Brendan Rodgers has attempted to play Steven Gerrard as the deepest player in a midfield trio for three matches in a row now. Call it the holding role; call him a defensive midfielder; call it a single-pivot system. Call if whatever you will, one thing has been clear: it has been a complete and utter failure. At least if you ask anyone whose name isn't Brendan Rodgers.
"We needed to change the structure of the team," admitted the Liverpool manager in his post-match press conference following Saturday's draw against Aston Villa that included perhaps the worst half of football seen at Anfield under Rodgers. Rather than stop while he was ahead, though, Rodgers kept going: "But there is absolutely no question Steven can play the role and I don’t regard it as a setback, not at all."
There's no question Gerrard can play the holding role? No question he can be reprogrammed to become England's Andrea Pirlo? No question Liverpool can succeed with a holding midfielder whose positives are wholly on the offensive side? There's no question over the sense in having a single-pivot who lacks the positional sense and temperament to screen the defence and regularly turns the ball over with overly ambitious passes?
Rodgers may be a smart man and a promising if still learning manager, but on this subject he is being either very dumb or very stubborn. Coming off his worst passing game of the season in the holding role against Stoke, Gerrard set a new low against Villa, completing only 73% of his passes. Pirlo would not be impressed. And of course, Pirlo plays in a system that allows him to abdicate any defensive duties despite his deep-lying position—something that hasn't been the case for Gerrard these past three matches.
"[Aston Villa] put a lot of men around me," was Gerrard's take, with the captain appearing more willing than his manager to accept he isn't suited to the holding role he has been asked to play. "Every time I tried to get the ball under control they swamped me in the first half. It didn't work for myself or the team. I openly admit that it wasn't one of my better 45 minutes, but I improved after the break with the team and we managed to get back in it, but it's still two points dropped for us."
Two points lost and a 73% pass completion rate should by all rights signal the end of the experiment, but then it's been a move that clearly hasn't worked from the start. In the first half against Oldham, with Gerrard alone and lying deep for the first time, Liverpool lost the possession battle to a League One side. When Rodgers brought Lucas on at the half and pushed Gerrard forward Liverpool immediately took control of the match.
Against Stoke, Gerrard's inability to effectively screen the defence and a lamentable 75% pass completion rate handed one of the Premier League's least effective attacking forces three goals. Luckily for Liverpool fans, on that occasion Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge put on their best attacking duo in England act and that Liverpool conceded three to Stoke while often being overrun didn't matter.
Despite the experiment having failed twice, Aston Villa saw it trotted out a third time. And Villa went up two goals while looking the better side. Introducing Lucas in the second half led to Liverpool's strongest 20-minute stretch of the match before his injury, and though they didn't look as dangerous with Joe Allen taking over from Lucas, they still looked far better than with Gerrard in the holding role.
Up next are Championship side Bournemouth in the FA Cup. Then it's back to the league and top four challengers Everton. With Rodgers insisting that despite all evidence to the contrary his Gerrard experiment hasn't been a complete failure, it might be time to pencil the captain in for a few more starts alone in that holding role. Any Liverpool fan not concerned by this hasn't been paying attention.