The England captain's deep-lying role has restricted his influence in attack, and the 33-year-old has showed little sign of operating with a heightened defensive mindset.Liverpool found itself two goals down after 36 minutes and Steven Gerrard was struggling to contain Aston Villa’s high tempo.
“It didn’t work for myself or the team,” the England captain said of his deep-lying position. “Villa put a lot of men around me and every time I tried to get the ball under control in the first half they swamped me. It wasn’t one of my better 45 minutes.”
Lucas, not fully fit, was sent on at halftime to provide balance and help salvage a draw by blunting Villa’s sharp transitions from defense to attack. The Brazilian was substituted 21 minutes after the restart but the point was evident.
Gerrard, in a pairing, is not the right man to anchor a midfield and in Liverpool’s current system with three central players, his exact purpose is now difficult to establish.
“There is absolutely no question Steven can play the [deeper] role and I don’t regard it as a setback, not at all,” Brendan Rodgers insisted after the 2-2 draw at Anfield. “It is a mark of his identity as a player that he could influence the game in that offensive area.
“It just shows his importance to the team, with the pass he played to put Luis [Suarez] in [to win the penalty] and his composure to take the penalty under pressure. The system is irrelevant.”
But while his raking pass to Suarez was of the highest order, those moments have not been regular enough this season, and Gerrard has gone from Liverpool's dynamic lynchpin to a midfielder whose attacking influence is largely reliant on dead-ball situations.
Jordan Henderson’s evolution as a threat in attack has been key to Liverpool’s top-four pursuit. The 23-year-old’s inventive flick to assist Daniel Sturridge in the draw against Villa is the most recent example of his enhanced link-up play, which has been on display throughout the campaign.
Over the course of this season, Henderson’s contribution puts him among the Premier League’s elite. Only Luis Suarez (44) and Eden Hazard (50) have created more chances from open play than the Liverpool midfielder (42). Gerrard, in his reduced role, has created 23 chances from open play.
And amid his forays forward, Henderson has been able to boast similar defensive qualities to Gerrard. The amount of interceptions and tackles won between the duo are almost identical, while both are unsurprisingly dwarfed by Lucas, whose primary role is to be the shield and link between midfield and defense.
With the Brazilian now sidelined for two months with a knee ligament injury, and Joe Allen missing Liverpool’s FA Cup fourth round win over Bournemouth on Saturday, Rodgers faces the prospect of playing Gerrard and Henderson in a midfield two once again.
The combination has returned mixed results this season. Liverpool coasted to 3-1 win over Crystal Palace at Anfield in October but struggled in the following game when the pairing were put up against Newcastle United’s midfield at St. James’ Park.
The lack of Lucas’ presence was highlighted by Yohan Cabaye’s opener as the France international was allowed to run unchallenged for 20 yards from the halfway line for the game’s opening goal in the 2-2 draw.
Gerrard scored the equalizer from the penalty spot and that has been one of the 33-year-old’s major influences in Liverpool’s campaign. Rodgers’ men lead the way in the Premier League with 14 goals from set pieces and Gerrard has provided five of those, as well as scoring all four of Liverpool’s penalties.
But is the Liverpool captain now too refined during open play to make an impact at either end of the pitch?
||Goals (excluding PKs)||Assists from open play||Chances created from open play||Passes into attacking third||Interceptions||Tackles won|
Compared with Cabaye, undoubtedly Newcastle’s talisman this season, Gerrard has made less than double the number of interceptions than the Frenchman, while both share a similar amount of tackles won, as well as chances created from open play. And excluding penalties, Cabaye has scored seven goals to Gerrard’s one.
Arsenal’s breakthrough star Aaron Ramsey also holds better defensive and attacking figures than Gerrard. The 23-year-old has registered the same amount of interceptions (19) as Gerrard but has won more tackles and has created marginally more chances. Gerrard loses out again in front of goal, with Ramsey striking eight times in the league before his injury on Boxing Day.
And it’s a similar story when compared with Ramires. Chelsea’s Brazilian box-to-box midfielder has made more interceptions, won more tackles and has created more chances than Gerrard.
Gerrard will be facing James McCarthy in Tuesday’s Merseyside derby but the Everton midfielder heads into the fixture with a more proficient balance in his game. Though he’s not scored in the Premier League this season, McCarthy too has made more interceptions, won more tackles and created more scoring opportunities for his teammates than his Liverpool counterpart.
Those calling for Gerrard to be pushed further forward will likely see a detriment to Henderson’s influence in attack and given his contribution this season, Rodgers can be excused for not wanting to disrupt his side’s balance. In the four games Gerrard missed in December, Liverpool hammered Tottenham at White Hart Lane with Henderson particularly effective when linking up with Suarez.
It was a similar story in the 3-1 win at home to Cardiff City. Henderson registered two assists, one of which included a superb chipped ball into Suarez’s path. And Liverpool rightly felt aggrieved that it came away from the Etihad Stadium without a point. Rodgers’ men had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, while Suarez had a strong case for a penalty rejected.
Given his statistics this season, it’s difficult to argue a case where Gerrard would have made the telling contribution against City, or in Liverpool’s subsequent loss to Chelsea, from anything other than from a set piece.
Gerrard’s number of passes into the final third this season (202) eclipses that of Cabaye, Ramsey, Ramires, McCarthy and Henderson but it highlights the Liverpool captain’s stifled capacity.
As long as Henderson continues to flourish in Liverpool’s attacking third, Gerrard will be required to hone his ability to read threatening situations and construct play from his deeper role.
The Liverpool manager certainly believes it is a project worth pursuing.