Rodgers' redeployment helps Gerrard defy age and naysayers
Some said it was curtains for the captain under Brendan Rodgers; others expected him to play further forward. Alex Hess investigates Steven Gerrard's part in Liverpool's renaissance
As tends to be the case when high-profile footballers reach the latter stage of their careers, there seems to have been a manic rush over the last few months to declare Steven Gerrard's career as having reached its conclusion.
No sooner had Brendan Rodgers taken the Anfield reins on June 1st than a host of belittling critics were proclaiming the end of the road for a player apparently incompatible with his new manager's ideas. "He's finished," sniped the premature party line, "he can't play possession football."
Gerrard, of course, is merely the latest member of England's fabled and failed Golden Generation to undergo this public trial, with Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole having been subject to similar chastisements at regular intervals for the past couple of years.
Perhaps their perceived failure on the international stage is what prompts such wilful attempts to consign these players to the footballing scrapheap, a kind of vindication for the 'you were never that good in the first place' attitude that has long superceded a nation's rose-tinted visions of World Cups and European Championships.
Tellingly, though, all four remain prominent members of their respective teams. No, these players may not have been England's answer to Beckenbauer, Cruyff and van Basten, and their combined power for the Three Lions may have been far less potent than the sum of its parts, but they were Ã¢ÂÂ and are Ã¢ÂÂ exceptional footballers nonetheless.
Their enduring longevity is testament to this quality. It's what allows Lampard, at 34, to continue to put in match-winning performances for Chelsea, and what enables Cole (32) to continue to attract the noveau riche petrodollars of Paris Saint Germain. It is also this level of class that dictates that Steven Gerrard Ã¢ÂÂ who turns 33 in May Ã¢ÂÂ remains a vital cog in Brendan Rodgers' slowly evolving machine, albeit performing a slightly different function than in seasons past.
There can be no doubt that the Liverpool captain hasn't always excelled this season, although he is far from the only squad member to have underachieved on occasion. As with every player, the process of adapting to various tweaks in shape and style has not always been a smooth one.
What has begun to creep to the surface in recent games, though, along with a simple upturn in Gerrard's form, is evidence that directly contravenes his naysayers, and that suggests that there is plenty of life in this old dog yet.
Those who claimed that there was no place for Gerrard's (in)famously 'Hollywood'-style distribution in a Brendan Rodgers midfield underestimated both the accommodating nature of the manager and the fundamental quality of the player.
The most easy thing for Rodgers to do with his skipper upon arrival Ã¢ÂÂ and perhaps the most obvious one Ã¢ÂÂ would have been to shunt him into a front three, where his finishing would most flourish, and from where his signature raking diagonal passes would have been less tempting. Gerrard, though, has occupied a central midfield berth, almost without fail, for the entire season so far, something which shows no sign of changing.
The new manager came under much criticism for his stubborn dogmatism throughout the summer's Andy Carroll saga, but in his deployment of Gerrard he appears to have conceded that, on occasion, tiki taka does not have to reign supreme; that the long ball can be the right ball, and that the possibility of a defence-splitting pass often outranks the risk of ceding possession. Gerrard has needed to adapt to Rodgers, of course, but likewise, Rodgers has also been able to adapt to Gerrard.
None of this is to say that Gerrard is indeed incapable of engaging in a short-passing game Ã¢ÂÂ for the most part, he does, and does well Ã¢ÂÂ but the rapid switching of play that his passing range facilitates is a powerful weapon that does not go unappreciated by his manager.
As the 32-year-old showed against Sunderland with a number of exquisite long balls, there can exist a healthy middle ground between short, sharp ball exchanges and the more penetrative, unanticipated play-switchers. Gerrard is capable of either, but to limit him to the former would be lunacy. In this regard, Rodgers has shown he is no madman.
Just as he had in Liverpool's previous two games at QPR and Stoke, Gerrard topped the passing tables against Sunderland, completing 81 of his 88 passes; only Lucas Leiva (77 completed out of 87) came close, with no other player completing more than 50. He also completed 26 of 31 passes in the attacking third.
Tellingly, Gerrard mixed up his recipients: these weren't all Hollywood balls. He completed 12 passes to his midfield sidekick Lucas, 11 to right-back Andre Wisdom, 10 each to Suarez and left-winger Stewart Downing (mostly cross-field switches), and nine each to left-back Glen Johnson and centre-back Martin Skrtel.
And it worked. Gerrard's midfield energy allowed Luis Suarez to set up Raheem Sterling for the opener, and the captain went on to directly assist both Suarez's goals Ã¢ÂÂ first with a lofted swipe into the inside right channel, then with surely the pass of the season so far to wrap things up: a wonderfully shaped 50-yard arrow which perfectly bisected the Sunderland centre-backs.
Judging by Wednesday's performance, and by Rodgers' reluctance to utilise him in attack, it would seem most likely that Gerrard will play out the coming seasons in a deep central role. The most obvious comparison in this regard would be with Paul Scholes, who also relied on utilising his vision and technique from deep when his physical dynamism bade him farewell.
The comparison, though, is not necessarily so straightforward. Gerrard doesn't boast the first touch of Scholes, nor does he appreciate the value of subtlety quite as well, but that is not to say that he cannot play the role of footballing quarterback supremely effectively. Age and injuries may dictate that his leggy energy is increasingly sporadic, but it still exists in the Liverpool talisman more than it ever did Scholes, and his tackles, while legal, retain their bite.
Lest we forget, Gerrard witnessed a similar evolution first-hand over a decade ago, as the 35-year-old Gary McAllister cashed in his chips as a rangy box-to-box strider in favour of a smarter, economical deep-lying ball-player in Gerard Houllier's Reds side. Gerrard certainly won't have forgotten Ã¢ÂÂ the Scot's cultured passing brought Liverpool a treble.
But looking away from the past and into the future, with Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen, the club now have a trio of players who can perform the holding role in three very different but equally useful ways, while between Jonjo Shelvey and Suso, there is little shortage of promise at the midfield's apex.
Gerrard has recently played his 600th game for Liverpool Ã¢ÂÂ a phenomenal feat Ã¢ÂÂ and he, like any player, will certainly need to be managed carefully in his latter years. But, as with his peers, the obituary writers need not pick up their pens just yet.
Alex Hess works for the Guardian and writes about football for various outlets, including Football365 and Goal.com. He's on Twitter at @A_Hess