After missing Liverpool’s past six games, Steven Gerrard is ready to return to the side for Sunday’s Cup quarter-final against Blackburn Rovers. But should he be in the team?
Brendan Rodgers has not been slow to express thoughts about his captain’s possible comeback that would have once seemed heretical.
“There is no one in the squad who has a God-given right to walk straight into the team,” the manager said. Even though it is his swan song season at Anfield and the club and their fans are hoping for a fitting finale at Wembley in May on Gerrard’s birthday, Rodgers is insistent that almost uniquely the Reds’ talisman will not necessarily be rushed back.
And the reason for once, is born of confidence not caution. Liverpool have played 28 Premier League matches this season – 22 with Gerrard and six without him – and have fared better when he has been absent, winning all six.
That 100 per cent win record compares with 40.90% in the 22 matches he has played and the central midfield pairing of Jordan Henderson and Lucas in the first three and Henderson and Joe Allen in the other three have contributed to a higher goals per game ratio (2.3 compared with 1.3), a lower goals per game conceded ratio (0.3 to 1.3) and, counterintuitively for those who consider Gerrard guilty of impulsiveness, more shots per game (12.3 to 10.7).
Some of this may be a mixture of coincidence and confidence that gathers momentum as a long unbeaten run progresses, but the opponents defeated without Gerrard – Swansea City, Aston Villa, West Ham, Southampton, Manchester City and Burnley – are not to be sniffed at.
However, not all statistics point to an improvement - possession is down from 55.6% to 52.3% and crosses from 11.6 per game to 6.3.
If we compare the last three Premier League wins without Gerrard – over Southampton, Manchester City and Burnley – with the previous 24, those who consider Henderson is flourishing without Gerrard and ready to assume the mantle would find the statistics a little contradictory.
His shooting accuracy has improved from one in three on target to one in two and his goals per game has rocketed from one in 12 to two in three but the pass completion is roughly the same, the dribbling has deteriorated and the rate of tackles won is down from 71.19% to 50%.
Rodgers is adamant that headlines proclaiming Henderson the ‘new Gerrard’ are not premature but disingenuous. "Jordan is a young guy who is a wonderful talent but a different type of player. Steven is one of the greats of the game, with all respect,” he said. “Because he takes a corner and Steven Gerrard takes a corner it doesn't mean he is the new Steven Gerrard.
"Because of he shoots from outside the box it doesn't mean he is the new Steven Gerrard. He is Jordan Henderson and he is creating his own career and headlines.
"His stature as a footballer is certainly growing all the time and that is because of his performance level. He assists goals, he scores goals, and for me he is just improving every single day. His tactical understanding of systems is developing and he will go on over the next few years.”
Nonetheless, Rodgers is facing a dilemma - Gerrard has a maximum of 10 league games left in his Anfield career and possible quarter- semi- and final FA Cup ties. He would undoubtedly want to play in all of them but given that Liverpool are thriving in his absence he may have to be uncommonly patient.
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