In the first half of Liverpool’s weekend match against Tottenham, Steven Gerrard, the captain, the club legend, the very embodiment of the club’s modern spirit, gave the ball away, by my count, 7 times. Two were from his famous (now infamous?) ‘Hollywood’ passes, a couple of sweeping diagonal balls, that both went badly astray. You could see what the ex-England skipper wanted to do, so could all of his team mates, but both times the ball either had too much behind it, or not enough. Another two were poorly executed passes of the shorter variety, simple passes misplaced under relatively little pressure. Another two errors were the result of Gerrard dithering a little too long on the ball, moments of indecision from which only a scuffed succession of possession could eventuate. The last give-away was direct from a free kick taken near the halfway line, an embarrassingly poor attempt at a short free kick right at the end of the first half. In spite of his team’s 1-0 lead, it was a bad first half from the Liverpool captain. He was apparently carrying an injury, though obviously nothing serious enough to keep him out of the starting line up, or force his substitution in the second half.
Those who have watched Liverpool with a keen, objective eye will not be overly surprised. It’s hardly a revelation; Gerrard has slowly but surely been devolving into a less effective Premier League player. He moved last season into a much more reserved position, playing much deeper with a brief to collect from the centre backs and distribute to the younger, more energetic attackers. This has helped disguise his marked loss of pace and mobility which, although not especially essential for a deep-lying play maker (just look at Andrea Pirlo), is always handy to have. A moment in that first half against Tottenham exposed this loss of athelticism; Christian Eriksen collected the ball, turned, and with one basic hip-swivel completely shook off Gerrard, who had committed to one side and was unable to correct himself when Eriksen swerved the other way. It wasn’t a dazzling piece of skill that would bamboozle even the most athletic of defenders. It was a simple change in direction, and you could almost hear Gerrard’s joints grinding and clanking like a weathered iron golem as he shuddered and Eriksen scampered away.
Don’t get me wrong, Gerrard isn’t utterly devoid of worth on the pitch for Liverpool. When not required to act quickly, his positional play is generally good. He is still an immaculate dead-ball striker, still able to swoop the ball right into that critical spot in the opposition penalty area, the very pit of a centre back’s fears. He can still, as we saw against Tottenham, slot home a penalty as well as anyone in the world. He provides something less measurable as well; the role he plays as motivator, organiser and mentor, and a symbol of inspiration for what is otherwise a fairly young and inexperienced team. One must assume this is extremely important, even if you can’t quantify exactly how much an effect such a role has. Maybe this alone justifies his place in the match day squad. But make no mistake, the running and dynamism of Liverpool’s midfield comes from Jordan Henderson, not Gerrard.
A lot of Liverpool fans have been harbouring sweaty, ugly fears that Gerrard’s legs are gone, and they’re not coming back. For a player who made his career muscularly charging forwards, bustling his way through scattered opponents to smash howitzers into the various corners of the goal, this loss must be a harrowing by-product of age. It’s of course tempting to point to Gerrard’s catastrophic slip that now stands as the symbol of Liverpool’s failed title challenge as the key piece of evidence testifying to his diminishing value, but it would be a cheap exploitation of what must have been a torturous personal moment. That was an error, the kind that every player makes in every game. Bad luck, not telling confirmation. Still, physical errors, like that one against Chelsea, and the ones against Tottenham, will creep further into the forefront of Gerrard’s game as time passes. If he is to play in the space in front of the back four, patrolling the areas where all the nifty No. 10’s like to flit, his immobility will become a more and more visible issue. David Silva was allowed far too much space in that very area during Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Liverpool, and the way he flourished in it set the defending champions on their way to a comfortable victory.
Gerrard was better in the second half against Tottenham and Liverpool won the game at a canter, doing something they will do often this season, covering up the physical shortcomings of their captain. He will have excellent games for the Reds this season, where his passing is spot on and the moments of heaving inadequacy are few. But one perfect Hollywood pass shouldn’t conceal the three misplaced ones. The fear is that because Gerrard is so beloved by the club and the fans, his presence in the starting line up might accidentally start to hurt more than it helps.