Long Reads

Steven Gerrard: Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic

Steven Gerrard tackles Roy Keane
Image: world_pictures77 via Flickr

It’s impossible to talk about the history of Liverpool F.C. without dedicating ample time towards Steven Gerrard. He is the most iconic player to wear the Liverpool kit since the glory days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and he helped define an era of football that featured both amazing triumphs (three cup titles in 2001, 2005 Champions League, 2006 FA Cup) and heartbreak (2007 Champions League, Premier League runners up in 2002, 2009 and 2014). He helped create a new generation of Liverpool fans, and given his local roots, he almost single-handedly carried the burden of trying to return Liverpool back to the top domestically.

The last stand for Gerrard in many ways was that memorable 2013–14 season, his best opportunity to win the PL title with that electric but ultimately flawed iteration of Liverpool that nearly won the league by outscoring their way past their defensive woes. That version of Gerrard had to reinvent himself as a holding midfielder who could orchestrate attacks from deep, which worked very well because of his passing abilities (we’ll get to that shortly), but his issues defensively were part of what ultimately doomed Liverpool‘s chase for the title. It was interesting seeing this discussion occur constantly from pundits remarking about him having to adapt to his new role to mitigate his declining athleticism, and the comparisons that brought on between Gerrard at that point of his career, and him at his apex in the 2000’s.

Given what this project has focused on, which is creating profiles on noteworthy players whose peak occurred in the 1990’s and/or 2000’s, it was hard to pass up the opportunity to write one on Gerrard. Perhaps that was slightly due to Liverpool finally ending their long drought for a PL title, and he was part of some of the heartbreak along the way, but I overall found him to be a fascinating figure. He clearly had a wide range of skills, which along with his athleticism, allowed him to be a force of nature when he was at his best. But did his style of play ultimately confine him to operating best as a floor-raiser where he could soak up a high usage on offense to pull a limited team up a few pegs, or could he scale up and have his presence correlate positively with team results?

Scouting Report
Any talk about Gerrard as a player has to start with his passing. To many, he’s one of the most dynamic passers that the Premier League has seen with a full array of deliveries in his repertoire. That viewpoint held up strongly when reviewing the film. In particular, Gerrard was almost at the extreme end of pass difficulty. If he saw even the slightest opportunity to make a home run pass through a tight window, he would gladly attempt that pass. In comparison to other midfielders from his era who were more conservative and possibly left value on the table by forgoing these potential opportunities, Gerrard brought more value in this area because of his risk taking as a passer, which suited Liverpool’s style of attack given some of the issues that the club had under Rafa Benitez in breaking down low-block defenses.

Gerrard’s list of passes that he could reasonably generate was quite diverse. As hinted earlier, he was able to make passes behind the backline either aerially or on the ground. He was in many ways the poster child for those aesthetically pleasing cross-field passes, even if it’s fair to argue how much value they actually bring to an attack. He could make the necessary reads to hit teammates between the lines with solid delivery. He was very big on using flicks and quick one touch passes when needed. As well, he depended a lot on using the outside part of his foot to create passing angles for himself to compensate for the fact that he wasn’t the greatest when it came to being two-footed (this was something that surprised me upon further inspection). Gerrard’s passing also came alive during transition opportunities, as he played a big part in their transition game.

Like his passing, Gerrard was well rounded in how he could create havoc with his off-ball movement. He had enough awareness to realize when he needed to move laterally from the interior towards the flanks to open up space in the middle during buildup. He could drop back when needed to set himself up to attempt aerial passes. His athleticism and timing also meant that he was a threat to make vertical runs into the final third, either through the middle or when positioned on the wing and having to get on the blindside of his marker.

As previously mentioned, Gerrard was a very good north-south athlete and that allowed him to be deployed a lot as a winger to maintain defensive solidity through the middle, though he did have license to migrate into the middle. When isolated on the flanks for 1v1 duels, his go-to method to beat his marker off the dribble was to push the ball forward and get to it before his opponent. This dribble worked when he had the edge in athleticism against his matchup, but when that wasn’t the case, Gerrard didn’t have much of a backup to reliably create separation on-ball. In comparison to someone like Claude Makélélé who had impressive shiftiness and operated more as an east-west athlete, Gerrard could look rather stiff laterally with his movements.

