Steven Gerrard’s situation at Liverpool is an interesting one.
The 31-year-old central midfielder remains the central figure of everything good at the club, both on-and-off the field.
But, as the England international has gotten older, injuries have appeared to take a greater hold on the player, affecting both his minutes on the pitch and ability to perform in stereotypical fashion.
At his best as a box-to-box midfield full of energy, Gerrard was able to play a defence-splitting pass in one moment, and then make a superb sliding tackle to stop the opposition from advancing into his own team’s box.
But the problem now is that he’s simply been prevented from doing that, with just 21 and 14 appearances in the last two season because of continuous niggling injuries.
A groin problem curtailed the 2010/11 season, and then proved his downfall at the start of the current campaign, as the Whiston-born midfielder took longer to recover than expected.
An ankle infection followed, putting Gerrard back on the sidelines and out of the action. It’s raised major fears over what he might be able to do in the years to come under Kenny Dalglish, and Reds legend Graeme Souness believes a change in style-of-play is needed.
"You hope Steven Gerrard comes back fit next year because he has carried this football club for six or seven years," the Scot is quoted as saying on SkySports.
"He is their one 'worldy' and can make the difference in the big games. He would have got in any team that the club has produced and bobbles on being irreplaceable. Maybe he is just on a downward slope now. I hope I'm wrong, but I think injuries are starting to play a part, which happens when you get to certain age.
"He is a player that plays with great athleticism and bursts of energy and as you get older that's when you damage your muscles. Maybe he will have to alter his game and be a sitter, a holding midfielder, in the future and not burst forward into the box and get goals."
Gerrard strikes you as a player who loves to prove critics wrong, and he’ll be eager to show a club legend like Souness that he still has plenty left in the tank. Should he play 30+ games in the top flight next season, we’ll know these past two years have just been a blip.
If things aren’t quite what they used to be though, and Gerrard does have to adapt his game, he can take heart from the success of Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United this season.
After a shaky start to the campaign, fears were beginning to grow over the England defender’s ability to perform at the Premier League level, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitting he would have to adapt his game to fit in at Old Trafford.
“What has changed for Rio is that he has lost that electric yard of pace that he had a few years ago and so he needs to rearrange his game a little bit,” noted Ferguson.
“He is almost 33 and when you arrive in your 30s you have to tailor your game in a different way.”
Ferdinand has been able to make subtle changes to his game, and following Nemanja Vidic’s injury early in the season, has played more than maybe even he expected. Focusing on distribution and positioning rather than speed to get an advantage over attackers, the former West Ham youngster has been able to make a positive impact alongside some in-experienced heads for the Red Devils.
That’s a similar position that Gerrard could find himself in next season, with Jonjo Shelvey, Jordan Henderson, Jay Spearing and Raheem Sterling all looking to push further into the first-team fold on Merseyside.
They will be looking to an experienced head, an icon of the club who could help them take their own game to the next level. And, whilst Gerrard has previously led through example, he might have to use some of his other attributes to make the big difference.
It’s something Frank Lampard might also have to consider in the coming years at Chelsea, as age starts to get the better of England’s golden generation of players.
At 33, the midfielder has defied the critics in the later stages of the current campaign, proving his worth at Stamford Bridge after Andre Villas-Boas had cast him aside.
However, he can’t go on forever, and will need to tailor his game to suit the needs of the Blues in the Premier League. This could be, as Souness suggested for Gerrard, in the form of a holding midfield role.
An ability to adapt style can’t be underestimated, and isn’t something that every player will be able to achieve after such a long period playing a specific way or in a set position.
For midfielders like Gerrard and Lampard, the task is even more difficult because they’ve made a career out of playing a specific way, and people expect them to continue on that same path forever.
However, the very best players will always have that extra ability to make a difference in whatever role they are asked to play, and Gerrard certainly fits into that category.
Expect another big season from the midfielder next term.
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