Sometimes the most comforting thing is to look away, ignore the ageing and natural decline of some of Europe’s best. Players like Xavi, who ran the engine room of one of the game’s great teams, or Andrea Pirlo, so unassuming amid the chaos of a modern day football pitch, yet so perfect that England still swoons rather than shudders at the thought of that Euro 2012 clash against Italy.
These players, the best in their respective fields by quite some distance – experience and medals amassed being prime factors alongside ability – prolong their stay at the top through their adaptability, their acceptance of declining powers, yet with enough coolness to mask it and continue to be driving forces in the game.
Steven Gerrard is no different. One of England’s leading faces in the country’s best and most memorable contributions to the game in the modern era: that Champions League second half in Istanbul; the FA Cup final against West Ham the following year. The Liverpool captain was in danger of being washed away under the current of Brendan Rodgers’ youth movement, following purchases for Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and the watershed season Jordan Henderson is experiencing.
No longer is Gerrard the free-roaming, free-scoring playmaker bundled into the fury of a box-to-box midfielder. It’s no longer 2008, when Gerrard worked so wonderfully well with Fernando Torres in Liverpool’s attack, protected by the discipline of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso.
Instead, at 33, Gerrard – and surely with the aid of Rodgers – has reinvented himself as something of a pivot in Liverpool’s midfield. With age has come the discipline to sit, the wisdom to intercept and break up opposition play, the acceptance that although he can’t feature as regularly in the final third as he used to, he can still use that at times masterful stroke of a right boot to initiate scoring opportunities for those with the legs to play effectively in Rodgers’ system.
Before, the argument was that in his declining years Gerrard would still be of great value to Liverpool, but predominantly behind the scenes in the dressing room, where he would be the bridge between the players and the manager. But this is a new Gerrard who looks to be defying age to ensure he still has a place in what looks to be a bright future for the club. As much as from a tactical perspective, it’s also the preservation of a midfielder who still has a lot to offer at the highest level.
Xavi is 34 and, provided injuries and fitness are kind to him, will patrol the midfield for Spain in the upcoming World Cup alongside Xabi Alonso, 32. Andrea Pirlo, like Alonso at Real Madrid, has recently been offered an extension to his contract at Juventus; the Bianconeri are mindful of not slipping up where Milan did.
Importantly, those players are protected by the position they occupy on the pitch. They’re not out-and-out defensive midfielders, though they’ve each played in the position at various points in their careers. But instead, ‘registas’ use their intelligence to compensate for a lack of movement, at least in comparison to those around them. They know how to be economical with what they have.
Even at 33, Gerrard is learning, taking on the values of those who are famed for holding that position in European football.
It’s been a giant leap for Liverpool this season, seeing out the adversity that greeted them at the door of the new campaign. Among the triumphs, and no matter how small, has been the discovery of where Gerrard will be of value in the coming seasons.