Another area in which Gerrard’s robotic movements were noticeable was how he operated in tight spaces, specifically his ability to turn with the ball. To be sure, he definitely had his moments where he was able to turn smoothly with the ball, but he was inconsistent at this relative to other aspects of his game. It wasn’t just a lack of fluidity that hindered his turning circle, but other factors as well. His scanning was rather erratic, and when he did try to navigate his surrounding areas before receiving the ball, that tended to just be over one shoulder and not both. Compare that to Frank Lampard, someone Gerrard was linked with during their careers, and the difference in scanning technique is stark. Gerrard also tended to have a heavy touch when receiving the ball, which made it hard to turn in one motion.

No one would confuse Gerrard for being a selective shooter, as he was quite bashful in his shot taking. To be sure, there were definitely moments where a long range shot wasn’t needed and further probing of the opposition could’ve yield something much greater. However, I think there are two factors to consider. The first one being that his prime years occurred in an era where shot selection wasn’t prioritized nearly as much, as it wasn’t until the 2010’s when we saw teams made a concerted effort in valuing shot locations. The other factor is that one could credibly say, especially before Fernando Torres came, that Liverpool during Gerrard’s peak were not necessarily built to reliably create decent chances against opponents unless it came via transitions. Rather, their attack leaned much more in the direction of death by a thousand cuts, and many of those cuts involved long-range shots. In that light, it’s easier to see why he would opt for shots from 20+ yards out.

Even though Liverpool were constructed with the goal in mind to be incredibly sturdy defensively, and that ultimately meant having to shuttle Gerrard around to maintain a solid base, I still think he provided some value defensively. He was pretty good at knowing when to hurry the opponent, and his straight line speed along with possessing strong stamina meant that he could both close down airspace in a hurry. That athleticism also helped him when having to make recovery defensive actions. His timing on going to ground for tackles was solid, but not necessarily elite which got him into trouble occasionally. He did have his issues with ball watching when he was having to defend the inside spaces, and it helped him that fullbacks weren’t nearly as attack minded in the mid-late 2000’s as they are today, which meant that him ball watching while positioned in the half spaces wasn’t taken advantage of too much by quick passes to the flanks. Another issue that was present was Gerrard not always being able to deter opponents from getting past him, especially into inside spaces. His heavy feet when closing out and stiffness moving laterally meant that he couldn’t always maintain solid grounding and hindered him somewhat when defending 1v1’s.

Analysis
At the beginning of this, I was relatively confident that my takeaway was going to be that Steven Gerrard was a floor-raising talent, someone who was best used as the centerpiece on teams that were relatively limited offensively and could raise them to a certain level of competence to compliment a strong defense. I also had skepticism of his game having a high level of portability where he could blend in with other elite players while still providing comparable value. It wasn’t an unreasonable initial stance, as others have taken that viewpoint about Gerrard. His passing was very much high-risk/high-reward, and when you factor in how much Liverpool looked to Gerrard to spring counters alongside his shooting tendencies, it does paint the picture of someone who would be right at home doing the heavy lifting on teams that were decent but didn’t amount to being high quality sides. If one wanted to be harsh, they could say that largely described Liverpool’s existence during Gerrard’s peak, and why their best moments often came in cup competitions when variance factors in much more compared to a 38 game season.

Yet after going through the film, I’m not sure that I hold that opinion any longer. Part of my newfound reservation comes from just how well rounded Gerrard was as a passer, and I think that still would’ve traveled well onto teams that had better creative talent than what Liverpool had to offer. He could’ve still provided a good amount of value with his passing without having to attempt nearly as many Hollywood passes. Probably the biggest thing that helps his portability is how strong his off-ball movement was. I find it hard to believe that other managers during that same era wouldn’t have also found ways in which to leverage his gravity off-ball to create dangerous possessions that either ended with Gerrard himself or someone else. I also have some faith that he would’ve realized that he needed to curtail his shot volume a tad bit because it wouldn’t have been needed.

These were things that came up in my discussion with Kristian Jack regarding Steven Gerrard. The discussion touched on numerous aspects, one of them being his ability to work alongside better teammates. Kristian was rather confident on his scalability, and he made some compelling points in Gerrard’s favor, including this one below:

“With Torres, their relationship was magnificent because he got a player who saw the game as quickly as he did, and that was important because then we could see the best of Gerrard. We could see then, okay this is what he could do on a better team. This is what he could do with better players. This is what he could be like if he played with [Wayne] Rooney on a club level, where he would be able to connect with Rooney.”

