The date, 29th of November 1998. The location, Anfield. Liverpool lead Blackburn Rovers comfortably 2-0 with goals from Paul Ince and an 18 year-old Michael Owen.
With the game finished as a contest, manager Gerard Houllier calls a fresh-faced 18 year-old Steven Gerrard to warm up. Having been at the club since the age of eight, this local scouse lad had dreamt of the day he would pull on the red and play for Liverpool. Largely unknown to the crowd, this scrawny, bowl-haired boy would one day lift the European cup for Liverpool.
A lot has happened since that cold November afternoon on Merseyside. Players have come and went, and come and went. New managers have taken to the dug-out, new owners have left their mark, more trophies have been lifted as well as the maintenance of a persistent league title drought. But one thing has not changed since the 29th of November 1998 at Liverpool Football Club.
Since that first appearance as an innocent teenager, Steven Gerrard has come to represent what it means to be Liverpool Football Club. With over 680 appearances under his belt, 176 career goals and a decade captaining the club, the importance of one man to a football club as Steven Gerrard is to Liverpool is almost unparalleled.
It can be easily mistaken in hindsight to over-state the manner in which Steven Gerrard has carried Liverpool Football Club over the years. However at the time it was clear to see. Even the use of the word ‘carried’ takes away from team mates that shared the pitch with the man. But in this case, so rare it is to come across, Steven Gerrard not only played for Liverpool, but in the most vivid and real manner possible, carried Liverpool along with him, kicking and screaming, for the better part of ten seasons.
Sixteen years to the day from his debut, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was dropped to the bench for their clash against Stoke City. Whether or not this was of pure coincidence does not matter. The sole act of dropping Gerrard for the first Premier League game for Liverpool since New-Years day against Hull City is significant.
Taking the act of dropping your captain aside, it is not all that surprising. Gerrard has been poor this season. Beyond poor. It has gotten to the stage, where it pains fans to admit that Gerrard is having a negative impact of his team’s play.
Throughout last season (arguably one of his finer season’s), Gerrard played an intricate and important role in Liverpool’s title chase. Given his age and lack of legs to cover ground, Brendan Rodgers repositioned his captain. Whereas Gerrard had played in an advanced role under Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, now he would pull significantly deeper. Last season Gerrard played the deep-lying playmaker role for Liverpool. Commonly referred to as the ‘quarterback’ role, in recent years football had seen the position perfected by the likes of Andrea Pirlo for Juventus and Sergio Busquets for FC Barcelona.
And it worked. Gerrard racked up 13 goals and 13 assists in 31 Premier League appearances. This, as well as an average 86 per cent pass completion accuracy tells of a season in which Gerrard, although older and much less mobile than in years gone by, had managed to redefine his role at Liverpool. We saw little of the Gerrard of yesteryear that played as a box-to-box-box and back again midfielder, but rather he held the line in front of his centre backs and received the ball to start up attacks for Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suárez.
He looked as if he would go as far as to stamp a trademark on his diagonal crossfield pass, so common he completed them. And it worked. Liverpool stormed through the 2013/14 season, rolling back the years after seasons of negative pragmatic football under Benitez and Hodgson. Liverpool dominated Premier League opposition with devastating flair and precision. Teams simply could not overcome their attacking prowess, Liverpool simply taking the decision to outscore any and every opponent, recording an eleven game win streak from February until April. And then Gerrard slipped.
The accountability of Gerrard for Liverpool not winning the Premier League is exaggerated. Yes, it was his mistake, but one must also question the system that Rodgers was implementing: should there have been no defensive cover whatsoever behind Gerrard? Should there have been that much space between Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel?
Nevertheless, the slip has been an undoubted turning point in Gerrard’s career. The psychological impact of the slip has been understated immensely. For Gerrard, supporter, captain and loyal player for Liverpool,who turned down moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs (including Chelsea and Real Madrid) to be the reason that he does not lift the title, is utterly soul-destroying.
It did not help that he went on to underperform horribly at the World Cup with England losing two and drawing one game in their group. All of this undoubtedly replayed endlessly on his mind for months and months, painfully knowing that that was Liverpool’s chance.
Since the slip Gerrard has looked a hollow figure of the man and player we witnessed last season. Performances on the pitch to one side, he has looked slumped, distant and at times even depressed.
Performances accounted for, Gerrard has been at times awful. In his now established position as the deep-lying midfielder, Gerrard looks static and often times in the way. Given he had lost much of the pace that made him one of the world’s best midfielders, Gerrard looks even slower than this time six months ago. He cannot run with or without the ball and is therefore confined to one position on the pitch. This is not necessarily a reason to say that Gerrard is of no use. As we saw last season, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen did all of the running for Gerrard. But this season even Gerrard’s role as a creative player is under question.
We are seeing none of the diagonal passes that he perfected last season amount to anything. Players feel the need to pass to Gerrard rather than another teammate because he is Steven Gerrard. It is almost as if no attacks are allowed to take place without Gerrard taking part in creating it. Aside from this it is the clear lack of defensive cover that has exposed Gerrard in recent games. Positioned in front of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren, Gerrard should provide a last line of defense before the actual last line of defence. But due to his lack of mobility and incapability to cover ground, Gerrard has often been seen behind as the opposition strikers capitalise on the oceans of space in front of Liverpool’s defence, all of this clearly visible in Liverpool’s 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace.
And now we have reached an impasse. Or rather Brendan Rodgers has reached an impasse. Today saw the first league game in over ten months in which Gerrard was benched. Whether or not this will be a common occurrence is yet to be seen. One cannot say that Liverpool have performed better without Gerrard in the starting lineup, but they do appear significantly less worse.
Rodgers’s decision to start Gerrard as a second striker to Rickie Lambert mid-week against Ludogorets shows that he realises Gerrard needs a new position. The question stands as to whether Gerrard is running out of roles to fill. The psychological impact of Gerrard’s fall against Chelsea in April has been vastly understated. He is now slipping further and further from the Gerrard players knew and feared. Whether or not the captain has a future at Liverpool beyond this season is now questionable. But the decision must be his own. Liverpool and its fans owe it to their leader, who gave them seemingly endless years of loyal service, a respectable send-off. But the decision has to be Gerrard’s. As Shakespeare wrote, parting is such sweet sorrow.