Two - nil up and cruising, the hearts of Liverpool fans sank as Steven Gerrard limped off the pitch after tweaking his hamstring. Not that they needed captain fantastic against West Ham for any longer than he was used, but rather because Liverpool are about to endure a difficult December.
Next up for Liverpool is Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane - a ground Liverpool have not won on since 2008; after a very winnable game on paper against Cardiff, Liverpool have arduous travels to Manchester City and then to Chelsea.
Given Liverpool's weaknesses in the midfield, the last thing they would want is for their best midfielder to go missing in the most pivotal part of the season for them.
But what makes Gerrard so important to Liverpool? The usual intangibles that are used to describe Gerrard: all action midfielder, midfield general, captain fantastic (despite my ironic use of it earlier) are no longer befitting of the man. Gerrard's inability to put in a shift is partly the reason why Liverpool have been dominated on several occasions this year, relying on Suarez and Sturridge to bail them out.
So far Gerrard has attempted 54 tackles (screenshot one), this is dwarfed by Lucas's tally of 88 (screenshot two), further fueling the theory Lucas is doing all the leg work for Gerrard. Of course Lucas is a specialist defensive midfielder, but when you take into account Henderson (screenshot three) who has been deployed on the left, in the middle as an attacking midfielder and on the right has made 61 tackles, Gerrard's defensive deficiencies are exposed for all to exploit.
It does not help matters that Lucas is a wholly inefficient tackler - screenshot two shows he has a 55% unsuccessful rate when tackling, and commits many fouls.
Furthermore, Gerrard is still the best technically gifted midfielder Liverpool have (excluding Coutinho). Gerrard has created 39 key chances for Liverpool this season (Premier League high) and with that he has 6 assists, Henderson has created 26 from a more advanced position and only has 1 assist. What is even more impressive is the ease in which Gerrard can create chances.
The screenshot below shows how Gerrard is able to play the ball into dangerous areas from almost any position on the pitch. Compare this to Henderson on screenshot two who is exclusively only able to create in the center and right hand side, then you begin to see the influence Gerrard has on Liverpool from an attacking sense.
The reason why Gerrard is able to provide assists from almost anywhere on the pitch and Henderson is not is down to a massive gulf in technical ability. Gerrard has the ability to create from long passes, including crosses, corners and free-kicks as evidenced throughout the years; apart from the Fulham assist, Henderson has yet to do this on a regular basis. Gerrard also has the composure to play the ball in tighter spaces than Henderson. Finally, Gerrard has a greater vision than Henderson, something visible from the amount of forward passes the captain makes in contrast with Henderson who is guilty of one too many back-passes (screenshot three for Gerrard and four for Henderson).
I do concede without Gerrard the issue of Liverpool being over run in the middle would a thing of the past (or at least less prominent), but if Henderson is chosen to replace Gerrard, they would run the risk of doing a Man United and being totally un-creative.
To combat that I throw in Joe Allen's name into the ring. Instead of lining up in double pivot in the middle like Liverpool normally do with Lucas and Gerrard, they should in Gerrard's absence use Henderson to replace him and also add Joe Allen to line up in a 4-3-3.
There is a theory circulating the web that Gerrard's style of passing does not suit Liverpool and that due to his constant need to stretch the play with his diagonal balls, there is a risk if does not connect Liverpool will be exposed on the counter as Gerrard cannot get back in time.
Indeed there is some merit to that school of thought, Gerrard is the leading outfield player who plays the ball the longest for Liverpool with an average of 21 meters. Lucas and Henderson both average 17 meters, while Allen averages 15 meters. Given that Allen is able to pass the ball to the pass the accurately from short distances (his accuracy of 88% is only bettered by Lucas in the midfield), Liverpool will be able to keep the ball on the deck for longer periods and sustain greater possession. When they do eventually lose the ball, they will have more bodies back to defend. Even more importantly, having Allen means they have a player is able to move the ball forward almost as well as Gerrard.
Conversely, as expressed already, the trio will make Liverpool more compact. In my last match prediction between Manchester City and Southampton, I explained how City would struggle due to Southampton's rigidity, as predicted they drew 1-1. Tottenham and Chelsea also have the same problem breaking down tight teams as they both found out against Newcastle and Everton.
A switch to the trio will certainly help the reds out defensively, whether or not they can win the tough matches falls down to Luis Suarez and Coutinho.
*Statistics courtesy of Squawka.