It’s the end of an era.
Today, Steven Gerrard announced that he is to leave Liverpool when his contract expires at the end of the season, ending a 26-year association with Liverpool. He also announced that he won’t be going to a league where he may have to play against Liverpool, with MLS being his most likely destination, and the strong rumours in Liverpool are that he’s already agreed a contract with LA Galaxy.
Gerrard was offered a contract by Liverpool, but decided, at the age of 34, he wanted one last challenge, plus he didn’t want to spend the last few years of his career, however long that may be, as a substitute or a bit-part player, which is what he has become at Liverpool.
Make no mistake, Gerrard may not be anywhere near the same force he once was for Liverpool, but his departure will still be an extremely sad occasion and his loss will be keenly felt amongst Liverpool players and fans.
Many Liverpool current and ex-players have hailed Gerrard as the club’s greatest ever player. While no-one can say with certainty if that’s true or not, the fact that nobody thinks it’s wrong that Gerrard should be in the conversation speaks volumes about how he’s regarded by everyone connected with Liverpool.
Gerrard is currently third on Liverpool’s all-time appearances list; before the end of the season Gerrard will pass 700 games for Liverpool. Add to that the fact that he is four goals away from becoming the fifth all-time top scorer for Liverpool. He’s also won 116 England caps, and been to three World Cups, and would have made more Liverpool and England appearances if not for injury.
But numbers like that don’t come close to doing Gerrard justice. For years he was Liverpool’s talisman and their best player. At one point you could have made a real case for him being the best player in the world. He was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder, equally capable of making a goal-saving tackle as he was of scoring from 30 yards. He had a tremendous range of passing in an era where English midfielders were more ball-winners than ball-players.
I’ve seen him carry the team on his back on several occasions. I’ve seen him put in performances so masterful that he’s been given a standing ovation by the opposition fans. Just a few years ago I was there when he came off the bench when Liverpool were 0-1 down to Napoli, single-handedly turn the game around and score a hat-trick to ensure a Liverpool win.
Gerrard came through on the big occasions too. He is the only English player to have scored in the final of the League Cup, the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League) and the Champions League.
However, despite how good a player Steven Gerrard has been and how sad it will be to see him go, there’s a sense that the time is right for Liverpool and Gerrard to part ways.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Steven Gerrard. It’s been obvious for the past few seasons that Gerrard is rapidly declining as a player, as his pace and mobility have started to desert him. Gerrard was an exceptional player who in the last few years has become merely ordinary.
Where Gerrard used to be at the centre of Liverpool’s attacking, he’s now become more of a hindrance as he can’t play the quick-passing game Brendan Rodgers likes his teams to play. His goals from open play have dried up; even when Liverpool were scoring goals for fun last season, Gerrard only managed one from open play.
Whereas Gerrard used to be a force in defence, he’s now become the weak link that opposing teams target as they know he can be easily passed around or ran past. Many of Liverpool’s defensive problems this season lie in the poor performance of the midfield in front of them, a problem which seems all the worse when Gerrard plays.
Brendan Rodgers has tried to manage his decline, trying Gerrard out in a number of different positions and midfield roles as well as resting Gerrard in order to try and get something out of his final years as a player. Gerrard had some success playing as a regista last season, but teams worked out quite quickly how to shut him down.
This season, apart from a few fleeting moments, Gerrard’s positive contributions to the team have been minimal. He’s no longer able to play every game, and the frustration at his performances in the games he has played has been written all over his face.
Perhaps there’s something of a mental hangover as a result of the slip which in all likelihood cost Liverpool the league and Gerrard the chance to win the only medal missing from his collection. More likely it’s the realisation that the things that used to come easily to him are difficult now, and there may be an overriding sense that he feels unable to contribute to the Liverpool team the way he once was. There may even be a sense that instead of being the answer to Liverpool’s problems as he once was, he may be the cause of some of them.
That’s not to say Gerrard is finished as a player. Far from it. Wherever he ends up going to, be it a club in MLS, (as looks likely), or anywhere else, he can still contribute and be an asset to that team.
He can still complete the sort of passes that other players wouldn’t even try in the first place. He can still be deadly from set-pieces and the penalty spot. Put Gerrard in a role where he can sit deep, pick passes, let the ball do the work and there are other players who can do the running for him in midfield and he’ll be fine.
He also won’t go to his next club and look at it only as his last big payday before retirement. He still possesses a fierce will to win and the ability to instil that into others. He’ll bring leadership and some considerable experience to whoever he signs for. It’s certainly not out of the question that his long and successful career may have an Indian summer left in it.
It was right that Liverpool offered Gerrard a new contract. He has earned the right to go out as a player on his own terms. If he had chosen to stay at Liverpool, his role would have been reduced, but there still would have been a role for him, much like there was for Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United. He’s still got a lot to offer in terms of leadership and influence, and while replacing him on the pitch may not be too difficult for Liverpool, replacing what Gerrard brings to the team off the pitch will be.
But sadly, it’s also probably right that Gerrard turned that contract down and announced he’ll leave at the end of the season. His influence on the pitch in a Liverpool shirt has diminished and in many ways it’ll be nice to see him enjoy the last few years of his career rather than see him continuing to struggle, as he has been recently.
Steven Gerrard will leave at the end of the season, but the memories of his performances in a Liverpool shirt will live on for a long, long time.