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Man Management & Minutes: The Intertwined Legacy of Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard

News broke today that Steven Gerrard would be on his way to MLS at the end of the season, and despite feelings of inevitability, it's a move that could have been avoided all together, allowing the captain to retire at his boyhood club.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot

It wasn't supposed to end like this and, most annoyingly, it didn't have to end like this. Steven Gerrard was meant to retire in Liverpool red, and instead he'll see out the remainder of his playing career with all the glitz, glam, and guaranteed playing time that MLS has to offer.

Gerrard was unlikely to have gone out with a true bang after Liverpool failed to win the league last year despite being in pole position until the bitter end, but there were ways of ensuring that this one-club man could gracefully complete his remaining playing time on Merseyside without reducing it to a sad whimper unbecoming of a man who has done so much for and meant so much to a club and its fans.

The sad whimper is where Gerrard has spent most of the season, misused by a manager who doesn't seem to know how best to use him on the pitch but without the nerve to take him off the pitch either. Gerrard isn't by any stretch of the imagination playing his best football at the moment, and it's probably even less satisfying for the captain than it is for the fans. This isn't the version of Steven Gerrard that anyone wants to remember, but Brendan Rodgers seems at a loss to act on the direction he thinks Gerrard's Liverpool career needs to go.

As early as September, Rodgers spoke about the necessity of managing the captain's minutes and possibly resting him on occasion. The words rang hollow as Gerrard continued to play as many minutes as possible — guaranteed minutes in all but name — with Rodgers only occasionally keeping the skipper out of the starting line-up. They were mixed signals to Gerrard at best, and a severe mismanaging of the player at worst, with no plan in place to help the captain see out his career in a dignified fashion.

It didn't have to be that way, of course. As a relative newcomer not much older than the captain himself, Rodgers is no doubt in a tough position to be the one to tell arguably the club's best ever player that his career is winding down and that he is no longer the club's main focus. But no one said it would be easy, and having already spoken publicly about reducing Gerrard's playing time, it wouldn't have been an unexpected conversation to have regularly with the midfielder. It's one that likely took place as part of the club's negotiations with the captain on his next contract, and all signs point to reduced playing time going forward as the reason Gerrard rejected that contract.

A reduction in playing time isn't a sign of disrespect so much as it is a calculated effort to extend a career. The two Manchester clubs have already provided a template for this approach with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and now Frank Lampard all taking on reduced minutes in favour of making a meaningful impact with what minutes they got. Where they might have been liabilities to their clubs playing a full ninety minutes, they became viable options from the bench when their managers needed them most.

What's disappointing about the decision to pursue playing time above all else is that the move lacks any kind of satisfactory ambition or, failing that, a reasonable narrative arc. This isn't a player moving to a top club in his prime in order to play with the best of the best when he's at his own best. This isn't a player who has moved around from club to club, league to league, and is hoping to end his career in a league that deserved or not has a reputation for being the perfect place for attracting fading European stars who want to take their game down a few notches. This isn't a player looking for one last chance to win the one trophy missing from his trophy case, the trophy he grew up wanting to win with his boyhood club. This is Steven Gerrard, Liverpool legend.

That's not to say there aren't reasons for wanting the move. Playing time is certainly the big one, but big pay days with sponsors, vastly improved weather, and a chance to experience a new culture are all perfectly valid reasons for choosing MLS. Valid though they are, they're reasons that feel incredibly hollow for a man who has given as much of himself as he has to the only club he's ever played for. Does an extra season or two of regular playing time in a league at least a rung or two below the EPL's level outweigh the chance to retire with your boyhood club? Will winning the MLS Cup with LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls give him remotely the same sort of satisfaction as winning a trophy with Liverpool, even if he played a reduced role in winning it? Evidently the answer is yes to the first question, and time will tell on the second one.

It was inevitable that at some point Steven Gerrard would have to retire from football and it would be a sad day for the sport when that happened. It was not inevitable that he'd eventually leave the only club he's ever known. Better man management from Rodgers and more self-awareness about his age and limitations from Gerrard could have found a way to ensure that a man who should retire a Red absolutely did. Instead, club, manager, and player all find themselves in a wholly avoidable situation that does not have a happy ending.

Gerrard's Anfield legacy is unlikely to be tarnished long term by his choice. Many fans have already embraced the idea that the move is a good option for a man not willing to take a reduced role, and the rest will eventually come around. Rodgers' legacy is far more murky, and for a man who seems on the brink of getting sacked every other game this season, he'll need to seriously turn his club around and make it to next season unscathed if he wants to be remembered as something more than the man who mismanaged the great Steven Gerrard all the way into an MLS career.

Where Gerrard's proposed move leaves Liverpool for the rest of the season and beyond is anyone's guess. Liverpool looked the best they had all season against Swansea on Monday, and it was a glimpse of a future Liverpool where everything clicked with new signings and old. Steven Gerrard was noticeably absent from the match, lending credence to the idea that Rodgers can field a dynamic and winning Liverpool team that doesn't include the captain. It will be more than a little ironic, then, if he's not around to manage a Gerrard-less squad next season due to poor management of Gerrard in his final season at Anfield.

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