Is Steven Gerrard actually a central midfielder or have we all just imagined that he is?
When a player is 31 years old and has made over 600 appearances for club and country it seems slightly strange to write an article discussing what sort of player he is. The fact that this article relates to Steven Gerrard, one of the most iconic and influential players of the Premier League era is even more unusual. However there is certainly an argument to be made that despite being "central" to Liverpool for over a decade now, Gerrard has never entirely made one position his own. Over the course of his career for club and country he has been used as a central midfielder in a two man midfield, a number 10, a right sided midfielder and as the advanced player in a three man midfield. Not to mention his stint at right back in that memorable night in Istanbul.
So where is Gerrard's best position? Most people would instantly reply "central midfield, right in the thick of it" and yet despite this being the popular view for many, it is a position that Gerrard has played with only fleeting regularity in the past few seasons. It was Rafael Benitez who first began to truly experiment and utilise Gerrard's versatility and for a time it seemed that he had found his nice, playing of Fernando Torres. Yet once Torres' decline in form and fitness began it showed that the partnership which nearly took Liverpool to an improbable title was reliant on one another's unique skill set and without one the other did not look entirely comfortable.
Its too easy to say that Torres made Gerrard look good or vice versa, but the brilliance of Torres' movement off the ball was tailor made for Gerrard to find him. Equally Torres' ability to occupy both centre halves all on his own was perfect for Gerrard to run in behind the Spaniard. Whilst Gerrard still plays this role from time to time under Dalglish, it seems more a defensive tactic than an attacking one, in that it provides the option of congesting the midfield if needed.
Maybe the best place to start looking for answers is through a process of deduction. With many of his best attributes suited to playing central midfield in a 4-4-2 which Liverpool use, albeit with slight variations, from time to time. However whichever reasons one chooses to put forward, the fact remains that since Rafael Benitez took over at Liverpool, Gerrard has rarely been played in a two man midfield for club or country. One of the theories often posited is that Gerrard is positionally poor and tactically undisciplined. Jonathan Wilson has argued as such citing the argument that some of Gerrard's most memorable and influential performances have come when "the situation was so desperate that he could be released from responsibility and told simply to swash buckles and storm barns all over the pitch" and uses examples such as Olympiakos, Milan and West Ham to illustrate this point. His point that follows on from the one above, is that in terms of control and organisation the 0-0 draw away to Juventus in 2005 was by far and away Liverpool's best performance in their run to the final and that the midfield that night consisted of Xabi Alonso, Igor Biscan and Antonio Nunez. Coincidence? Maybe, no one knows for sure.
This point could be expanded to other teams and players, for example in the year that Arsenal, ravaged by injuries, reached the Champions League final, whilst setting a tournament record for the longest time without conceding, would often line up with a midfield three of Gilberto Silva, Alex Hleb and Cesc Fabregas. The fact that this team went such a long time without conceding against teams like Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal indicates a defensive strength and high level of concentration that Arsenal have consistently been accused of lacking under Arsene Wenger. One potential argument, using Wilson's theory on Gerrard, is that at this time Fabregas was not yet the dominant star of the team and as such was far more rigid in his positional play. Whilst as his career progressed Wenger was keen to have Fabregas and later on Samir Nasri operate in fairly fluid roles, free to go as they wished, and Arsenal have never looked quite as secure since.
Another comparison that can be drawn between Liverpool and Arsenal is how a dominant player has the potential to intimidate those around him. Many Arsenal players spoke in the wake of Henry's departure that they felt a weight had been lifted and they no longer felt compelled to constantly look for the great man. Similar phenomenons have occurred with Samuel Eto'o in the Cameroon national team and pretty much any side containing Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Certain statistics could be used to intimate that such an effect is felt by those who play alongside Gerrard. All six of Charlie Adam's assists and both his goals came when Gerrard had not started. Jordan Henderson's tackle success rate drops from 92.59% to only 63.64%, probably a result of being shifted out wide when Gerrard comes into the team. This idea is not a criticism of Gerrard far from it, more that he may well be inhibiting some of Liverpool's younger prospects.
Gerrard's second most prolific season in terms of goals remains the 2005/2006 season (although the figure is slightly artificial in that Liverpool played teams such as TNS and FBK Kaunas) where he played the majority of the season playing from the right hand side, as Benitez preferred the pairing of Alonso and Mohamad Sissoko. Although nominally positioned on the right, Gerrard did have a certain freedom to roam infield to try and influence play which again corroborates Wilson's idea that he is at his best when not overly burdened with tactical and positional responsibility. Bearing this in mind, his best goal scoring season was the 08/09 campaign where, as discussed earlier, he spent much of the season playing as a "false 10" behind Fernando Torres and again had the security of two far more disciplined and tactical aware players in Javier Mascherano and Alonso.
What conclusions can we draw about the Liverpool captain then? In terms of goal scoring his two most prolific seasons have come when he has been let of the leash and been free to go and influence the game. An important issue is how Gerrard will adapt as age continues to take its toll, whether he will be able to adapt the way that Paul Scholes has. Although he certainly has the passing range to play farther away from goal as a deep lying midfielder, the acquisition of Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson plus the return of Lucas would seem to indicate that Dalglish does not envisage him playing such a role.
I'm sure that some will read this article as a criticism of Steven Gerrard which is not its intention whatsoever. Whilst I agree with Jonathan Wilson, and many others, when he writes that Gerrard's "tactical indiscipline is well known", I also believe that Gerrard is one of the most influential players in Premier League history. The main emphasis is more that throughout his career Gerrard has played multiple positions yet arguably his two most productive seasons in terms of goal scoring and Liverpool's overall success in the campaign, came when he played within a fairly loose positional framework. Therefore, those who have consistently argued that for England Gerrard has been denied playing central midfield by players such as Frank Lampard, should perhaps bear in mind that Gerrard's "best" position, is not and may never have been central midfield.