In the wake of the West Ham disaster we spent a fair bit of time delving into the issue of Steven Gerrard as a central midfielder. And for the most part we seemed to agree it just wasn't the grandest idea in the history of everything. So of course, as always seems to be the way, when the match against Manchester United came around it was inevitable that he would both start in the center of the park and that he would put in the sort of solid and composed performance one would expect from a central midfielder, for at least one afternoon wiping out the doubts and reservations so many have about him being placed in a position where he finds himself able to influence everything--and then goes and tries to do absolutely everything at the expense of doing anything particularly well.
|Above: Steven Gerrard tries to do absolutely everything against West Ham, leading
to a lower completion percentage and at times abandoned defensive duties, while
Below: His passing shows a more disciplined player who kept to
more central areas against Manchester United
It is worth remembering, too, that his performance in a fairly central role against Chelsea was also one of his better displays, though then it was as one of the outside players in four man diamond in midfield rather than as part of a clear pair. Still, it was a far more reserved role than those who imagine him a mostly attacking player often talk of wanting to see him in, and one that required him to remain conscientious of his defensive responsibilities in a way he often doesn't seem capable of against lesser sides, where the urge to grab the match by the scruff of its neck against a retreating opponent often seems to lead to abandoned defensive duties.
That is fine, of course, if he's the most advanced player, but in a deep role against an underrated West Ham midfield it lead to Liverpool becoming outmanned in both possession and defence on the frequent occasions his heart overpowered his intellect and sent him dashing off to all four corners of the pitch.
However, none of this seeks to wholly damn Steven Gerrard for at times lacking the positional discipline to be effective in the middle: It's also meant to praise the skill and drive that means that when the games really are at their biggest he has the clear ability and focus to play that more central role as well as anybody. After all, no matter anything else, most everybody agrees that at the end of the day he is a phenomenal player and one of the best to ever wear Liverpool's red. It is odd, though, that despite all his skill it is against supposedly lesser opponents when he lets himself wander, giving in to his more attacking nature, that it has a way of clearly making Liverpool look a less cohesive whole. Odd in part because in past years the idea of two largely holding--or at least defensively responsible--central midfielders was often seen by fans as being overly negative, and yet when Gerrard is put in the middle with a remit to wander wherever the wind takes him the team suddenly finds itself missing a solid base on which to build the attack from, tending to suffer unless it happens to be the sort of day on which he puts in a dominating performance that will be the talk of every paper and website and form for the next week.
|Above: The tackles and interceptions maps against West Ham are almost
painful to look at, showing a player who isn't committed to the defensive
side of the game, while Below: Against United, an increased determination
and staying in more generally central areas result in defensive
maps much more typical for a central midfielder
Against United on the other hand, he put in a quiet performance, yet it was a more composed one than we had previously seen from him under Kenny Dalglish--even including the solid display against Chelsea, where first Maxi and later Aurelio offered some degree of central assistance from the other side of the midfield diamond. He didn't try to take the game into his own hands and force the issue, and perhaps seemed less obviously influential for it, but his relatively understated and responsible play was nonetheless integral to Liverpool's success.
There's still reason to wonder, especially based on past examples, if he has the determination to play such a necessarily restrained game against some of the sides below Liverpool in the standings to avoid giving those opponents a foothold, confidence, and improved odds on the counter. And there's still reason to wonder if largely restraining his natural attacking game is generally in the best interest of both himself and the club. Still, he did the job against United, and with the way Meireles has been playing, and with Suarez' luminance and Carroll's first steps into the squad, perhaps United shows there is a way for him to grow into a more reserved role without leaving the team bereft of attacking options.
Of course, people always wonder why it is that Liverpool can run out against a side like Chelsea or United and play phenomenally after a dire performance against a side like West Ham, and often it simply comes down to an inability to be fired up for every match over a long and at times arduous season. That in itself is a fairly natural phenomenon, though it does seem that the performance of Gerrard against the Hammers and then United is both a microcosm of this reality and a key, root cause of it for the team as a whole. With his inconsistency between matches being at times amongst the worst in the squad, in many games the dilemma will remain where to play Gerrard to both do the most good for the team--but also so that it does the least harm when he's not driven by circumstance and opponent to stay mentally sharp. Because unless he can learn to at least keep his game more simple, restrained, and focused against lesser opponents, that natural drive to be involved everywhere combined with a more lax approach since it's just West Ham will still have the potential to hinder Liverpool's growth and hurt the club when the matches seem less important.