In a season of extraordinary achievement for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool, finding the solution to the Steven Gerrard conundrum may be the most brilliant.
Here is a player who exemplifies the Reds, with mammoth dressing-room influence and the captaincy of both club and country, but whose on-pitch effectiveness had been becoming a bigger and bigger problem over recent years.
The captain's reinvention
|GERRARD PL STATS 2013-14
(FROM SET PLAYS)
PASSES INTO FINAL THIRD
Gradually, Gerrard's legs have been going, preventing him from dominating so greatly in his favored attacking-midfield position as he used to, a position growing less necessary due to the shift in strengths across the squad. As Liverpool's on-pitch fortunes declined, so did he seemingly more often feel the need to try to take everything on his shoulders again, even while he became less able to carry all of their burdens.
That positional indiscipline looked like it would hasten Gerrard's obsolescence at Anfield. With Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling careering around the forward line, his future obviously did not lie in such an advanced role, but behind him was Lucas Leiva, a more than accomplished defensive midfielder, and new buys like Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.
But Rodgers trusted his skipper's ability to rein in his rampaging tendencies and become more of a pivot, not unlike late-stage Paul Scholes at Manchester United. The experiment began in January, was committed to as a result of an injury to Lucas shortly afterward, and has been a huge success.
Through all of his 36 Premier League games last season, Gerrard scored nine goals and made nine assists. In his 31 so far in 2013-14, he has 13 and 10, respectively. He is level with Rickie Lambert and Wayne Rooney on the assists front and behind only teammate Luis Suarez.
Despite his deeper position, he remains a huge creative influence, benefitting from extra time on the ball as a result of having at least one of Henderson, Lucas and Allen battling ahead of him. He has created 57 chances (equal 17th in the division) and boasts an improved passing accuracy on last year at a more-than-respectable 86.2 percent. His importance to all of Liverpool's moves is demonstrated by his 2,508 total touches, equal with Yaya Toure as the second most for any midfielder in the league.
|INFLUENCE FROM DEEP
|Gerrard's passing map in Liverpool's 6-3 win over Cardiff City on March 22, including 21 into the final third, his highest total of the season.|
"He's arguably the best in European football in a controlling role at this moment in time," Rodgers told reporters Friday. "There's not many players who can do what he can do — be one of the best attacking midfield players in Europe and then switch to be arguably the best controlling player.
"You look at the holding players in European football now at the top teams, I wouldn't swap him for any of them. He's a playmaker but he's unique in that he can also defend. I think what he probably doesn't get enough credit for as well is his reading of the game.
"For as long as I knew Steven Gerrard before I came in here, people would ask: 'Was he a player that just couldn't fit in a team structure?' He was the No. 10 who needed to roam because he was so good, he needed to do that. He could lift the team and carry the team from whatever position he played but the feature now is about the team and he's in a structure he's happy with.
"He's got some top talents around him that can exploit his qualities along with his intelligence and reading of the game. His physical condition in the role is very good as well. I could see him playing in there because of those playmaking skills. He can orchestrate the game."
Part of the reason why Gerrard has done so well in such a deep role, despite not being a natural anchorman, is the control of the game that comes from taking an early advantage.
With the captain's help — his 312 passes into the final third put him behind only seven other Premier League players — Liverpool has scored 10 goals in the first five minutes of matches. That puts the Reds ahead of every other team in Europe's top five leagues, while they have scored the first goal of the game more often than anyone else in the division. By using Gerrard's range of passing to get at opponents with pace up front and seizing the initiative, he and the Reds can relax into control of the game.
Not that his defensive record implies that he would otherwise be vulnerable, though. Gerrard's reading of the game, so praised by Rodgers, has put him in the right place at the right time to make 15 blocks, tied for sixth-best for midfielders, while he has won 58.5 percent of his duels.
All of this while his dominance at dead-ball situations has only increased. From the penalty spot, the Liverpool captain has been deadly, netting 10 of his 11 spot kicks, while his eight assists from set plays are three more than anyone else in the league. For all of the brilliance of Suarez et al up front, the Reds would not be where they are now without those seven goals from center back Martin Skrtel — and Gerrard is largely responsible for them all.
Gerrard stands on the brink of an unexpected and incredible vindication of his decision to stick it out at Anfield through thick and thin. His subtle but brilliant transformation from fading box-to-box dynamo to savvy regista has brought balance to a team that looked, at times, alarmingly top-heavy.
After so many years of increasingly futile toil to bring the title back to Liverpool, he would be the sentimental choice for Player of the Year — ahead of other nominees Eden Hazard, Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge, Suarez and Toure — but his performances stand above that cheap consideration. He has been as influential as anyone in the Premier League in 2013-14, just when it looked like he might soon teeter into irrelevance. He would be a worthy winner.
All stats via Opta
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