This piece by resident Liverpool expert–and Timbers fan–John Nyen
The year is 1989 and a nine year old Steven George Gerrard is playing for Whiston Juniors in his hometown of Whiston, Merseyside. His abilities place him in the Liverpool youth academy.
The year is 1989 and a young couple from Sunderland are planning for a birth the next year. The father, a devout Mackem fan, probably imagines that his son will play for the local club. The boy, Jordan Brian Henderson, is born on the 17th of June 1990.
Now we are in the present and a 31-year-old Steven Gerrard is coming back from injury to the team that has, in the past, been built around him to find that his team has players who were not born when he started playing for Liverpool in the youth academies.
The big upcoming question for Liverpool fans is… what to make of the return for Steven Gerrard?
Captain, Talisman, and yet… out of form, injured.
The ardent fans will tell you that Gerrard has merely suffered from the same problems afflicting Liverpool as a whole for the last three years. They will say that an unsteady coaching carousel, maniacal ownership, and high profile departures have placed too much emphasis on Gerrard to be the float holding up the, at that time, leaky ship that was Liverpool.
An outside observer might say that Gerrard has lost a step, and that his confusion on the field in regards to what position he is playing has lead to indecisiveness in his game. They would also point at his form in the last two years as inconsistent and injury prone.
In years previous it was the semi-telepathic ability between a healthy Gerrard and a healthy Torres (something that happened infrequently as time went on) that created most of the chances for Liverpool.
Despite having almost no attacking influence on the bench, the partnership of Torres and Gerrard in 2008-2009 led Liverpool to second in the Barclay’s Premier League. You could make the argument, correctly if we are being honest, that neither player has been the same since that season.
During 2008-2009 Gerrard plays quite a bit as an ACM in the hole behind Torres, he scores 16 goals. Gerrard plays in 31 games and Torres in 20. The next year, the beloved Xabi Alonso is gone, and the Gerrard/Torres combination only score in three games together by the end of February due to injuries. Gerrard starts 32 games, Torres starts 20, and the other 18 games that Torres doesn’t start is the effervescently maddening group of David Ngog, Ryan Babel, and Warm body #3. Meanwhile the injuries for Gerrard keep mounting up with a groin injury that finally derails his 2010-2011 season in March. The surgery is performed in March 2011 and the prognosis is 4 weeks, however by July Gerrard is admitted to the hospital for antibiotic treatment and pronounced to miss another six weeks. Currently just now he is finally close in his attempt to come back.
So now… how does Steven Gerrard fit into the new Liverpool side when he comes back?
At the beginning of last season, Roy Hodgson set out the side against Arsenal with Gerrard playing alongside Javier Mascherano as a linking/holding central midfielder. Kuyt and Jovanovic were on the right and left respectively with Joe Cole playing in the hole behind David N’gog. Playing a 4-2-3-1 Liverpool looked bereft of ideas going forward although they did seem defensively sound, to a certain extent. They played a mix of Hodgson/Benetiz ball slowly backing away from pressuring up the pitch and settling into a defensive shell in their own half inviting pressure. This would remain Hodgson’s trademark for Liverpool games until he left. Hodgson essentially tries to revert Gerrard back to one of his original roles as a box to box midfielder, removing his power and bullying from the attacking part of the pitch.
One manager, two swindling owners thrown overboard and some player acquisitions later, Kenny Dalglish set out the side in his second game of the season versus Arsenal.
He starts with a 4 – 3 – 3 playing Lucas in the middle of the first band of three, with Henderson and Adam on his right and left. Recently returned from Copa America, Luis Suarez remained on the bench as the second band of three comprised (from Left to Right) Downing, Carrol, and Kuyt. The game was a hodgepodge of long efforts, misplaced passes and some interlinking play as both teams seemed to have a problem with their new players finding the feet of each other. The red card of Frimpong and the introduction of Miereles for Kuyt and Suarez for Carroll tipped the balance of favor towards Liverpool as they won 2 – 0.
Now in the talk of where does Gerrard fit in a 4-3-3 let us remember that Dalglish has shown his adaptability in putting out different kinds of formation in the months that he has been back on the Liverpool bench. From the 3-5-2 late in the previous season, to a practical 4-4-2 with Carrol and Suarez partnered up front, Dalglish has shown that he attempts to match the availability of his players, as well as the best tactical gain he thinks the team can obtain.
Benitez attempted to change Gerrard’s box to box mentality by sending him up top to work with Torres, however this pairing really worked as long as Xabi Alonso was able to be the distributor from the back. When Alonso departed, Gerrard had a very difficult time bullying his way around the field and receiving the ball. If we discuss moving him back into the role that Adam currently holds, there is also a question as to whether a 31 year old Gerrard coming back from groin surgery is the holding/spraying midfielder he may have been at 22.
There is also a bit of the devil on the shoulder that asks…. should Gerrard come back into the team? Now I do not believe for one second that he will be left off the team sheet, but really for the first time in his recent career there is a question about his place in the team. Given the fact that Suarez comes back to receive the ball quite a bit in the midfield it could be that Gerrard is not necessarily needed behind him in the hole and could be used either out on the wing or beside Lucas in a 4-2-3-1
However, with Adam and Lucas primarily playing in the middle of the pitch and Adam having played for Blackpool as the deep midfielder, it will be interesting to see if Dalglish goes with a Benitez 4-2-3-1, a Hodgson 4-2-3-1 or using Gerrard on the the right as Benitez controversially tried to do at times. Of course the issue with using Gerrard on the right (or the left for the matter) is that he tends to cut in which can lead to a lack of spacing on the field and a gap defensively. This could be especially true if (as previously mentioned) Suarez checks back into midfield to receive the ball, and Gerrard cuts in from the right to receive the ball.
The other option for this as well would be playing a 4 – 4 – 2. However, once again, whither Gerrard? With a left footed Adam and Downing on the team sheet, and Lucas in the middle, does Gerrard take the Kuyt/Henderson position on the right? During the Bolton and Stoke games this year Liverpool played a 4-2-3-1 with Lucas and Adam in the deep (2) role and Downing-Henderson-Kuyt in the (3) role. Is Henderson currently warming the spot where Gerrard will play in a 4-2-3-1? Potentially we might see a Downing-Gerrard-Henderson role behind Suarez, harkening back to a Benitez-esque usage of Gerrard from 2008.
If anyone wanted to make their mind spin you could also assume a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, Lucas deep, Gerrard at the point, Downing-Adam on the left, and Henderson-Kuyt on the right. Something tells me that this is highly improbable.
Certainly Dalglish has said that he expects to bring Gerrard along slowly and that his return is in effect another signing for the team. The first idea of where Gerrard might play could come in his first game back if, as is suggested, that game is in the Carling Cup.
The biggest test for Gerrard lies ahead to be certain. At 31, with a better team than he has had around him in the last two years, this is the time for him to revert to his brightest form from years past. The question is…. does he still have it?