Steven Gerrard's final season at the club didn't go as planned. First off, there were no plans for the past season to be Gerrard's last at the club as contract negotiations were expected to be conducted and subsequently agreed. They weren't. What followed wasn't a welcome sight for Liverpool fans: sluggish performances by player and team, defeats and more defeats, injury, a quick dismissal against a fierce rival, a quiet birthday, and two risible final results to round things off. Still, Gerrard is the irreplaceable name and legend who can be upgraded due to his diminishing gifts and physicality as a player.
How should Liverpool try to replace the influence, star quality, leadership, and ability that Gerrard undoubtedly possessed? In his last few games for the club, Gerrard seemed to find a higher gear in his performances. He could score goals, make runs, and generally look like he could do something. This was a player who turned 35 last week. This isn't an ode to a departing captain or wistful look on how things ended, if you're looking for that, take a look at this particular curious ballad. This is about the future and who can come in to push Liverpool on as well as complement existing pieces in the squad.
James Milner is set to join up with the squad on 1 July after officially agreeing terms with Liverpool, but is he enough? Milner has proven that he can play here, there, and everywhere effectively over the five years he spent at Manchester City, but his move to Anfield is one that is designed to provide something he could not attain during that time: regular minutes in central midfield. If this indeed is what Milner will benefit from over the course of next season, surely he will effectively be the replacement for Steven Gerrard in midfield. The issue with this is where one placed Steven Gerrard within the team.
For the past two seasons, Gerrard seemed to be Rodgers' preferred option at the base of midfield—shifting the recently departed legend further back to find a place for him in the team—bringing the concept of a deep-lying playmaker back into the collective conciousness of Liverpool fans. Liverpool won't be returning to the heady days of midfield control under Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, but could construct Liverpool's most effective midfield of the Rodgers era with James Milner and Jordan Henderson at the heart of it. The talented Emre Can must also feature prominently, but after a season of utility football in some difficult circumstances, it's unclear whether the young German's role will be at the base of midfield.
Emre Can shocked the world of football by revealing that he and the manager agreed both view him as a midfielder. Don't let his dip in form toward the end of the season—fuelled by positional and tactical inconsistency—fool you dear reader. Yes, Can only turned 21 in January and will naturally experience dips in form, but he carries the presence as well as the ability to dominate this area of the pitch. Joe Allen, while a good squad player, will be fortunate to be counted as a regular starter instead of a squad player. Lucas Leiva probably lacks the durability to be relied upon for an entire season, although his competence as a defensive midfielder should never be questioned. Unfortunately, he could be off in the summer anyway.
The midfield arrangement could affect where the delightful Philippe Coutinho is positioned next season, with various possibilities placing him centrally—where he looks most dangerous and effective—or out wide on the left, as we've seen at times since he arrived in January 2013. If one subscribes to the need for another midfield player, one who may not bring the swashbuckling force of Steven Gerrard at his peak but could convincingly co-ordinate the midfield, what should Liverpool look for? Bruisers that force their imprints on games or artists who prefer to make a graceful impression from the centre of the pitch?
Not a single physically forceful or tigerish defensive midfielder has been linked to the club of late, the closest in terms of style has been Asier Illarramendi—a player who can muck in defensively while playing raking and clever through balls from deep. He could be an option if Rafael Benítez decides that the former Real Sociedad midfielder, purported heir to Xabi Alonso, isn't what Real Madrid require moving forward. This could give Rodgers the best of both worlds, if Illarramendi can rediscover his confidence after a difficult season, in terms of technical and passing ability from deep that's married with an appetite for defensive duties.
Talented midfield players hailing from the Balkan Peninsula have been reportedly on Liverpool's radar to provide the technical mastery to fill a creative void in midfield. The rumoured second bid made by Liverpool for Mateo Kovačić has been followed by a third, according to twitter's transfer boomer Tancredi Palmeri. Kovačić is pure joy to watch, and while we're on the topic of enjoyment and players from the Balkans, the marvellous Miralem Pjanić comes to mind. The AS Roma schemer was linked less than two months ago but will almost certainly be out of reach. Both clearly possess star quality but can they fit alongside the likes of Henderson, Milner, Can, Lucas, and Allen?
Our Jimmy Milner may be the player to replace Steven Gerrard, but the main priority for Rodgers in assessing his midfield options is to ensure that it functions far more effectively than it has done over the past three years. If Lucas follows Gerrard out of Anfield, mobility should no longer be a concern. Lucas' defensive reading of the game is superb, but there's a feeling that after a first season where the loveable Brazilian was heralded as Rodgers' chosen "controller", the manager would rather look elsewhere. Liverpool may not need to directly replace Gerrard the name or the legend, but this summer presents an opportunity to restructure a vital area in the quest to secure Champions League football for 2016/17.