Steven Gerrard is undoubtedly one of the very best players in Liverpool’s history – he’s been a true inspiration to the Reds’ supporters and a role model for youngsters all over the country for more than a decade. However, the performances he’s given so far this season are very confusing for the Anfield faithful. He’s been accused of being one of the reasons why Liverpool couldn’t control their games as well as they’d like to, and then came the WBA match, in which he silenced his critics with a wonderful performance, only to show them they might have been right after all with his horrible display versus Arsenal the following week. He then responded to that North London setback with a great show against Fulham, in which he created all of Liverpool’s four goals.
Is Gerrard still a great player then or were the West Brom and Fulham games just glimpses of his glorious past? That’s definitely the question none of the Reds’ supporters can give a definite answer to, especially with all the emotions surrounding an already legendary skipper. Having said that, let’s have a look at some stats and see what the numbers have to say about the issue.
First of all, I’d like to underline that, quite obviously, Gerrard has played much less minutes of football so far than he did in the whole of the last campaign. It makes comparing the hard numbers useless and forces us to look at the percentages and minutes per x/y/z ratios, so those statistics are the most important ones and my focus is almost entirely on them.
As I’ve pointed out last season, Gerrard’s role under Rodgers is similar to the one Xabi Alonso played for Rafa Benitez – he’s a deep-lying playmaker or ‘regista’ if you prefer the Italian name. As you can see in the table above, that role didn’t really change in this campaign. As his passing stats show, Gerrard is still playing deeper than he used to when he was younger and sending lots of long balls to his partners: he’s played 105 long balls, only 13 less than Simon Mignolet and 58 more than Jordan Henderson, who’s third in this statistic.
So, if Gerrard’s role didn’t change, then maybe his effectiveness did? The stats suggest this is not the case, either. His pass completion is almost the same as last year, actually it’s even slightly better. Steven’s long ball accuracy looks similar to the last season, as it only worsened by 2%. A brief look at his pass completion in different zones of field shows us that his accuracy in the defensive half got slightly worse, but there was also a small improvement in the attacking areas. Finally, his crossing seems to be much better than last year, as Gerrard is 10% more accurate than he was in 2012-13 campaign. Overall, his distribution is pretty much the same as it was last year.
When it comes to creativity he looks to have improved since last season, as he’s already got 4 assists compared to last season’s 9. His minutes per assist ratio is much better, falling from 358 to 241. That improvement is a part of a much bigger picture, though.
Despite scoring only one goal per game in 4 of their first 5 encounters, the whole Liverpool teams’ attacking stats look much better than they did after the first 11 games of last season. Brendan Rodgers’ side found the net 21 times this term compared to 14 last season. Given that the Reds are only just starting to get ruthless in front of the opposition’s goal, that statistic should look even better in a few months time. What does it mean to Gerrard? More of the chances he creates get converted, lowering his minutes per assist ratio.
You can’t just give all the credit for Stevie’s improved assist stats to the SAS partnership, though. As you can see in the table above, the Liverpool captain’s minutes per chance created ratio hasn’t really changed, but the quality of the chances he creates has. Gerrard’s minutes per clear-cut chance created ratio dropped from 805 to 241, which actually means he now makes it much easier for his teammates to score from his passes.
There is, however, one thing about Gerrard’s creativity stats that could be slightly worrying to Liverpool fans. Last season Steven set his teammates up equally from set pieces (4 assists) and open play (5). A brief look at his stats from this campaign show that this balance has been disturbed, with the skipper creating 3 goals from set-pieces and only 1 from open play.
So, the numbers suggest Gerrard’s game didn’t really drop from last season. What’s more, they even seem to show some improvement when it comes to his creativity. Do they tell us the whole story, though? And what was the difference between that horrible Steven from the Arsenal game and the player that destroyed Fulham? Perhaps a visit to FFT’s Stats Zone may provide us with some answers.
Let’s have a look at where Gerrard received the ball in Arsenal game (top picture) and where his teammates passed to him in the Fulham encounter (the bottom one). It is important for a deep-lying playmaker to get the ball in the areas where he can focus on distributing it without too much pressure applied from his opposition. As you can see above, Gerrard didn’t have that comfort when fighting Arsenal – he was dragged into the midfield battle, getting served by his partners mostly around the half-way line, where he had to deal with constant pressure from Arsenal’s players. It made building the moves much harder than it was against Fulham, where Gerrard received most of the passes in two zones. First was deep in his own half, where he could focus on starting the Liverpool move without much pressure. The second one was around the edge of opposition’s final third, even slightly deeper than that. He didn’t have to deal with that much pressure there either, as his team were already all over the opposition, looking for the killer pass to find the strikers. In other words, against Fulham Gerrard’s passing was a part of two phases: building from behind and controlling the attacking zone while looking to get the goal, whereas fighting Arsenal made Gerrard part of the constant battle around the middle of the pitch. It was the battle, he couldn’t win.
