On the 57 minute mark of last night's Liverpool game against Newcastle, my stepson and I were called for dinner. "No, we're watching the match," we replied in unison. "Well pause it, that's why we have Sky+" came the reply. As we grumbled to each other, the camera panned to Liverpool's bench and showed Steven Gerrard tucking his shinners into his socks. "It's ok mate," I said to a 9-year-old still beaming from wearing his long-sleeved Suarez shirt for the first time, "we've got 30 minutes of Gerrard to watch when we come back, let's just eat quickly."
To my stepson, Gerrard is Stevie G. The skipper, the Roy of the Rovers figure. He is the player he has pretended to be over and over after watching the DVDs of the 2005 Champions League final and the 2006 FA Cup final. To me, he has been all that and more, but, while he has been injured over the past calendar year, he is also the player I have worried most about. Just how good, I've wondered, can he be when he returns. Will the ankle and groin injuries have debilitated the barnstorming nature of his play? Will he able to find a role on the pitch as the aggressive preacher delivering sermons on Kenny's second coming? Will he be able to reignite Andy Carroll?
The quick answers, gained from 36 minutes of football, is no, yes and yes. Of course, it would be churlish to say that Gerrard's continued involvement will guarantee Liverpool Champions League football. He could again succumb to injury for a start, but what he did show last night is that he is still a world class footballer.
The debate about what constitutes world class reverberates in bars from Bexhill to Barcelona. To be of a high technical standard is not enough. Messi and Ronaldo are both clearly world class. They take the burden of being the best on their shoulders, lift the stadium whenever they get the ball, drag their teams out of the mire on the rare occasion all seems lost and are feted for doing so.
Steven Gerrard meets all of these qualities. You could argue that Yohann Cabaye was the best technician on the pitch last night (and also a dirty swine who nearly snapped Spearing's leg in half) but he could hardly be accused of lifting the team. When Gerrard came off the bench, Newcastle had found a groove in midfield and were up on the possession statistics. Gerrard, taking a minute to assess the situation, looked around him, saw where the likely gaps were in the Newcastle defence (inside and out both full-backs and wide of Tiote) and began to exploit them from the off, lifting the supporters and his teammates instantly.
On the face of last night, Liverpool have just signed a world-class midfielder. And he cost nothing but a round trip to Abu Dhabi.
With the exception of the draw with Manchester United, Gerrard had looked slightly off the pace in his previous cameo appearances this season. Last night, looking fit after a break in Abu Dhabi, he looked as good physically as when he scored two at Old Trafford last season. A player who has never allowed himself to be confined to tactical constraints, his lateral movement across the width of the park and ability to knit everything together ripped the ball back from Newcastle and pushed Liverpool into the ascendancy.
Too often this season Liverpool have failed to score by being all thrust and no cut. Like a 16-year-old boy losing his virginity, we've fumbled, missed, stuck it in the wrong place and have generally been far too frenetic when composure has been called for. Gerrard, whether going left to link with Bellamy or right to swing balls into Carroll, showed the players around him the values of putting your foot on the ball and sizing things up rather than just hopefully crossing the ball into the area.
Two great hallmarks of Gerrard’s game have always been his appreciation of space and his ability to time runs and ghost past players when he gets up a full-head of steam. The angles he offers in midfield make it easy for players to pass to him, safe in the knowledge that not only can they trust him in possession, but that he will have taken up whatever position as he’s thinking one or two passes ahead.
His goal, of course, was vintage Gerrard. Real class of 2005-06 stuff. Burst into the box, remain calm, pick your spot and finish perfectly. So, for now at least, that answers the question on whether he has been blunted by the surgeon’s knife. It hasn’t blunted him, but it would appear that he’s taken it and strapped it to the end of his right boot such was the quality of his final ball last night. Five or six times he delivered inch perfect balls into the areas that Andy Carroll can attack with a running leap. Although he has been poor so far this season, the service offered to him has often been one-dimensional, hit straight from a deepish angle so he has to jump from a standing start. Gerrard has the ability to bend balls in and away from the keeper with perfect weight and trajectory and, apart from wasting a great dinked pass over the top from Gerrard with heaviest touch in football history last night, Carroll was galvanized by the skipper’s introduction and looked a far more dangerous prospect.
Before the season started I wrote an article about how, at times, Liverpool looked a better team without Steven Gerrard. Other players had to step up in his absence without deferring to him. I stand by everything I said then, but it was a different team I was talking about. Kenny Dalglish has given Liverpool an identity again. Fast in possession, pressing high up the pitch, combative and together. Where in the past Gerrard would be asked to be the saviour, he last night entered a young team, who with a bit more composure in front of goal could and should be third, looking for an elder statesman, a world class talent who can cajole those around him and make the components much more than the sum of their parts.
Until he plays 10 games on the spin, the jury will rightly be out on Gerrard’s long-term fitness, but on the face of last night, Liverpool have just signed a world-class midfielder. And he cost nothing but a round trip to Abu Dhabi.
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