Gerrard taking step back in final phase of career
Necessity is the mother of reinvention for Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard.
Once the marauding centre-midfielder, he is now primed for a deeper role, with his manager Brendan Rodgers arguing that his career at the highest level will be prolonged by curbing his attacking instincts.
Gerrard has known this was coming and it appears initial resistance has given way to pragmatism. It was only 18 months ago he insisted it was too soon "to think about the Paul Scholes role", but having spent his Anfield career making personal sacrifices for the greater good of Liverpool, there is a natural symmetry that his latter years will go the same way.
It was during Liverpool's pre-season tour of Boston, in the aftermath of Euro 2012, that it was suggested his future for club and country lay in mirroring the midfield management Andrea Pirlo had mastered for Italy a few weeks earlier. This was met with a brisk response.
"I know what you want me to say," he interrupted, seeing the theme coming. "You want me to sit here and say that I can't play the same way any more, that I have to control the game from deep and play a slower game. It's not happening, not yet. Maybe as we work through the ages, maybe 33 or 34, then I might be dropping a bit deeper."
If a week is a long time in football, a season is a different dimension. Now he is 33, Gerrard is going there. Enthusiastically.
Rodgers utilised his captain in the position for 45 minutes against Oldham in the FA Cup, but it was more noteworthy when he did so at Stoke last weekend. The timing is significant because it followed Gerrard's enforced spell out of the side over Christmas when Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson excelled alongside Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling in the advanced midfield positions.
There was an anxiety when Gerrard missed fixtures away to Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea -- justifiable given Liverpool lost two of those three -- but the performances at White Hart Lane and the Etihad were full of energy, vigour and pressing of defenders in the final the third.
The primary weakness without Gerrard was in front of the defence, with Chelsea and City's ability to break rapidly punishing the advancing midfield.
Now Rodgers wants to make Gerrard a permanent anchor, the disciplinarian who will protect the back four while setting the passing tempo yet still contributing assists and occasional goals. If there is a weakness in this Liverpool side -- one that pre-dates Rodgers' arrival -- it is the reliance on defensive midfielders with limited capacities.
Moving Gerrard further back makes the side more balanced, particularly as fit-again Daniel Sturridge needs to be accommodated.
Gerrard was right to be suspicious of any urge to tweak his game 18 months ago. He would have looked around the squad and felt he was still the best attacking midfielder at the club.
Rodgers' decision is not only a tribute to Gerrard's versatility, but also recognition of the growing capabilities of Henderson and the greater effectiveness of the pattern of play. The reservations have gone.
"It is a position that I know excites him," says Rodgers. "I always look at every player, not only in terms of their favourite position, but where else can we prolong them? That applies especially to older players.
"It's not as simple as putting him back into that role because he's Steven Gerrard; it's because I think he's got the qualities to play and operate in that position at a very high level.
"Everything about his game fits with that controlling player; from how he co-ordinates a team with the ball, his range of passing, he is a world-class dead-ball specialist, and physically, in that role where you need to move from side to side to block spaces, he has shown he has got that as well.
"Tactically, once he does more work on when to become the third man dropping in or pushing on, he's got a great chance of playing that role to the level of a Pirlo or a Zanetti. They did it until late in their 30s and because of the way Stevie looks after himself, that is a position he can play for sure.
"In my work the reliance isn't just on one player, it's on the team. He has seen the development of the team in terms of the number of goals scored and there is not the reliance on him for that.
"He has other big qualities that can really help the team and help his career."
There are plentiful examples of dynamic, attacking midfielders withdrawing to set up camp in their own half.
Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs mastered it at Old Trafford. If Gerrard is as successful, Roy Hodgson will reap the rewards as much as Rodgers. The England captain is already playing in a more withdrawn role for his country, but weekly practice will bring expertise, and England's most gifted passer of the ball will be in position to enable his side to retain possession -- essential if England have any hope in Brazil.
Two years ago, Gerrard looked upon the request to fulfil this task with a sense of trepidation, as if he feared the call of time. "They will do that one day, they'll come to me and say, 'you might need to adapt your game'," he said. "But it hasn't come to that yet."
The final phase of Gerrard's career has now begun, but only as a means of ensuring its end remains many years in the distance. (© Daily Telegraph, London)