We do have a bit of evidence that supports Gerrard’s ability to maintain a massive role on very good-great sides. Thanks to consultancy provided by Stats Perform, the graph below shows per 90 minutes rates for shot and goal output of players in the Premier League from the 2006–07 season through 2008–09, who played 500 minutes or more in an individual season and contributed at least 1.50 shots per 90 (shots + key passes).

There’s a few things to note about this, the first one being that Gerrard’s 2006–07 season was relatively pedestrian. It makes some sense considering that in those five seasons, 06–07 was probably the weakest individual season he had. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is just how good he was in the following two seasons, particularly the 2008–09 season. That’s not a coincidence given Liverpool were slowly leveling up with the acquisitions of talents like Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benyaoun, and most importantly Fernando Torres. Before Torres’ arrival in the summer of 2007, Gerrard never got to play with someone who was as electric a talent as the Spaniard was. The likes of Luis Garcia, Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt were solid contributors in their own way (Kuyt in particular had impressive versatility), but couldn’t replicate the dynamism that Torres had during his first three seasons. The chemistry the two of them had was amazing, and Torres was the only Liverpool player during that 2004–09 stretch who rivaled Gerrard’s intellect and overall capacity to carry an attack on his shoulders.

Given what we’ve seen with regards to Manchester City and Liverpool over the past three years, they’ve raised the bar (at least for now, this could shift back in a few years once both clubs are at a different point of their life cycles) of what‘s needed to be true title contender, as you only have to look at Liverpool accumulating 97 points in 2018–19 and still coming in 2nd. But the 2008–09 iteration of Liverpool was really good and in some ways was just unfortunate to have what was their best season in a long time occur in an era where Chelsea and Manchester United were trading PL titles. Courtesy of Stats Perform, from 2005–06 through 2008–09, here’s where 2008–09

Liverpool’s attack ranked among the 80 individual PL seasons in that time span:

  • 2nd in total shots behind 2008–09 Chelsea
  • 3rd in goals for behind 2006–07 & 2007–08 Manchester United
    5th in shots inside the box behind 2006–07 & 2007–08 Manchester United, 2008–09 Chelsea, and 2008–09
  • Arsenal

Now, this doesn’t paint a full picture, either on the team or player level (though I do suspect that given Gerrard’s style of play + usage, more granular metrics like shot sequence involvement or secondary chance would’ve rated him similarly well throughout his prime). However, it does hint at Gerrard’s potential ability to ramp up his own production alongside better talents and have it translate on a team level. It is fair to point out that even with the great shot numbers that Liverpool put up that season, what ultimately cost them the title was their inability to consistently break down weaker sides (per Stats Perform, Liverpool were middle of the pack in the PL in 2008–09 for percentage of shots taken inside the box). The emphasis on having such a strong spine perhaps came at the expense of possessing enough attacking spontaneity, which could be seen in how Liverpool constructed their squad:

  • Gerrard essentially playing as a second striker off of Torres.
  • Wide midfielders like Kuyt, Ryan Babel, and Albert Reira who ran up and down the flanks to maintain defensive shape.
  • A strong defensive core in central midfield (Mascherano and Xabi Alonso) and in defense (Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Martin Škrtel, Sami Hyypiä).

So after all of this, where do I stand on Steven Gerrard overall? I’ve shifted more towards the opinion that he could’ve scaled reasonably well on high-end sides if Liverpool had the infrastructure to consistently provide him with that opportunity in the 2000’s, which is a notable change from where I was before the beginning of this research. There is a very real possibility that I’m overrating how good Liverpool’s attack was in 2008–09 because of their gaudy shot numbers, and underselling the flaws they had against poorer sides (it should also be noted that Liverpool were even worse in 2007–08 in terms of the percentage of shots taken from inside the box, ranking in the bottom five). One could look at that and reasonably say it would chip away at some of Gerrard’s scalability.

My counter would be that when he finally teamed up with a premium attacking talent (Torres), both saw their production skyrocket to elite levels and that translated towards some level of team success from 2007–09. I do concede that Gerrard wasn’t necessarily the easiest player to build around when trying to construct a dominant domestic side, and maybe the 08–09 Livepool side was the best you could reasonably do if Gerrard is one of your two best attacking players during that era. However, I think his off-ball movement and passing versatility would’ve given him a slightly better chance to scale onto high-end attacks than perhaps he’s been historically given credit for.

Article by Moe Square – Author of the football flashback series.

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