Questions raised after Gerrard role change

Posted by Kristian Walsh

The point had been made, loud and clear. In his post-match television interview, Steven Gerrard said it repeatedly, just in case it escaped the world's attention. He did not see the penalty incident with Raheem Sterling because he was playing in a new position. He was pleased with his overall performance because he was playing in a new position. He was having egg and chips for tea, probably because he was playing in a new position.

For those still struggling to comprehend: Gerrard was playing in a new position. It was still a midfield role, but the deepest since he sported a buzz-cut and permanent Scouse scowl in the early 2000s.

In a season that has seen him move further and further away from goal, here he essentially stood as a third centre-back. He took the ball from Simon Mignolet, he ran around with it, he pinged it up-field. He would collect from Martin Skrtel, look left and right, turn, and fire a ball at the feet of Glen Johnson or Raheem Sterling. In the first half, he tentatively moved in-front of the back four, not wholly sure of how he was meant to play. But he's still a quick learner, and improved in the second half, although there is still much more to learn. The tone of Gerrard's interview hints that he knew it, too.

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A potted history of his 90 minutes, granted. In short, he played okay. Not brilliant, not bad, but okay. The move into the holding role was not a eureka moment or a flash of lightning to put an extra 10 years onto the midfielder's career, nor was it bad enough to march him behind the stadium and re-enact a footballing Old Yeller on him. Brendan Rodgers made the decision, took the risk, and it paid off. Sort of.

"He has got the personality to play in that controlling role," said Rodgers after the game. "He gives us great variety in his passing. We saw today he picked it up from deep and stretched the game with his vision and quality."

Rodgers added: "He's someone who fits the profile of that role; he does it a bit more with England. I have spoken to him a lot about it and it was just about timing. We saw today that he played really well. Steven showed great leadership as well."

The move impacted upon the entire midfield and pushed Lucas Leiva further forward, something the Brazilian has rarely done since leaving his homeland. Synergy was non-existent in the midfield as Lucas galloped towards the penalty area, with nobody quite knowing what he was to do when he reached there; this also caused problems for Jordan Henderson, suffering his worst game in a while, as the quick passing and energy made way for chasing the ball like a stray dog in a park.

They were not alone, of course. The wet, windy evening on the River Trent so often prophesied certainly flummoxed the majority of the 22 players who started. Error followed error, particularly in defence, while the midfields clung on and simply tried to make fewer mistakes. It became a shoot-out, pistols at dawn in the wild north west of England. Luckily for Liverpool, they had Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, a duo no team can outdraw.

It was not poetry in motion, as the away fans sung, but a haiku. The rain felt alive, the ball flew across the sky and Liverpool scored five.

There is no telling whether Gerrard's new role played a part in the scoreline ending 5-3. There is a danger of overanalysing a game that was simply frantic, 90 minutes where caution and any cerebral matter disappeared. It could have ended 4-2, 6-4 or 7-5 if Lucas and Gerrard swapped roles and resumed their natural positions. It would also be unfair to judge Gerrard's performance on this game alone given it was at Stoke, a place where rational rarely exists, where teams worth billions of pounds crumble at the mere sight of a ball airborne. Liverpool scrapped, sending almost as many balls long as their opponents and allowing Stoke possession.The captain intimated he would be used in this role again, something Rodgers also essentially confirmed. His improvement as the game progressed would suggest that is no bad thing -- not for the midfielder, at least.

Moving Gerrard deeper is curious and raises a number of questions, the most pertinent being why now is the time to try such a change. True, Gerrard and Lucas were still the two deepest midfielders, but their roles had altered -- the end result was still Liverpool, away from home, conceding a lot of goals.

This was the eighth time they had conceded two or more in a league game this season, and the third time they have conceded three. The axis of Lucas and Gerrard has only managed one clean sheet away from home, with worries about their pressing ability and overall intensity at the forefront yet again. The ever-changing defence does not aid that either; Lucas and Gerrard cannot be blamed for Peter Crouch having a free header, or Charlie Adam not getting closed down, after all.

Gerrard won't necessarily be worried given his place in the team is assured. Lucas, however, could have cause for concern. Both Rodgers and Gerrard spoke of how this was something Gerrard was trying, but this was also something Lucas has done for years at the club. His new role as the second midfielder, charged with carrying the ball in possession and contributing to attacks, is not one he looks capable of; indeed, it is a role Joe Allen mastered before his injury at Chelsea. The club are also keen on reinforcing the central midfield. Lucas' step forward may soon be followed by a step sideways into the dugout.

That is conjecture for now. What is tangible is the uncertainty surrounding Gerrard in a holding role, sitting just in-front of defence and distributing, after his best years came as a player close to the opposition's goal, powering through defences and scoring goals. Even in a more defensive role under Rodgers, he has never been this deep; the days of his thighs and shoulders barging past all appear numbered.

At Stoke, there were signs of why it could be good and why it might be bad. Either way, the reinvention of the 33-year-old starts now, along with Liverpool's midfield. He has never failed with anything in his career and will be long odds to fail at this, but how that impacts everybody else remains to be seen.


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