As you can see above (top- Arsenal, bottom – Fulham game), the two phases of Gerrard’s game are clearly visible in the passes he’s made against the Cottagers. He was looking for his teammates in his own half and then, as the move advanced, tried to get the ball to the wide areas or into the box. Against Arsenal it was all messed up, with Steven’s passes made mostly in his own half, with no visible second phase of the build-up. As you can also see, he performed a similar amount of passes in both games, with a similar amount of them being successful. The problem is, in the Arsenal game most of the balls that missed his teammates were played on the opposition’s half – a clear indicator of Liverpool being unable to control the game, with the Gunners not allowing them to move out from the midfield area. It can be also seen in the pass combination stat. Against Arsenal, Gerrard’s passing was mostly to Lucas, Toure and Flanagan, whereas in the Fulham game most of his passes were sent towards Coutinho and Johnson. It’s hard to create anything, or even make the movement progress, by passing to the CB or DM, isn’t it? You should also take note, that if you compare where Steven got the ball in the Arsenal and Fulham games, to where he made his passes, it seems like against the Gunners he was looking for his teammates from the deeper positions than the ones where he received the ball. It may indicate that he was moving backwards before passing the ball in order to get out of the pressure, while it was quite the opposite against the Cottagers.
Taking a brief look at his attacking dashboards in both games proves what I’ve already written, only this time it’s much more visible. Against Arsenal, Gerrard performed fewer passes in the attacking zone, completing far less than he did against Fulham. He was also much more direct in the first of those two games, sending the ball into opposition’s penalty area rather than looking for his partners in the wide positions. Maybe it was caused by his lack of belief in Flanagan’s offensive abilities. Jon wasn’t too much of a threat on the right wing, failing to find a team mate with 45% of passes he’s made in Arsenal’s half, and missing all of his 3 crosses.
As you can see in the defensive dashboards from the compared games, Gerrard’s defensive contribution against Fulham was restricted to the two clearances in his own penalty area and one foul around the final third. With Liverpool having control over the game, he could focus on his distribution rather than fighting for the ball. He couldn’t do that against Arsenal, however, as he was forced to battle the Arsenal midfield, which led to him making 6 tackles and failing with half of them.
What went wrong for Steven in the Arsenal game, then? Looking at all those pictures above, I’d say his horrible display was down to a few factors, none of which occurred in the Fulham encounter. First, he was dragged into battle in the middle of the field, playing under constant pressure, getting the ball in some difficult areas and trying to get out of them before passing it on. The pressure from Arsenal’s players and, to some extent, the lack of Coutinho, made him look for easier targets such as Lucas and Toure, none of whom are the most creative footballers ever. Quite obviously, Liverpool couldn’t get a grip on the game this way. That led to Gerrard getting dragged into defensive play more than he’d like to.
Finally, it seems like Steven’s biggest problem when building the Reds’ attacks was caused by the lack of Glen Johnson in the right wing-back position, with the inexperienced Jon Flanagan replacing him. Even though he made quite a few passes towards the young defender, the attacking dashboards show that Steven preferred to look for SAS, passing into the Arsenal box or around its edge, rather than sending the ball to his right-hand side. It was completely different in the Fulham game, with a large amount of Gerrard’s attacking passes made towards Johnson. There may be one more explanation to Gerrard going more direct in the first of those compared games, though. With the Arsenal defence known to be lacking some pace, he could be trying to look for the quick Liverpool strikers, especially Sturridge, to beat the defenders and go for the goal.
What should Rodgers do about Gerrard then? ‘Bench him!’, some would shout, while the others would say the exact opposite. Personally, I’d disagree with both groups. Gerrard’s stats don’t really show any signs of a decline, it’s not the case of him losing all of his former magic. He isn’t as much of a game-changer as he used to be, though. I think the Arsenal encounter and a few other games this season proved that well enough.
For me, Gerrard is still a very good player, who does his job really well if the circumstances allow him to do so. It’s also worth a note that he seems to play better at home, having the Anfield crowd supporting him. The problems start when not everything goes to plan. It seems like he’s no longer the kind of footballer that would batter the opposition and regain the control over a game if they dragged him into battle in the middle of the pitch.
That’s why I believe Steven is a perfect option against the sides that would drop deep and focus on their defensive game instead of trying to keep the ball. His intelligence and vision are perfect tools to help and destroy this kind of opposition. I would, however, hesitate to field Gerrard when facing the teams that have a strong midfield and look to take control over the game and press intensively. That’s why I believe Liverpool needs to find a new controller, someone who’d be a potential winning argument when battling good, skilfull midfielders.
Steven is still an important player for the Reds. He’s not getting any younger though, and Rodgers needs to build for the future without his legendary captain. The sooner the Liverpool manager starts to do that building, the less painful Gerrard’s loss will be for the Reds’ midfield.