By Hal Cohen
The cliches are valid: Steven Gerrard is a leader amongst men. Steven Gerrard is the greatest central midfielder of his generation.
Steven Gerrard is also the elephant in the Liverpool dressing room, getting larger by the game.
Brendan Rodgers game plan revolves around attacking dominance and relentless pressing, which has certainly been effective in Liverpool’s last twenty games.
As importantly though, a Liverpool side must be able to cope with teams who will dominate them and with teams who are just as good at constant pressing. It’s clear that Rodgers doesn’t yet have a solution for these teams, as Liverpool’s only league defeats to Arsenal and Southampton show.
Key to this is a solid central midfield, which Rodgers obviously knows. (Take this quote from after the Arsenal game, for example: “Their control of the game and mobility around the middle of the field was better than ours.”)
Lucas has at times shown the form he displayed pre-injury, tracking back and sweeping up in front of the defence, whilst at other times looks out of his depth. Jordan Henderson has demonstrated boundless energy in pressing and chasing, and is increasingly demonstrating the standard of performance that many Liverpool fans doubted he could consistently achieve.
How about Gerrard? Even in his prime, with poor positional sense and woeful tackling ability, Gerrard was never a decent defensive midfielder. Aged 32 and damaged by injury, Gerrard is now restricted further, not having the legs or energy to chase down the opposition or bring the ball forward quickly to turn defence into attack. He was anonymous against Arsenal, and has offered little in other recent games.
Rodgers’ desire to play the now fit Phil Coutinho through the middle, and maintain sufficient width, generates a need to sacrifice one of this midfield three. The brave choice would be for Gerrard to be the man to make way, with Lucas kept back as a holding midfielder.
Jordan Henderson, rather than Gerrard, is surely the most suitable player to fulfill the crucial role of breaking up play and driving upfield with the ball to link up with Coutinho and the front line.
It would be unfair to completely write off Gerrard, who perhaps still can succeed in a role higher up the pitch, having contributed when both Coutinho and Lucas were out of the team. However, it seems that Rodgers, and perhaps Gerrard himself, don’t believe he has the stamina to regularly play in this position.
Brendan Rodgers targeted a number 10 star player in the last transfer window, but with Coutinho and Suarez in the squad, this should surely not be top priority. Building a solid foundation in midfield is one problem he cannot wait to solve, even before having the opportunity to strengthen in January. The key question is: Does Brendan Rodgers have the courage to set out a Liverpool side that doesn’t include Steven Gerrard?