On Steven Gerrard and Elephants in the Room

Michael Regan

It may not do to complain overmuch with Liverpool top of the table half way through September, but it's hard to ignore Brendan Rodgers' refusal to substitute Steven Gerrard in any circumstance—even when it appears the team would benefit from such a switch.

Top of the league, with ten points in four matches, can seem a state to make any too strenuous complaint churlish at best. And perhaps it is. Liverpool, after all, are top of the league after four matches, on pace for 95 points and an undefeated season to match both Chelsea's record points haul in 2004-05 and Arsenal's invincible campaign of 2003-04. Nobody realistically expects Liverpool to hit either mark, or course—or, in truth, to come anywhere close—yet it seems perhaps that it should take more than a solitary draw on the back of three victories to completely drain hope and positivity. Some complaints, though, are built on concern informed by past incident as much as they are by anything that's happened this season, and so perhaps deserve raising.

Key amongst those is an issue that has been something of an elephant in the room almost from the day Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool, with the manager seemingly unwilling to take Steven Gerrard off the pitch regardless of his form, apparent tiredness, or a changing match situation. More often than not, at least in the later part of last season, it wasn't a problem for either the club or Gerrard as the player settled into life under Brendan Rodgers and showed surprising fitness after spending a few seasons struggling for it. At times, though, with Gerrard's passing game spectacularly off the mark or a series of close fixtures clearly taking their toll, it was frustrating to watch Rodgers refuse to make a switch for the betterment of the entire team.

In fact, the only time Brendan Rodgers has ever taken Gerrard off since arriving at Liverpool last summer was Gerrard's penultimate match of the 2012-13 season against Newcastle United. At the time, Liverpool were up four goals to nil and cruising against a clearly disheartened side, yet given it was the only time Rodgers has taken Gerrard during his tenure, it remains an almost shocking exception. Gerrard, of course, appears game to play as much as possible, and a new fitness program last year played a major role in his starting 36 times in the league and setting a new high water mark in his career at the age of 33 with few doubts he would have played all 38 had he not decided to undergo shoulder surgery shortly after the Newcastle match in order to ensure a pre-season return.

Despite that Rodgers' training methods have clearly been a massive benefit to Gerrard in the twilight of his career, there does appear a certain resistance on the manager's part to the reality that it is in fact the twilight of Steven Gerrard's career. For all that recent fitness has led to speculation he might play through the next European Championships in three years, this is a man who has already held his testimonial. A man who has to date played 635 matches for Liverpool, standing him eighth on the all-time list. He may look surprisingly energetic for a player entering his final seasons, but there must be a willingness to take him off the pitch on those days when the fact he's a player entering his final seasons becomes impossible to ignore.

Against Swansea last night, as perhaps Liverpool's least effective player on the night, was one of those cases. Two weeks away from Liverpool, off on England duty with Roy Hodgson, away from Rodgers' training regime and the club's medical oversight and asked to play 90 minutes against a pair of opponents with England's World Cup qualification hopes on the line, goes a long way to explaining or excusing his very poor evening. Yet explaining or excusing why Gerrard was poor on the night doesn't mitigate the fact that he was. It also doesn't excuse Rodgers' insistence on keeping Gerrard on the pitch to the bitter end, with Liverpool increasingly overrun in midfield and holding on desperately for a single point.

His 80% pass completion rate was the worst of any starting midfielder on either side, and with Liverpool looking to play compact and maintain possession it meant Swansea were handed the ball straight back far too often when more than anything a teetering Liverpool needed to find their footing. That he appeared to lack the energy to put in an effective defensive shift when Swansea drove at Liverpool with intent only made matters worse. Liverpool may have managed to salvage a point on a difficult night, and it certainly isn't the time for doom and gloom with the club standing top of the table—albeit after only four rounds of play—but Brendan Rodgers' seeming refusal to take Gerrard off the pitch under any circumstance isn't a new issue, and that makes it hard to ignore.

Steven Gerrard clearly is still able to bring a lot to the side, yet despite his sudden fitness boost under Rodgers it remains inarguable that there are times Liverpool would be stronger as a team were the captain brought off the pitch late on in matches. Monday night against Swansea was simply the latest example of this, as well as a reminder that Brendan Rodgers is unlikely to ever take to heart the idea the team might be strengthened by Gerrard's removal late on in matches he's struggling in. This time around, the club didn't drop points because of the decision, but sooner or later the manager's staunch refusal to substitute a tired or misfiring Steven Gerrard will end far more negatively.

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