By Kevin Koczwara
It’s weird to think that Steven Gerrard is reaching the twilight of his career — and yes, he is. The Liverpool captain isn’t a young man who can bomb back and forth from box-to-box anymore. But he is still the heartbeat and the pulse of the team and having him in the lineup or on the bench on any week makes this Liverpool team more dynamic, and a bigger threat to push for a top-four finish because he can still will the Reds to victory.
Against Brighton and Hove Albion, Gerrard received a warm welcome from the home support while warming up. It may have been just a League Cup match, but the return to action for Gerrard ends a hellish six months of injuries. Yet, the return isn’t complete because Gerrard still isn’t match fit and he is now, sadly, getting up there in age and it’s time Liverpool starts monitoring his playing time and his fitness closer than every before.
“Steve coming back in was fantastic for everyone coming at the football club, but we are more pleased for Steven than anyone else. He had a few setbacks along the way and we have had to manage it to get him this far. We need to be careful and we won’t get carried away – but it’s great for everyone,” Kenny Dalgish told the Guardian after Liverpool’s 2-1 win, cementing the point that Gerrard may be this team’s leader, but it’s important the team not exhaust or aggravate a treacherous and chronic groin injury.
On May 30, Gerrard turned 31, and with all the miles on his legs after carrying such a heavy load in recent seasons, it’s will come as no surprise to see him being monitored by Dalglish and company. Gerrard is the type of player who can still take over a game, but he can’t try to do it every week as he has had to do in the past. Gerrard still has plenty of games left in him, but it’s time to get the best from him when he plays instead of forcing him to carry the burden week in and out. This Liverpool side has the reinforcements it lacked so dearly in past years, and that will keep Gerrard in the picture longer, giving him a chance to play at the top of his game more often.
With 546 appearances and 140 goals for the club, Gerrard has cemented himself as one of the most reliable midfielders for any club in the modern era. He’s among the club’s legends after brilliant performances in the 2005 Champions League Final, the 2006 FA Cup and the 2008-09 season — he scored a career best 24 goals in league play. But the allusive Premier League trophy looks to be closer than ever with the return of Kenny Dalglish and a rejuvenated squad around him. There is only a slight problem for the talismanic midfielder: He might be asked to play a more limited role this season with all the midfield cover available to Dalglish on any given week.
“He’s missed an awful lot of football through injury so he’s done brilliant to get where he is. We will just continue in the intelligent manner that we have done. We can look forward to him getting even fitter. There will be no timescale or programme [program], we’ll just take it as it comes,” Dalglish told the Guardian.
Gerrard has missed the last six months with a pesky groin injury that keeps coming and refusing to go. Groin injuries are like hamstrings, they can kill a career and continue to creep up if they’re not dealt with and handled properly, and at 30, Gerrard isn’t a spry young boy anymore who can bounce back from injuries. He’s hitting the point in his career when injuries linger and his muscles don’t recover on their own as easily anymore. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs of Manchester United and Andrea Pirlo formerly of AC Milan and now Juventus, were all able to hold on and continue their careers because they’re minutes were watched closely and their bodies monitored under a microscope, and it paid off. Raul is still playing at a high level in Germany — after moving from Real Madrid — because his time was controlled closer as he aged. Dalglish and the rest of the Liverpool club need to look at those cases and watch how and where Gerrerd plays. He is the focal point of the club and the captain, but that doesn’t mean he needs to play every game and play a full 90 minutes each night out. His groin injury could come up again, and next time it could be the last time he plays at the kind of level fans and the team have come to expect, and no one wants to see that happen.
When Gerrard came on for Luis Saurez on Wednesday for Liverpool’s League Cup match, the team perked up again and went for it’s second, and eventual game winner. Dirk Kuyt finished off the chance and with it, the hopes for Brighton and Hove Albion. Liverpool was able to regain control of the midfield with Gerrard’s presence next to Jay Spearing and Lucas, as they had lost much of the battle in the second half. Gerrard then did what he does best and led by example. The captain blocked a shot from distance with his face and then proceeded to clear one cross after the other from the box, tracking back and defending set pieces. He set the tempo out of the back with his passing and range of movement. He began to lead, which is what this team needs right now, a leader to pick it up when times are getting tough.
Hopefully for Liverpool, Gerrard can stay healthy and provide that extra lift, that extra muscle and extra heart in the midfield. Dalglish would have killed for that kind of leadership on Sunday as Liverpool got trounced under Tottenham’s wake. And that’s what mighty Stevie G can provide in big games, but don’t expect it from him week in and week out. He’s too vital to the long-term cause to lose focus and lose him for another extended period of time.