Why Steven Gerrard Should Have Ended His Career Emulating Totti, Not Pirlo.
When the greatest players of a generation decide to call it a day, there’s sometimes a question of “what if?”
Some players complete football as if it were a video game: winning titles, enjoying international success, and reaching the heights expected of them; whereas others leave you wanting more, especially when they fail to win the honours and accolades their careers deserve.
This was especially true of Steven Gerrard, who retired having never won a league championship and spent his entire career at one club despite interest from others.
But even without the league titles, Gerrard enjoyed a hugely successful career, and at one point he was up there with the best players in the world.
In his prime there were no players with his combination of dynamism, skill, physicality, and mental steel. In 2005, when he was instrumental in Liverpool’s unlikely Champions League triumph, he was voted the third best player in the world, receiving the Ballon d’Or bronze award.
This world class quality makes the lack of league titles all the more frustrating, and that he came so close to that elusive Premier League winners medal during the 2013/14 seasons raises even more “what ifs”.
There’s no doubt Liverpool should have won the league that season. The position they put themselves in was the strongest the club had been in during the Premier League era. In Luis Suarez they had a player who, if not for a history of unsavoury incidents, would be considered one of the best in the world.
In Raheem Sterling they had the most promising English player around, and in Daniel Sturridge they had one of the most natural goalscorers ever seen at a club who haven’t done bad for natural goalscorers.
The team scored over 100 goals, but it was the 50 they conceded which saw them miss out on the title by two points.
During that season Gerrard was asked to play a deeper role in front of the back four. Throughout his career the Liverpool captain’s best football had come from more unorthodox positions, and especially from behind the striker during the Fernando Torres era.
Gerrard was a final product player, whether this be scoring, assisting or making things happen through strength of will, his end product was a strength until his final game.
As players age they often get moved into less taxing roles. These can be in attacking positions a la Francesco Totti, or in a deeper lying Andrea Pirlo style position.
The then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers chose the latter for Gerrard, and in hindsight it was the wrong decision. Not just because of that fateful fall to the ground against Chelsea, but because playing Gerrard there gave him defensive responsibility he could have done without.
Gerrard couldn’t be Pirlo because he didn’t have the quality around him to do the defensive work. He kept his attacking side of the bargain, but his goals and assists weren’t a result of his shift to a deeper role.
11 of his 13 assists came from set pieces, and 12 of his 13 goals came from dead ball situations (10 penalties, 2 free kicks. The other was a header from a corner). In other words his attacking output in 2013/14 was nothing to do with his deep lying position, and he would have had the same output from any other place on the pitch.
In fact, he could have been even more prolific had be been stationed further forward, closer to the Totti role.
The question would then be who he’d have replaced, but given a combination of injury, rotation, and tactical manoeuvring, Gerrard could have easily found a place around one or even two prolific strikers.
The problem then would be that Liverpool had no real defensive midfielder. Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson couldn’t play the position to the required standard, and looked even worse when paired in a double pivot.
The real reason Liverpool didn’t win the league that season was because they didn’t have a player who could protect the back four, and they still don’t.
Gerrard’s final game was another where he was let down by those around him but still managed to show a glimpse of his individual class.
Liverpool lost the game at Stoke by 6 (six) goals to 1, but when he got on the end of Rickie Lambert’s flicked header the No 8 was able to finish low into the corner past Asmir Begovic.
It showed he could still cut it in those positions and could maybe have prolonged his career at a higher level operating in them, but by this time he was already on his way to LA Galaxy who, bafflingly, decided to deploy him in the same deeper lying central midfield position, more often than not.
His 10 games for Galaxy in more advanced positions produced two goals and eight assists, but he was still shoehorned into a deeper role for most of his time there.
The player was blamed for many things in his final few seasons in Liverpool and Los Angeles, not least the slip vs Chelsea, but also LA Galaxy’s lack of silverware in the two seasons he was there.
Maybe Gerrard wanted to end his playing days as a deep lying playmaker, but along the way a pause to take stock of where his true natural talents lay, beyond the physical prowess he once had, may have come to the conclusion that he was Totti, and not Pirlo.