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On Structural Failings and Individual Errors

Steven Gerrard might make a good deep-lying playmaker, but that isn't the same thing as a rounded holding player. Which doesn't have to be an entirely bad thing. It is, however, a structural weakness, even if it's by choice.

Clive Brunskill

"The intelligent players adapt, and Steven Gerrard has the ability to do that," said Juventus' veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo as the Italian star waded into the debate over whether Steven Gerrard could become Andrea Pirlo. Certainly there have been moments, particularly in matches against Everton and Arsenal, when it appeared as though Gerrard might just have it in him to embark on something of a second career as a holding midfielder. There are still times, though, as against Swansea, when Gerrard can appear somewhat lost in the role.

Pirlo, it must be noted, is given help by the likes of Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio, and Paul Pogba, as whichever midfielders are on the pitch with him are expected to do the bulk of the running while Pirlo is given a free role. Gerrard hasn't so far seen Liverpool's tactics tailored to carry him as Pirlo has been, and though he has looked impressive in the role against top opposition playing a more limited counter game in a compact formation, against weaker sides there remain questions—questions perhaps better addressed to Brendan Rodgers than Steven Gerrard.

"Top European clubs are always progressing with what they can do off the field," added Pirlo. "Training is getting more scientific, and we are constantly getting more educated on nutrition. If you look after yourself and are willing to adapt, there is no reason why you can't play at the top level until your late 30s. He is an excellent passer of the ball, possesses an intelligent football brain, and has great vision. He has all the qualities to play a deeper role. Gerrard is a top professional, so it's very possible he has many top years left for Liverpool and England in a new role."

A deep-lying playmaker role is one thing; a rounded holding player who can operate on his own is another. With Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho pushed on against Swansea, Gerrard had space to wander into—and that's what he did, exposing Liverpool's defence with an inattention to the positional responsibilities of a holding player. He didn't necessarily have a poor match—judged as a box-to-box midfielder might have been he was quite good—but as a holding player he failed at many of the things that would normally be expected of a player in that position.

Of course, if the goal is to win by a 4-3 scoreline every week, perhaps it doesn't much matter if the nominal holding midfielder isn't performing especially well by the criteria most would judge a holding midfielder. As part of a system that often has the fullbacks pushed on, though, it does lead to an exceptionally unbalanced side with only two primarily defensive players. Even world class centre halves are going to look exposed at times in that kind of system, and the added mental strain will inevitably increase the chances of individual errors.

Drastically increasing the pressure on the centre halves and having it lead to more errors is a structural failure at least as much as it is a failure of the defenders who end up making those errors or the midfielder exposing them. That doesn't mean it's an unjustifiable approach, especially given Liverpool's attacking talent, and it doesn't mean Gerrard is to blame. But it is an inevitable side effect of an imbalanced side, and that cannot be ignored. It's a structural, tactical weakness—even if it's by design, and even if the positives are deemed to outweigh the negatives.

That all makes Brendan Rodgers seem a touch disingenuous when he claims it's "not so much structural as mistakes and decision making which costs us," as choosing to play a system with just the two primarily defensive players screened by a holding midfielder whose best qualities are in attack inarguably makes it at least as much a structural issue as about individual errors. In addition to Rodgers' regular demands that his centre halves play possession football, it's a tweak to the system that now drastically increases the pressures placed on them without the ball.

There may be a case for Liverpool setting up that way despite the negatives. There may even be a case for continuing with an attacking player like Gerrard in the holding role when a more traditionally suitable option is available. There are, however, unavoidable consequences to such choices, and blaming those consequences on the mistakes of individuals while completely absolving the system is misguided when there isn't another top club in Europe asking its centre halves to take on more responsibility than Rodgers is asking his to right now, both with and without the ball.

Gerrard may have it in him to play a deep role, but even Pirlo isn't expected to hold Juventus together defensively. Expecting Gerrard not only to be Pirlo but to also develop the screening nous of a Claude Makelele or Lucas Leiva continues to seem overly optimistic. Which isn't to say Liverpool can't make a go of it with Gerrard there, and it isn't to blame Gerrard for the system's failings, but rather to acknowledge that an imbalanced side—by choice or otherwise—greatly increases the chance for defensive errors. And that's on the system at least as much as the players.

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