With a match against United coming up on the weekend and a handful of recent performances that have given cause to wonder just what Steven Gerrard's best position is, this week's question asks just that: What do you think the captain's role is at this stage of his career?
He obviously still fancies himself a box-to-box, all action midfielder, though his recent displays in the center of the park have involved neither a wealth of his trademark bursting runs forward nor a great deal of defensive steel. Still, many imagined him moving towards a deeper midfield position as his capacity to make those constant forward runs diminished, and if he committed himself to the defensive side of the game and looked to play the safe ball when an obvious killer pass wasn't on he undoubtedly has the talent to make the switch to a more central role as Paul Scholes* did a number of years ago. The main questions seem to be if the time for that change is now, and whether he's willing to put in the work it will take to subjugate his natural instincts and approach the game from a slightly different angle to the one he's used to.
If he's determined to make the position his--despite not having played all that much of his career as a true central midfielder--then such an option still seems reasonable. Right now, however, there have to be reservations as to whether he's willing to change the way he approaches the game, and moreover if he's reached the stage where he needs to while there are other positions that might allow him to conserve his energy for shorter bursts without the need to drastically alter his approach.
The obvious option would seem to be a return to a more advanced role in a three (or four, in certain of the three center back formations) man midfield that largely removes the need for him to track runners after making a forward surge. It always surprised at first, but in 2008-2009 Xabi Alonso ran further than anybody on the pitch more often than not, and certainly he ran more than Gerrard did in support of Fernando Torres even if it was Gerrard's short bursts that were more easily noticed. With Gerrard looking to play deeper now, he may actually be asked to run more than he was in an overwhelmingly attacking role, though it may be a case of slightly longer stretches at slightly lower speeds. Meanwhile, when you add in the demand for him to still make occasional attacking bursts if he isn't to radically alter his game it means more running still, and it could be this as much as anything that has resulted in Gerrard putting in less effort on the defensive side lately--after all, an attempt to do everything can, in the end, result in doing nothing particularly well. For all that some saw a move back as inevitable as he grew older, it may be that in moving back he is now faced with a larger workload.
If he is no longer capable of combining the constant movement in defense and possession of a central midfielder with the bursting runs of the old, attacking Gerrard, then perhaps both Liverpool and his most profitable realisation would be that he should be moved forward to where he doesn't need to worry defensively quite so much. After all, he's never been the most interested player in the defensive side of the game, so if he only has the stamina for one role at this point in his career it might be best to make it the one he can do the most damage in. It might be hard for him--and for some observers--to let go of the idea that he has to be involved with absolutely everything, but if he isn't willing or able to largely give up on the most offensive side of his game, then the only option may be moving forward.
Of course, one also shouldn't rule out the option of him moving to the right, as arguably his most impressive season came from a fairly free wide role. In the end, though, it might be the switch we're least likely to see. Still, it would allow him to utilise his at times deadly crossing ability with regularity, and to cut down on his defensive duties somewhat without completely giving up on involvement in early build-up play, and as such might offer somewhat of a compromise in both duties and expectations between the two more central roles. However, there often seems to be a psychological blockage that greets the idea of Gerrard moving to the right, some deep belief that to move him "outside" somehow takes him away from the fray where he belongs. It also would likely require Joe Cole to play a role in central midfield, and for many he remains an unproven player who hasn't done much of note in the past three years and who has at times been accused of lacking game intelligence. Not to mention that with everybody fit it would likely mean Dirk Kuyt on the bench, and for all that many question his technical ability, it's hard to imagine an argument better than "But Joe Cole is Joe Cole!" as to what Liverpool's big summer signing has shown over the past few seasons to deserve a starting role more than the at times gangly Dutchman. In any case, it does seem an added gamble beyond the simple shock the idea of Gerrard on the right raises in some quarters, but perhaps for some it remains an intriguing gamble.
So: Let Gerrard stick to the middle, but insist he curtail his attacking intent so as to have the energy to involve himself in all the other necessary aspects of central midfield? Focus his energy on just the attack, even if it takes him away from the build-up he pines to partake in? Or roll the dice a bit and shift him wide in the hopes he can rediscover the best form of his career, even if it seems a bigger gamble across the board?
What's best for Gerrard? But more importantly, what's best for Liverpool in 2011? It is after all a new club in a new decade, one where only he and Carragher remain from those treble and Champions League winning sides. He's still quite obviously a great player when he's at his best, but it may be time to start looking at how he fits into the rest of the team rather than how the rest of the team fits around him.
*Yeah, sorry. But you come up with a more recent, more apt, and more appropriately British example. Besides, it's fitting with the two sides facing off on the weekend.