Coach Brendan Rodgers says Liverpool must fill void after Steven Gerrard’s departure and with Andre Ayew among the players being linked to the English side can the Ghana star replace the legend?
This article titled “Brendan Rodgers: Liverpool must fill void after Steven Gerrard’s departure” was written by Sachin Nakrani at Anfield
, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th May 2015 21.00 UTC
Shortly after Liverpool won the Champions League in Istanbul the club’s kit supplier, Reebok, brought out merchandise to commemorate what 10 years on remains one of European football’s most staggering triumphs. Among the collection was a white T-shirt that had printed on it the caption: “Hughes to Thompson, Thompson to Souness, Souness to Gerrard.”
It was a clever bit of wordplay that tied together the men who had led Liverpool to their five European Cups – Emlyn Hughes (1977, 1978), Phil Thompson (1981), Graeme Souness (1984) and Steven Gerrard (2005). Four great Liverpool players and four great Liverpool captains, and in the case of the most recent, a figure whose loss may be felt as no other at Anfield.
That certainly was the feeling as Gerrard said goodbye on Saturday evening to the stadium that has been his professional home for the past 17 years. It was a highly emotional, hugely reflective occasion but, with Liverpool beaten so comprehensively by a Crystal Palace team who scored through Jason Puncheon, Wilfried Zaha and Glenn Murray – and it could have been five or six – a cold, hard truth was laid bare for the home side: that in the post-Gerrard world they look in danger of being a team devoid of leadership and inspiration.
That sense was vocalised by the home supporters as Gerrard spoke on the pitch after the match. Surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and the manager who gave him his Liverpool debut in November 1998, Gérard Houllier, the 34-year-old was asked to assess the future of the team he was leaving behind. There came optimistic words but some were drowned out by sarcastic laughter and howls of frustration from the stands. Quite simply, many locals fear the worst now one of their own is swapping L4 for LA.
Whereas in the past the departure of players such as Hughes, Thompson and Souness and, in the modern era, Robbie Fowler, Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher, were counterbalanced by the remaining presence of figures with top-level experience, a winning track record or both, there is little such comfort for Liverpool fans now. Gerrard is not only arguably the finest player in their history but also the last link with a great and glittering past. In his absence is left, as things stand, a squad high on potential but low on proven success at Liverpool or elsewhere.
Their collective callowness was evident again. Having taken the lead through Adam Lallana’s finely taken goal, Liverpool fell apart against more vibrant and determined opponents. While in isolation their display could be excused, given most of the pre-match focus had been on Gerrard’s Anfield farewell as opposed to the actual contest with Alan Pardew’s side, this was not the first time this season fans have seen their team show a lack of fortitude.
In recent weeks crucial league fixtures have been lost to Manchester United , Arsenal and Hull City while an FA Cup semi-final was lost to Aston Villa . A season of such promise has petered away with neither Champions League qualification nor a trophy to show for a team who 12 months ago came close to winning the title. Little wonder Gerrard’s parting pep talk was met with angst.
“I can understand the supporters’ frustration,” said the manager, Brendan Rodgers. “You think about the journey they were on last year, the quality of the football they were watching. That for parts of this season hasn’t been there and as supporters you turn up wanting to see your team win and win well. Our job in the summer is to find the players who can make a difference.”
That would require a significant shift in Liverpool’s transfer strategy, which under the ownership of Fenway Sports Group has largely been based on signing young players with the capacity to develop under Rodgers’ tutelage. However, as the manager went on to intimate, what this team need following not only the departure of Gerrard but also of Luis Suárez and Carragher in the previous two seasons, is an injection of proven players, men as opposed to boys.
The absence of that at Anfield is stark. Gerrard aside, there are only nine players with five or more years of Premier League experience – and one of those is Glen Johnson, who is also leaving this summer. The others include Brad Jones, José Enrique and Kolo Touré, none of whom can be considered regular first-team options.
This is a group of players also short on trophy success, domestically as well as in Europe, and that is what makes Gerrard’s departure so striking; he is no longer the game-changing talisman of old – as was shown when he struggled to turn the tide against Palace – but he is someone with a vast bank of experience at the highest level. Liverpool’s third all-time appearance holder, sixth all-time scorer, their longest serving captain and the only player to have scored in the finals of the Champions League, Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup. Quite simply, he has been there, done that and got his name on the T-shirt.
His absence will leave a huge hole within such a raw squad – the average age of the 10 other players who started against Palace was a little under 24 – and Gerrard himself has called for more experienced heads to come in this summer. “I wouldn’t buy any more potential,” the midfielder said. “I would buy players that are ready to come and fight and be successful.”
Tom Werner’s response to that in an interview with the local media was lukewarm to say the least and it is possible any reluctance on the Liverpool chairman’s and the principal owner John Henry’s part with regard to signing players with a notable level of experience, internationally as well as domestically, is based not only on the cost that would be involved, in wages as well as fees, but on the club’s record of doing so under their ownership. Dejan Lovren, Mario Balotelli and Lallana arrived last summer with the brief of improving the team and all have struggled to varying degrees.
Yet this is also linked to Liverpool’s generally poor buying record as overseen by their rather opaque transfer committee, of which Rodgers is part and therefore must shoulder some responsibility. He has come under severe scrutiny this season and needs to show a greater level of leadership, on and off the pitch, than before at Anfield.
“We have to find the answer to that [Gerrard’s departure], he said. “We’ve got to look to kick on next season.” One definite arrival is the Belgian forward Divock Origi but, aged 20 and having competed in only two full seasons for Lille, he is another who cannot be asked to add nous immediately.
In Rodgers’ defence any team, however experienced, would struggle having sold Suárez to Barcelona and lost Daniel Sturridge to long-term injury, given the pair scored 52 league goals between them last season. Worryingly, however, no other player has come anywhere close to matching their totals this season. Gerrard, before his final Liverpool appearance at Stoke on Sunday, is the top scorer with 12. As ever he has led by example.
“Stevie will be a huge loss and it’s up to us as a team to step up and take responsibility,” said Jordan Henderson, who is likely to inherit the captaincy from Gerrard and often in his absence has looked a more commanding presence. “I feel there is a lot of potential in this group. We need to start showing that.”
For now there remains a sense of mourning around Anfield. Outsiders can mock the levels of sentimentality shown there on Saturday but the messages behind the banners in the Kop that carried Gerrard’s image and the raucous chanting of his name that spread across the ground as he embarked on a final lap of honour was as stirring as it was genuine.
For Liverpool fans Gerrard is not just a player. He is also an era, defining a period in the club’s history littered with extraordinary moments that he more often than not created through his force of personality and talent. He was not perfect – tactically flawed even – but his contribution to his boyhood club will echo through the ages. As the local author Simon Hughes put it, Gerrard “is the player that set the standard which all footballers from Liverpool are judged upon”.
It was a little after 8.30pm when Gerrard, the boy from Huyton who has grown into a man of distinction, walked away from Anfield for the final time as a player, exiting via a gate at the corner of the main stand.Into the darkness disappeared a genuine one-off.
Man of the match Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)
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