Analysis: Steven Gerrard returns in deeper role to fire Liverpool hopes of a Premier League title
Captain was instrumental in 5-3 victory over Stoke City
The headlines, inevitably, where claimed by the restored partnership at the point of the Liverpool attack. Luis Suarez is a lethal predator in any company, as 22 goals in 16 games suggests, yet is even more effective when aligned with the twinkling toes of Daniel Sturridge.
While Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was thrilled to deploy the Kop SAS for the first time since November in the 5-3 win over Stoke on Sunday, he was equally grateful to have at the heart of the piece his captain, Steven Gerrard, making his first league start since the first week of last month.
Gerrard is no longer the marauding presence of yore. He is more measured and in this phase of his career a deeper thinker by virtue of his increasing deployment in front of the back four. As compelling as Liverpool can be going forward, they remain vulnerable, particularly away from home, to the exertions of irreverent teams full of aggressive intent.
Mark Hughes has reset the parameters at the Britannia. Stoke have acquired a liking for the ball to go with the muscle and bustle of old regimes. They edged possession and on another day, perhaps the visit of Manchester United on 1 February, might have claimed a greater reward for their invention. When the storm was at its height, it was Gerrard who set the example, throwing himself into contact; blocking, tackling, heading, even lumping the ball clear.
Over the length and breadth of a marvellous career and in the context of the club for which he has devoted every second of it, it seems plain wrong that he might end his days without the bauble that more than any other substantiates a CV, a championship medal. If club and player are to settle that score then Gerrard deployed deep appears as vital a part of Rodgers' grand design as the Suarez/Sturridge axis.
"He is someone that fits the profile of that role," said Rodgers. "He does it with England. In the period he was out we had real success playing with a controlling player with two guys pressing. I just feel with him in that position it is perfect for him.
"One, he has the personality to play it. You need someone who can get on the ball. He gives us great variety with his passing. There were a couple of times [at Stoke] where he opened the game up for us with his vision and quality.
"I also thought he showed great leadership as well. He was sliding in, blocking the line of passes, he was dropping in, making headers. I have spoken to him a lot about the role at this stage of his career. It is all about the timing really, when to put him in there. We saw [against Stoke] here that he can play it really, really well."
At 33 age is the issue, not so much his date of birth but miles on the clock. Gerrard has run a lot of miles in the service of Liverpool, mostly in the talisman role. His hamstrings and groins need careful management.
Two things are in his and the club's favour as they continue the pursuit of a first title in 24 years; the development of Jordan Henderson to share the central burden and the absence of European competition this season.
Liverpool need Gerrard in the big games, like the Merseyside derby in a fortnight followed in the next home game by Arsenal. Without European games to stretch resources further, Liverpool might never have a better chance to return to the top of Sir Alex Ferguson's perch. It's still a stretch but not beyond a team that can take Stoke for five at the Britannia.
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