The old guard's still got it
Sunday’s remarkable encounter between Manchester City and Liverpool threw up a host of eye-catching statistics in support of the brilliant individual performances on show. One of those stats was overlooked – understandably probably – yet it bears examining nonetheless.
Simply put, Liverpool fielded their oldest starting XI of the season, with an average age of 28 years and 18 days. In fact, it was the oldest team they have sent out in the Barclays Premier League since October 2011.
In choosing to go with the likes of Carragher, Enrique and Lucas rather than, say, Skrtel, Wisdom and Allen, Brendon Rodgers was always going to drive up the average age of his side but it’s fair to say his selection also reflected a pragmatism that hasn’t always been a hallmark of his relatively short tenure as manager.
I have heard the older-school Liverpool critics out there question Rodgers’ unyielding belief in the rightness of his football philosophy. Certainly in some of Liverpool’s early-season outings it looked as if he was attempting to play a system that did not always suit the players at his disposal. Sunday’s selection looked far more like a case of round pegs, round holes and square pegs, square holes.
Liverpool legend John Barnes and the other pundits in our TV studio were certainly impressed by Rodgers’ team on Sunday. Carragher brought better defensive organisation and communication, Lucas helped ensure Carragher wasn’t exposed one-on-one too often and Enrique is a defender who can get forward, rather than the left winger we saw earlier this term. It was Liverpool’s, and not the champions’ defense and midfield shield, that looked the more battle-hardened unit the longer Sunday’s game went on.
They also provided an excellent foundation on which Liverpool could build. The wide men had license to break forward, the two strikers took turns to drop deep and launch attacks and Steven Gerrard was simply stunning once more. His performance was, according to his manager, “immense”.
Gerrard was named England’s best player of the last year by his national association on Sunday night, a week after the nation’s football writers honoured him for his career. Both organisations timed their presentations perfectly as Gerrard is turning it on week in, week out. He has played every minute of every league game this season (no other club’s midfielder has managed that), has assisted nine goals (equaling his best-ever return for a season) and has scored five goals in his last nine outings.
His long-range blast of a goal had us comparing it to Stevie G’s finest strikes – in Cardiff against West Ham, in Munich for England against Germany, at the death against Olympiakos. Yet it is his all-round game that is enjoying a comeback after a frustrating couple of injury-affected seasons. Think back to Liverpool’s last rousing game, against Arsenal, and you will recall him swiftly moving into left-back territory to snuff out the threat of Theo Walcott late on in that game at the Emirates. At the age of 32 he is indeed in a rich vein of form.
As is 34-year-old Frank Lampard, who moves ever closer to Bobby Tambling’s record tally of 202 goal for Chelsea. Lampard’s superbly-struck goal, his 197th for the club, was his 10th league goal in just 12 starts this season. It meant the midfielder reached yet another landmark as he became the first player in the history of the Premier League to score 10 or more goals in 10 consecutive seasons.
Lampard, like Gerrard, has hit the heights in recent games. He struggled to get going at the start of the season, often losing out to the youngster Oscar, but he is demonstrating the value of experience and sheer class when it comes to the business end of any Premier League season.
Speaking of which, while recent headlines have been dominated by Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and of course Mario Balotelli, the league’s most valuable striker at this moment is arguably Wayne Rooney. The man who broke the deadlock at Craven Cottage on Saturday did so with his 10th league goal of the season, eight of them having come in his last seven games. It also meant Rooney has now scored or assisted 17 goals in his 17 appearances this term.
Rooney’s goals also came, unlike those from Lampard and Gerrard, in a victory. Earlier this season, United were dangerously reliant on Van Persie for goals (in fact, without the Dutchman’s contribution they would have missed out on an incredible 24 points).
While Rooney is still a relative youngster compared to Gerrard and Lampard, there is no denying the fact that these three still lead the way when it comes to English talent. With the FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations (and the imminent test of their first team at the hands of Brazil) there has been much made of the relative lack of strength in depth when it comes to the national team. With Ashley Cole making it to cap number 100 on Wednesday night, let’s hear it for the old guard. There’s life in these old Lions yet.