Remember the passing wheel for Lucas posted two weeks ago? That was fun. Let's do that for Gerrard against West Ham last Sunday. We've got some time to kill before previewing the United match.
The word of the day is "more." More total passes, more ambitious passes, more incomplete passes, more sideways passes, and more backwards passes. Which makes sense given that Gerrard spends far more time on the ball than Lucas does. That's his role in the side. Gerrard attempted at least 10 passes longer than any Lucas tried against Wigan. Again, that's just how he plays.
There's a lot more red on Gerrard's chart, but it's easily explainable. More incomplete passes and more sideways/backwards passes are expected in a freer role and higher up the pitch. And West Ham were happy to pack their half of the pitch, especially after going ahead. Compare the actual chalkboard of Gerrard's performance to Lucas' against Wigan. Where the passes take place is fairly important, among other caveats that these snapshots don't come close to explaining everything. Simply put, Gerrard is asked to play a different role, no matter the formation.
But we can compare this performance to some of his past games. How about against the same opposition last season? Liverpool played 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard behind Torres, and won 3-2 in a back-and forth game. Or a match earlier this season, such as the 1-3 loss at Blackburn – Hodgson's final outing. Like Sunday's match, Liverpool were second-best and had to chase the game away from Anfield. As against West Ham this season, he was paired with Lucas in central midfield, albeit in an orthodox 4-4-2.
Here are the actual chalkboards: West Ham '09-10 and Blackburn. Corners aren't included in these wheels for obvious reasons. Gerrard didn't take any on Sunday, but took five (three successful, two unsuccessful) against Blackburn and two (both unsuccessful) against the Hammers last season.
The wheel from last year's match against West Ham demonstrates how Gerrard alters his game when playing as an attacking midfielder/second striker. Most notably, he attempted fewer passes and had far fewer incomplete. More passes in the 4th quadrant shows how he needed to hold up play and bring midfielders into the attack. There are still the usual long-range Hollywood attempts – one successful and three unsuccessful – but fewer than against West Ham this season or Blackburn.
There are a couple of similarities between his output last Sunday and the January match against Blackburn. The wheel appears flattened, a symptom of Blackburn's heavy pressing until going three up just before the hour mark, and Gerrard favored different halves of the pitch in each match (left against West Ham and right against Blackburn), but the total number of passes and percent completed are almost identical. Gerrard's completion percent against West Ham was 66.2%. It was 67.2% against Blackburn. Incidentally, it was 74.6% when playing behind Torres against West Ham last season.
There are examples of Gerrard playing well as a central midfielder, even from this season. Two that immediately spring to mind are the 2-3 loss against United and the 2-0 home victory over Chelsea. But those examples are increasingly few and far between. It's the age old debate. What's Gerrard's best position? And more importantly, what position is best for the team?
Noel from Liverpool Offside wrote a couple of posts on the subject following Sunday's loss, including a poll asking where people think he should play. Last I checked, attacking midfielder was running away with the vote, with 59% compared to 20.5% for central midfielder.
We still don't know what Liverpool's formation will be once everyone (read: Carroll) is fit. Whether three at the back becomes standard fare, Liverpool shifts to 4-3-3, or uses some variation of 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. We've seen them all since Dalglish took the reins. The plan will undoubtedly change over the summer when Liverpool gets a chance to upgrade the shallow squad.
But questions about whether Gerrard in central midfield is best for Liverpool have been asked for more than five years. I doubt they're going away anytime soon.