Liverpool should stick with Steven Gerrard on the bench
Brendan Rodgers now has evidence that his team just might be better when the captain doesn’t start.
Liverpool dropped Steven Gerrard for Monday’s match against Swansea, and the game couldn’t have gone much better for them. They won 4-1, creating some beautiful goals and looking a lot like the team that challenged for a title last season. It was a great result against a very solid team, achieved without their captain in the lineup.
It’s too early to say that Gerrard’s absence was the reason for Liverpool’s uptick in performance. This was only one game, during a busy holiday period, and it’s quite possible Swansea were worn out. This was also the fourth match in which Liverpool used their 3-4-3 formation, and it could be that the team is starting to understand Brendan Rodgers‘ new tactics. It’s not like these things are mutually exclusive — a lot of factors came together to make Liverpool look excellent on the night.
But this season has been a struggle for Gerrard, who’s been miscast as a holding midfielder. In that role, he doesn’t appear to have any attributes that make him a better option than any of the players who have been benched or moved into different positions to accommodate him.
This has been the case for a long time. Last February, Liverpool Offside wrote about comparisons between Gerrard and Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo, pointing out that the Bianconeri are entirely built around Pirlo. In addition to being both a player that has some positional sense in a defensive midfield role and infinitely better than Gerrard technically, Pirlo is flanked by a pair of tenacious, world-class box-to-box midfielders at all times. Unlike Liverpool, Juventus built something to mask his deficiencies. And unlike Gerrard, Pirlo has quality so great that he’s worth structuring a team around.
Gerrard was bad at this job when he was first asked to do it and he’s only gotten worse. Here’s another Liverpool Offside piece, from a month ago.
“[W]hether by age or due to mental exhaustion following last season’s disappointment and his role in it, he’s a step slower. He might be tired or he might be jaded or he might be disinterested as Liverpool struggle along, mid-table and seemingly sinking deeper by the week. In the end it doesn’t really matter, though. In the end it adds up to a player who’s worse at the job he’s being asked to do than last season.”
His most recent struggles make it clear that Gerrard’s presence in this role can actively hurt Liverpool. In consecutive games, he was caught standing still while attacking players ran into areas he either was occupying or responsible for. Against Manchester United, Wayne Rooney was allowed to score from the top of the penalty box as Gerrard watched. Then, against Arsenal, he let Olivier Giroud stroll by him before scoring. Whether it’s out of a sheer lack of effort or a complete misunderstanding of what it is holding midfielders are meant to do, Gerrard’s poor defending has been a massive contributor to some very easy opposition goals as of late. And in the case of the Giroud goal, his turnover started the move that led to the goal.
But without him in the team against Swansea, Liverpool’s midfield looked more balanced. A two-man center of Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson is both more mobile and better defensively than any midfield that involves Gerrard, and it showed. With Henderson in the center, rather than out of position out wide, Liverpool were much better at both starting counter-attacks and slowing down Swansea.
Henderson is probably the best option in the middle for Liverpool at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that Gerrard is useless. Because of his dead ball skills, he might make an excellent super-sub for them, perhaps turning a draw into a win with great set pieces. He can be thrown into the center of midfield if Liverpool seriously needs to chase a game, or he can come on in place of a forward to help protect a good result. But Liverpool looked very good without him in the starting XI, and they shouldn’t screw that up.
The last thing Rodgers should be doing after his team’s best performance this season is a bunch of tinkering. Lucas and Henderson have earned more chances as a midfield pair, but giving them those chances necessitates dropping Gerrard. Sentimentality should be put aside; at no point this season has Gerrard looked the best option for the Reds, but Henderson has shown numerous flashes of brilliance.
Is fixing Liverpool and making them into a top four contender as simple as keeping Gerrard on the bench? Maybe not, but the Swansea match was a big piece of evidence in support of the idea that Liverpool are better off not handing many starts to their legendary captain.