Whilst Liverpool may, at the time of writing, be sitting pretty in second place in the Premier League table, it seems unlikely that they will remain in the same position come the end of the season.
Brendan Rodgers' side’s standing in the table owes much to the relative deficiencies of their fellow top-four challengers who, Arsenal and Southampton aside, have hardly started their respective seasons as well as they would have liked.
It seems unlikely that squads as talented as Chelsea’s, Manchester City’s, Manchester United’s and Tottenham’s will be continue to struggle to put together a convincing run of performances for the remainder of the season and if Liverpool want to hang on to their top-four status, there is much work to be done.
Perhaps top of Rodgers' list is the ever-growing need to sort out his team’s deficiencies in the middle of the park which were all too apparent in their last away clash against Arsenal.
Last Saturday’s 4-0 romp against Martin Jol’s hapless Fulham side provided some respite for the Reds' central midfielders, who were given acres of space by a creaking midfield pairing of Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell.
Steven Gerrard in particular was allowed to dominate the game in that once familiar fashion -which is unfortunately becoming rarer and rarer - whilst defensively Lucas Leiva was barely troubled by the underwhelming Parker/Sidwell axis. Even Jordan Henderson looked much more assured on the ball than usual and grabbed a lovely assist when playing in Luis Suarez for his first goal.
However, this success against one of the league’s poorest sides must not detract focus from an area in which Liverpool are in dire need of reinforcements if they are serious about regaining Champions League football.
I will go on to look at all of Liverpool’s current options for that central midfield role as well as potential new signings who could make all the difference but first up is the captain, Gerrard.
Despite enjoying something of a renaissance last season during Rodgers' first term in charge, Gerrard is still clearly not the player he once was. Last year’s move into a deeper position seemed to have given the Reds captain a new lease of life as he adapted well to Rodgers' new style.
However, this season the 33-year-old has often struggled to keep up with the pace of the game against more mobile and energetic rivals. Sure, he may still be able to shine when up against the pedestrian stylings of players like Parker and Sidwell, but when faced with more challenging battles against the league’s better midfields - such as Arsenal’s well balanced and talented selection of players like Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil or Southampton’s dynamic pairing of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama - Gerrard leaves a lot to be desired.
He is often found wanting for pace as opposition midfielders streak past him and he simply doesn’t have the positional sense required to truly adapt into a top-class holding midfielder at this stage in his career. Gerrard’s tweak in position has also seen a reduction in his goalscoring impact, particularly this season. The Liverpool legend may well still be able to hit a decent penalty but he is yet to score from open play for his club in 2013/14.
All this being said, Gerard is still Rodgers' captain and one of the first names on the team sheet. He clearly has much to offer the side, it could just be that it is a slight change of approach or maybe even a new midfield partner that is needed to ensure that the England captain continues to be an influential presence at the heart of this Liverpool side.
Gerrard certainly isn’t able to tear around the pitch for 90 minutes in the box-to-box fashion fans were once accustomed to, but the game against Fulham may well have hinted at how he can still have a major impact.
The captain was replaced by Joe Allen with 66 minutes on the clock, a move which may well have been pre-planned or decided at the half-time interval. Gerrard was able to make his influence felt all over the park up until just after the hour mark, looking much more like the Gerrard of old, presumably safe in the knowledge that there was no need to conserve his energies for a tough final 20 minutes.
Of course, this is all conjecture. When the number eight came up it could have been a complete surprise to the man himself. Furthermore, as previously mentioned the Fulham midfield were – how to put this politely? – somewhat off the pace at Anfield and Gerrard may be developing into something of a flat-track bully.
Still, the manager will have noted Gerrard’s improved performance and could consider employing a ‘less is more’ strategy in future when it comes to his captain.
Whether it was due to a lack of alternative options or even Rodgers feeling a little apprehensive at the thought of benching one of the club’s heroes when he himself was new to Anfield, Gerrard ended up playing nearly every minute of last season’s difficult campaign. Now is perhaps the time to consider deploying his captain a little more sparingly to maximise his undoubtedly devastating potential.
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