal-threat surely makes him more of a No. 8 than a No. 10, is also an option in a three-man midfield.
These players are no worse than the likes of Jon Obi Mikel and Darren Fletcher, reliable midfielders who could come in for Lampard or Scholes and largely do what was required of them.
Indeed, Lucas aside, they also have a higher ceiling.
But, currently, they are without a consistently defined role. Rodgers must let them find it. In a confident, free-flowing, multi-dimensional outfit, using Gerrard as the playmaking base of the side was a masterstroke.
In a nervous, stale, defensively gaping one, it borders on tactical suicide.
Gary Neville analysed on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football that Liverpool “look like a football team that’s carrying lead legs.”
Nobody epitomises that more than Gerrard right now. But, at his age, after the aforementioned footballing trauma he went through, and in the demanding role he is asked to play, is it any surprise?
Nonetheless, he must be judged equally. He would expect no different.
His defensive energy and efficiency, at times under-rated last season, has visibly dropped a level (with the exception of Everton at home). It was there for all to see as, against Crystal Palace on Sunday, he failed to make a tackle or an interception, or indeed provide sufficient protection against midfield runners for Crystal Palace’s first and second goals.
His touch, too, is an increasing issue, again evident when he clumsily bundled over the ball in the second half, leading to another dangerous counter-attack.
In truth, it always has been to an extent, whether as the deepest-lying midfielder, or the furthest forward one, because the heaviness and inconsistency of it makes him easier to shut down.
That happened in the 3-1 home defeat in the Champions League to Chelsea in 2009, which set the blueprint for a frustrating following season, both on a personal and collective level. Subsequently, he moved deeper in ensuing seasons, where he felt he could influence the side more positively.
The reversal occurred this season, with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing’s stifling jobs leading Rodgers to adhere to the cries to move him back into his old second-striker role against QPR.
Those demands were, and are, misguided, at least as a starter.
Precisely where he features isn’t as clear anymore, which is precisely why the midfield should no longer be built around him.
As Neville implored: rest him. Reintegrate him around Lucas, Can, Henderson, Allen, Coutinho, Lallana; whichever options Rodgers chooses to lean on.
Give them a chance to dictate where Gerrard, a fantastic option himself, plays (and play he will). Not vice versa.