Steven Gerrard and the art of ageing in the EPL
Steven Gerrard and the art of ageing in the EPL
Ageing is a difficult process in the Premier League. The link between mind and body fades, meaning even the division’s greatest players are subject to criticism they aren’t used to. “Growing old gracefully” is the adage, but with millions of viewers watching and nowhere to hide, this isn’t always possible for stars whose previous success is easily forgotten.
Right now, Steven Gerrard is testimony of this. He was one slip away from capturing the Holy Grail with Liverpool, a triumph which would have seen him win everything worth winning at club level. As the muscles tighten and grey hairs infiltrate his otherwise boyish mop, Gerrard has reached the crossroads few welcome at elite level: adapt or be dropped.
The most sustainable Premier League legends are those who have altered their game to minimise the pitfalls of age. Gerrard hasn’t been at his gut-busting best for some years, nor has he redefined his style to remain an essential component of Liverpool’s squad. Who, then, should he take inspiration from?
Frank Lampard stands out. Often compared to Gerrard in conversations about the division’s all-time best, Lampard’s path couldn’t be more different that of his contemporary. At the first sight of being surplus to requirements at Chelsea, Lampard moved on. A permanent transfer to New York City FC was hardly ground-breaking, but the eternal opportunist has taken advantage of his loan spell with Manchester City.
Lampard has made this possible by adapting his approach. He conserves energy, intelligently taking advantage of the limited chances handed to him in a side who are built to explode forward with intricate attacking moves. Among the cut-and-thrust of City’s play, Lampard observes. He isn’t as quick to get involved in possession as he used to be, but he picks his moment to stride forward and continues to prove clinical in front of goal.
The 36-year-old, who is two years Gerrard’s senior, has also maintained top quality because his responsibilities have been streamlined. Lampard is a weapon from the bench, someone Manuel Pellegrini turns to when an important goal is needed. Both teams and sets of supporters know this. His equaliser against Chelsea may prove to be the defining strike of the season; a moment in which Lampard delivered on his sole duty for the Etihad club. Gerrard, on the other hand, is crippled by the expectation he will contribute across all areas of the pitch whenever his boots are laced.
His all-round productivity has suffered. Gerrard has three goals and one assist in 1209 minutes in the Premier League this campaign. He averages a telling contribution every 302 minutes. Lampard has also posted three goals and an assist, but remarkably, he’s done this in a total of 233 minutes.
Defensively, Gerrard currently averages 1.9 tackles per match, less than players including Remy Cabella (2.1), Victor Moses (2.1) and equal with Erik Lamela. While meaning no disrespect to this trio, they are hardly workhorses. Gerrard’s numbers highlight a player who is easily bypassed in midfield and shackled by his inability to get forward. Like his recent displays, Gerrard’s capacity to adapt is stuck between the lines of what he is expected to do and what he should be expected to do.
Lampard’s change in style has been natural—he isn’t as quick on the turn or as likely to roam out of position—and can be considered a necessary sideways progression to sustain his career. Ryan Giggs achieved the same at Manchester United. From bombing winger to forward-thinking central midfielder, the Welshman acknowledged his diminishing physical abilities and re-evaluated how he could positively influence matches. Giggs made his name as a heads-down, knock-it-past-you livewire. By the time he retired, fans watched a sharp-eyed reader of the game who was more likely to split the defence with a pass than rely on his afterburners.
John Terry, who is proving increasingly conscious of losing races with his mark, aggressively attacks the ball before it drops to stop his lack of pace from becoming an obvious weakness for Chelsea. Such transformations are key to preserving a career at the top, where slight tweaks make a huge difference.
It doesn’t always work out so well. Rio Ferdinand relied on instinct and athletic prowess during his most dominant seasons. He was never the most intelligent decision-maker, but his speed and ability to win the ball masked bouts of sloppiness. The physical limitations of age have exposed him at QPR, justifying United’s decision to move him along. Gary Neville once admitted he knew retirement was imminent once Peter Odemwingie continued to exploit his lack of pace. Sometimes a sudden deterioration can’t be helped, but in the case of Gerrard, his best efforts won’t be enough until his role is simplified.
With that in mind, on which side is the final chapter of Gerrard’s career going to fall? It’s a question that will be partially answered by those around him. The aforementioned selection of successful veterans have been surrounded by world-class players and managers who fully believe in their ability to make a difference. It’s debateable whether Gerrard has either at Anfield.
Although Brendan Rodgers has tried his best to install alternative leaders—Jordan Henderson’s vice captaincy the most obvious attempt—Gerrard’s presence is still the signifier of Liverpool meaning business.
Rodgers’ decision not to start his captain against Real Madrid, Stoke and Sunderland underlines this. Gerrard’s benching was headline news, met with a raise of the eyebrow by many. He was “back” when he scored at Leicester and once again questioned when rested against the Black Cats. This is because he is still expected to pick his side up when things are tough by playing the all-action role. Hope was rejuvenated when he entered the field with 23 minutes remaining against Sunderland, but reality hit when the fixture finished 0-0.
Rodgers has shown guts when relegating Gerrard to a bit-part role, but greater tactical efficiency is needed to ensure the midfielder’s creaking legs aren’t the foghorn prior to his public downfall. The contradiction of Gerrard being simultaneously phased out and eyed for a one-year contract extension only serves to highlight Liverpool can’t quite let go and that he has something to offer.
At his age, Gerrard’s impact should be growing increasingly subtle and no less important. This isn’t possible until the manager pinpoints exactly how—or if—the skipper is to be used in the future.
(All statistics used in this article are provided by WhoScored.com).