Finding the right spot for such a talented player can be harder than it looks, as Liverpool’s new manager has discovered.
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool against Manchester United, Sunday. However, his versatility is as big a problem for his own manager as it is for the opposition.
The fact that Steven Gerrard’s two goals in today’s 3-2 loss to Manchester United both came from set pieces (on a penalty and free kick) is perhaps no coincidence.
His new manager continues to struggle with finding the best place for his best player the rest of the time. On today’s evidence, Roy Hodgson has his work cut out for him. More than most team sports, positioning matters in soccer, if only because most of the players are of comparable size and ability and there is less specialization (goalkeeper apart).
Fans almost never see a basketball coach shifting a center to point guard, or a baseball manager moving his pitcher to third base. But a soccer coach has much more latitude. Most changes are subtle, but they nevertheless can have a wide-ranging impact, especially when it comes to star players.
Gerrard is a case in point. Tall, strong and athletic, he is as close to the full package physically and technically as anyone might find in the game. Yet this has served as a blessing and a curse: he’s been a victim at times of his own versatility.
It took Rafa Benitez, the previous Liverpool boss, several years to find a natural place on the pitch for Gerrard. The coach deployed him both on the wing and in a central midfield position before eventually playing him behind a lone striker, Fernando Torres, in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Benitez was trying to strike a balance between tactical rigor and the benefits of Gerrard’s instincts. With two central midfielders behind him, a winger on either side and a prolific center-forward like Torres ahead of him, Gerrard had license to roam and freelance. It also meant that Liverpool could usually maintain its formation, regardless of what areas Gerrard wandered into. Effectively Liverpool had an identity that could hold its own with Gerrard: anything he provided was gravy.
That changed over the summer with the arrival of Mr. Hodgson. He believes that Gerrard should play deeper, as one of the two central midfielders. The idea is that he is one of the best passers Liverpool has, both in terms of range and accuracy, and this change would ideally keep him more involved and ensure he saw much more of the ball.
Except there’s an old saying in soccer. Tactics are like a blanket that’s too short to cover your entire body. You can either pull it up high and cover your upper half, in which case your feet will get cold, or you can leave it low, have toasty feet, but find yourself freezing further up.
Talented as he is, Gerrard can’t be two places at once. His deeper role may give him more of the ball, but it also blunts Liverpool’s attacking impetus, especially now that Torres – who has scored just one league goal since March – is mired in an uncharacteristic slump. What’s more, Gerrard now finds himself gaining possession in a congested midfield where it’s difficult to find the space to make his passing ability count.
In addition, with Gerrard struggling in his quarterback-playmaker role, Hodgson filled his old position, behind the striker, with the newly-acquired Raul Meireles, who himself is more of a traditional box-to-box midfielder and unused to playing so far up.
Hodgson will enter his fifth decade in management later this season. Among English managers he is uniquely well-traveled, having coached in Scandinavia, Italy (where he had two stints at Inter Milan) and Switzerland. But despite his long career, he probably has never had a player as unique – and as tricky to use correctly – as Mr. Gerrard. Solving the Gerrard conundrum and maximizing his contribution may be his biggest challenge yet.
By Gabriele Marcotti from online.wsj.com