I’ve always been fascinated by the contradiction of Steven Gerrard; a man who combines the assured technical purity of a thoroughbred race horse with a hair cut usually reserved for the kind of 15 year olds that like wearing astro-turfs with jeans.
His barnet may still be the same but Gerrard seems to be experiencing a process of nuanced footballing refinement under Brendan Rodgers. It’s a process that is making his indomitable playing style, if not his sense of style, a little more modern.
The manner in which he is adapting his game to suit the new regime is encouraging for both Liverpool and England. There were some whispered fears that it might not even be possible to find room for his brand of urgent, turbo-charged physicality within a more cerebral system. Despite this he and his manager have seemingly managed to find a compromise between the two, successfully tempering his snarling, relentless influence with a more thoughtful streak.
There’s more of a duality to his game now and that is key; an attempt to totally subdue Gerrard’s natural impulse towards the visceral would have been heavy handed and counter-productive, like forcing Oliver Reed to work in a shoe shop or stuffing an angry marmoset into a cardboard box. The result of a finding a happy medium is that Gerrard continues to hunt and win the ball with feral desire, play Hollywood cross-fields of scarcely believable accuracy and generally be a balls-out force of nature, whilst simultaneously using his talents in a quieter way; to keep Liverpool’s possession football ticking over nicely.
Both sides of the coin were on show as Liverpool overcame Norwich 5-0. The more natural parts of Gerrard’s game, the parts that would be soundtracked to Ace of Spades by Motorhead in a “Best Bits” montage, are still thrilling to watch. Each time he prods the ball out his feet and arrows an outrageous pass, Anfield’s pulse quickens. In the second half he found Andre Wisdom with a ludicrous ball that travelled all of 70 yards, directly onto the impressive youngsters chest. Had the right back not followed an excellent shimmy with a skewed shot into the hoardings it would have been an improbable goal made possible thanks to a pass few others could have executed. He followed it up with a Gerrard hallmark – a shot belted low into the corner from 25 yards. It took his season’s tally to six Premier League goals and he also leads the division with eight assists, along with Juan Mata.
For all those ball striking pyrotechnics it was the way in which he controlled the game that was more impressive. He moved the ball with fluid ease, picking out Luis Suarez and Danny Sturridge in between the lines and retaining possession astutely. On a few occasions it was even noticeable that he was restraining himself, loping toward the ball with the clear intention of twatting it toward the opposite flank before thinking better of it and rolling a pass to a less distant colleague. Those moments didn’t have the air of a man being forced sulkily into compliance - instead Gerrard seemed to be making a mature and concerted effort to vary his distribution for the team, rather than seeming intent on amassing more passing yardage than the average NFL quarterback.
Admittedly Norwich did not put up the sternest resistance; Grant Holt was so lacking in service that he may as well have gone for a look around the Beatles museum – it would have definitely been a more productive way to spend an afternoon on Merseyside. Gerrard exploited the away side’s listlessness to the fullest, often finding himself in so much space it appeared he was in a different post code. There may be a way to go before Liverpool can think about the Champions League (beating a team from the top half of the table would be a start) but, by subtly shifting the emphasis of their captain’s game and freeing the sublime Luis Suarez, there is reason for cautious optimism.
There is also reason for England to think that Gerrard, perhaps the most talented English player of his generation, can readjust to better suit the modern footballing climate whilst keeping the best parts of his old school vigour at the same time. He’ll never possess the languid grace of Andrea Pirlo or scheme in small spaces like Xavi Hernadez – and nor would we want him to. Gerrard represents what is both deeply unfashionable and loveable about the English game; the rampant, blind exuberance that flies in the face of logic and statistics. Given an injection of pragmatism, as he gets older and his body slows, his considerable gifts could allow him to compete on a level with his more modish counterparts whilst retaining his own identity.
Gerrard still has a number of productive years left in his career and will, in all likelihood, still be an England starter should they make it to the World Cup in Brazil. Let’s hope that if he arrives in South America his game is comprised of the all-action deeds for which he is known and an increased appreciation of the more stately art of possession. It could be a chance for the Huyton native to stake his claim as the suave, adaptable elder statesman of English football who has kept up with the times and mellowed, becoming an even finer vintage with age.
He’d gain the kudos and cultural currency that Johnny Cash did when he became relevant again in the 21st century - but I bet you Stevie G will still use more Shockwaves wet look gel than most secondary school kids. And therein lies the beautiful contradiction of Steven George Gerrard (MBE) – supremely gifted and heroically uncool.
Jake Farrell is one third of The Heavy East Podcast which can be found here. He will be tweeting his way through a year in China via @jakefarrell7