The Tactical Evolution of Steven Gerrard
As the final whistle blew at the Britannia Stadium, Liverpool fans around the world didn’t know what to feel. They had just been thrashed 6-1 by a mid-table Stoke City, bringing to an end a dismal 2014/15 season.
But, despite the deeply saddening result, there were still reasons to smile.
On the 24th of May 2015, Liverpool Football Club said a bittersweet goodbye to a legend, a hero, Steven Gerrard.
710 appearances, 186 goals and 10 trophies. A truly spectacular player.
Regardless of his evident talent, Steven Gerrard had to constantly adapt and refine his playing style to stay relevant in the ruthless footballing world. As seen in football and anything else, evolution occurs, and quite quickly.
However, he managed to play at the highest level to the age of 34 which showed his ability to evolve himself, something that many struggle to do - and today we look at how this evolution occurred.
The Box-to-Box Role
Early on his career, Gerrard saw himself as a more defensive midfielder, one to do all the dirty work for the team. He felt he was best at winning those important tackles that would stop the opposition from penetrating their midfield line.
Offensively, he was more of a distributor rather than a creator, not one to get many assists but able to find the channels with a long, floated ball, However, he wasn’t one to progress his team forward, guilty of acting a bit too conservative at some times.
Nevertheless, youngsters rarely play their favoured role when starting out and this was much the case when Gerrard made his debut at the age of 18. Filling in for injured captain Jamie Redknapp, Gérard Houllier asked the young scouser to play in an unfamiliar more attacking role.
Expected not only to contribute on the defensive side of the ball but on the attack as well. This had a massive confidence hit on the young Gerrard, and performances weren’t what fans would come to expect later on.
While he managed to hold his own defensively, he was quite lack-lustre when it came to having the confidence to play those defence-splitting passes that could create scoring chances.
With the Box-to-Box role not working, Houllier decided to switch it up moving Gerrard to a wider position. Playing on the right of a midfield three alongside Dietmar Hamann and Gary Mcallister, it was in this system where he would start to find proof to his eminent potential.
Playing a role similar to the Mezzala (Half-Winger), Gerrard would aim to provide width to be able to move the opposition’s midfielders around to create gaps. These gaps could either be exploited by either himself or Hamann, who was the deep-lying playmaker.
Whether it was due to a mental change or a tactical one, Gerrard’s offensive skill would come to the fore. His ability to provide those needle-threading passes was becoming unmatched in Europe. This mixed with his uncanny finishing made him a strong option when going forward.
He usually operated in the half-space, where he would be able to find Michael Owen and other Liverpool forwards to set up a goal. He racked up 10 assists and 4 goals in the 01/02 season and was finally becoming the player we all knew he could be.
Roaming Attacking Playmaker
Before the 04/05 season, Liverpool appointed Rafa Benitez as manager and with that brought massive change.
While, yes, Gerrard was popping up with the odd goal or two, there was still so much more he could do. Benitez sought to bring back Gerrard to where he truly belonged, in the centre.
With new signing Xabi Alonso giving Gerrard more freedom in attack, he was let loose under Rafa Benitez. Playing as a number 10 behind Milan Baros, he played the 1 in Liverpool’s 4-3-1-2 formation.
Given superior numbers in the midfield third, the reds almost always had a spare man - most of the time being Gerrard himself. And, with the 4-3-1-2 being a compact formation, their game would usually revolve around short-one touch passes to move the opposition around in the central zone, a playstyle that was suited extremely well to Gerrard’s play style.
Due to this, the opposition’s backline was left with two options - to push up forward limiting the space Gerrard has or sitting deep to avoid any balls over the top of the defence.
Both had flaws that Gerrard could exploit.
If the defence stepped up, his excellent ability to play in tight spaces meant that he could find just enough room to play his lauded penetrating passes to an unmarked Baros or Luis Garcia.
However, if they sat back, the defence would find themselves leaving space in front of them - space that Gerrard could drive into and unleash one of his trademark low-driven thunderbolts.
These two factors made him one of the most feared attacking midfielders in Europe and his stats under Benitez was very impressive. Scoring 13 goals in his first season under Rafa was only the beginning.
He would go on to score 55 more in the next 3 seasons with also contributing 35 assists.
Going into the 08/09 season, new signing Javier Mascherano gave Gerrard even more freedom to go forward. He had one of his best seasons in a red shirt, as he formed a great partnership with Fernando Torres, scoring 24 goals and dishing out 13 assists, being amongst the best midfielders in the world in the process.
As Alonso, Torres and Mascherano left, Gerrard’s superb physical ability started to depart as well. And as injuries took their toll, he was as slow as ever. The ability Gerrard had founded his playstyle on had all disappeared.
After Brendan Rodgers tried him in multiple different positions, he finally one that could accommodate the ageing Anfield legend, the Regista.
Gerrard fit perfectly.
His lack of pace wouldn’t become a factor as Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson would be doing all the running for him. He also had plenty of time on the ball, as he was situated in deeper areas, to be able to distribute easily.
Despite the stats not looking particularly pleasing, Gerrard played a big role in the latter stages of his career, pushing Liverpool on for a title push in 2013/14. His ability to adapt to the needs of football and the limitations of his body is what separated him from the rest.
A Fitting End
Over the course of his time at Liverpool, Stevie G tried and fit many different roles, often in relation to which stage of his career he was at - to a remarkably high level.
So in 14/15, when he finally left the club he had been at for most of his life, the fans gave him the deserved respect of a legend that had transformed their very own Liverpool landscape.