Few of this season’s stories will run and run like that of Steven Gerrard’s decline. It’s obvious to even his most fervent defenders that age has caught up with him and the 4-2-3-1 formation Brendan Rodgers is using at the moment makes his captain a liability. Gerrard’s contract runs out at the end of the season, and while Rodgers has confirmed that talks regarding an extension are already underway, this is the first time that a sizeable number of Liverpool fans would argue against prolonging his stay.
In truth, many of the problems that have contributed to the club’s current malaise have been unrelated to Gerrard – the losses of Luis Suárez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury have had a bigger effect than anything else, while the fact remains that almost all of Rodgers’ signings have been laughably bad – but it’s undeniable that this season Liverpool’s midfield has looked impotent, porous and incapable of competing against sides that look much weaker on paper.
It’s one thing getting outplayed by Real Madrid or Chelsea – that will happen to almost every side those two face this season – but quite another when the likes of West Ham and Aston Villa are taking the points and looking incredibly comfortable while they do so. Every team Liverpool play pinpoints Gerrard as the weak link, focusing on drawing him up the pitch whenever possible and then overloading his zone with runners, knowing that he can’t make it back. Chelsea did it to brilliant effect at the weekend and they won’t be the last to succeed with this idea.
Anyone can see that Liverpool’s midfield would be better – or at least more structurally sound – if they went back to the diamond system with Lucas at the back, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson further ahead and Raheem Sterling in the hole behind Sturridge and Mario Balotelli. Despite lacking the mobility to be anything but a passenger in the increasingly physical upper echelons of football, however, Gerrard remains the first name on the teamsheet.
Every week that passes with Gerrard playing in a midfield two brings another bad performance and with it more questions over Rodgers’ reluctance to take Gerrard out of the line of fire. Results have been so bad that we’re getting to the point where any criticism of the Liverpool manager is accepted as valid: his loyalty to a dog that’s had its day is just one more example of his naivety or his incompetence, depending on how fed up of him the speaker is.
I would argue that far from mismanaging the situation, Rodgers has handled it perfectly. While he hasn’t exactly succeeded, he’s kept himself in the job – and even for elite-level managers, self-preservation is the priority. He’s probably had this scenario in mind from the start: it simply had to get to this point before he could take Gerrard out of the team without making a rod for his own back. There was no other way forward.
Rodgers knows that he’s only the manager of Liverpool, whereas Gerrard is Liverpool. Without Gerrard, they’re just another Tottenham or Newcastle or Everton: another once-great club with massive support struggling to keep up with the oligarchs and the Glazers by filling the squad with hired guns from all over the world. Gerrard represents a genuine link to the fans – he’s half the reason people go to watch Liverpool in the first place. Unless success is absolutely guaranteed by his absence, he has to play, regardless of his usefulness, until it’s painfully clear that he just can’t hack it any longer.
Examples abound of managers who failed to realise the sanctity of iconic players when working at a big club. Ask André Villas-Boas what happened at Chelsea when he dropped Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole and the team’s performance levels went through the floor. Ask Luis Enrique what happened at Roma when he decided Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi weren’t automatic starters and didn’t serve up a Scudetto. Ask José Mourinho what happened at Real Madrid when he benched Iker Casillas and ended the season trophyless.
If a manager as young and inexperienced as Rodgers had taken Gerrard out of the team a year or two ago, he’d have gone down in history as the man who sacrificed Liverpool’s identity in order to impose his own. Given that Liverpool would never have been able to beat Man City or Chelsea to domestic success having done so – and could conceivably have fallen apart, Moyes-at-United style – it would’ve been easy for the fans and the media to turn on Rodgers and hound him out of his job.
Rodgers didn’t keep Gerrard in the side for this long because he really believed Liverpool’s ageing talisman had something to offer. He did it because to do otherwise was to commit professional suicide. Now the time has come for Gerrard to be eased out of the team, and over the course of the rest of the season he probably will be. Rodgers has got a lot of things wrong in his short spell at Anfield, but he’s got this one exactly right.