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Coming off his worst passing day yet under Brendan Rodgers, it's becoming clear that Steven Gerrard is either unwilling or unable to change the way he plays to adjust to fading legs and a new system—and so now it's on his manager to find a way to make things work.
When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool, much was made of the need for captain Steven Gerrard to change his game to fit into the pressing and possession style the new manager was bringing with him. However, as the weeks have passed it has become increasingly clear that Gerrard is either unwilling or unable to change his approach to the game, which means that it is now up to Rodgers to manage around the reality—both for good and ill—that is Steven Gerrard.
Though he has often found himself towards the bottom of the list when it comes to passing efficiency under Rodgers, Sunday against Stoke City represented a new low for Gerrard under his new manager as he led Liverpool in attempted passes but was the worst outfield player when it came to having those passes reach their intended target. On a day when Liverpool were all too willing to play into Stoke's hands by rushing the ball through midfield, Gerrard was the primary culprit, connecting on only 59 of 81 attempts for a 73% completion rate.
Normally, one would expect players to have a lower pass completion rate the higher they are up the pitch, yet Gerrard was less accurate while sitting mostly in the second midfield role between Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin than any of the four more attacking players in front of him. And while his passing on the day was demonstrably terrible, just as important as avoiding foolish turnovers through low-percentage passing in Rodgers' system is being able to fluidly press the opposition without leaving the defence exposed when the ball is lost.
On that front, if Gerrard's passing has been generally poor under Rodgers, his play without the ball has been even worse. Gerrard has never been the most positionally responsible player, relying on sheer physicality to make up for a lack of tactical discipline, but with as he grows older it has become increasingly common to see the club's captain hand the ball over to the opposition only to stand and watch them break towards the Liverpool goal, replying on others to clean up the mess he's created.
This would be one thing if Gerrard were a striker or played up top alongside one, but as a player deployed either as a box-to-box or deep lying midfielder it's a recipe for disaster, and without one or even two water carriers specifically tasked with doing the heavy lifting so that Gerrard can be freed up to do whatever it is he feels like it means a major risk of Liverpool's midfield being regularly overrun.
Despite all of that, Gerrard does still has the ability to bring the kind of performances he's famous for against top competition. Unfortunately, the days when he was able to drag Liverpool to success on a regular basis are now in the past, and against sides that on paper at least Liverpool should be beating it's become a toss-up as to whether he'll score with a fantastic effort or pass the ball right to the opposition to set up a goal against.
In the end, then, it turns out that Rafa Benitez had it right all along—push Gerrard as far up the pitch as possible, wind him up, and set him loose. Don't rely on him tracking runners and maintaining positional responsibility for ninety minutes. Don't rely on him to pick out the right pass every time he gets the ball. Accept that despite the many, many great things that Steven Gerrard has brought to the table in the past—and to an extent still does—there are parts of his game that either due to attitude or aptitude are lacking, and then deploy him to minimise those shortcomings while maximising his talents.
It seems such a simple concept, yet already Brendan Rodgers is showing signs of becoming the third Liverpool manager in a row who sees an ageing player who due to his status and what he still brings to the team when he's in the mood is undroppable, and he has largely reacted to this by shifting Gerrard into a deeper position rather than pushing him forward. This would be fine if Rodgers then set out the rest of the side to cover for Gerrard—to allow him to sit deep while still having no real responsibilities when Liverpool lose the ball and to also cover for the fact that he will regularly turn the ball over through overambitious passing, something that becomes increasingly dangerous the closer a player is to his own half.
So far, though, that doesn't seem to be the case, and it's led to problems. It's led to Gerrard turning the ball straight over to the opposition and leading straight to a goals and quality chances against in almost every match he's played so far this season. It's led to midfield instability when facing sides like Udinese. It's led to an inability for Liverpool to maintain possession in the middle of the park as against Stoke on the weekend.
The deeper Gerrard moves, the less dangerous he is to the opposition goal. And on the strength of this season, it seems clear that unless Rodgers is willing to play a pair of holding midfielders alongside him to cover for his wandering ways and Hollywood balls, the deeper Gerrard moves the more dangerous he is to Liverpool's, too.
Gerrard still has the talent and ability, to make a positive impact for Liverpool, but he's reached a stage in his career where he cannot simply will his side to success with regularity. The problem is that he still appears to fully believe he can. In the simplest terms possible, this is something for the manager to manage, especially if Gerrard isn't willing or able to reign in his game for the benefit of the entire team on those occasions when his attempts to be the Gerrard of old are going badly as was the case on Sunday.
That doesn't have to mean removing Gerrard from the equation entirely—he's still far too good for that, not to mention far too big a part of Liverpool's history to be cast aside so easily—but it does mean bucking the recent trend of Liverpool and England managers who have reacted to Gerrard's increasing age by moving him into a deeper role. Steven Gerrard doesn't have the discipline to play Andrea Pirlo's technical, tactical game, and England's Premier League isn't played at the same methodical pace as Italy's Serie A. He doesn't have the positional responsibility of a former Liverpool player like Xabi Alonso, either, and he certainly doesn't have the ability to read the opposition's threat as Lucas Leiva does.
Expecting him to suddenly be able to do those things that other sorts of players do well simply because he's getting older—or because he's Steven Gerrard and one of Liverpool's greatest ever players and so should be able to do anything—is the height foolishness. The only chance to effectively prolong his career without hurting Liverpool's chances of success will be if the manager is able to make an honest assessment of those things which Gerrard doesn't do very well and either deploy him or those around him to cover for that rather than expecting Liverpool's captain to become a brand new player overnight. So far, perhaps in the hope that Steven Gerrard can change, Brendan Rodgers hasn't been able to do that.