The biggest games have a tendency to bring the best from Steven Gerrard. Every now and again, however, they reveal Gerrard at his worst.
He leaves Liverpool in the summer as the man who turned a Uefa Champions League final almost single-handedly and, perhaps, as a reason why they will not be participating in the competition next season.
He is their record scorer against Manchester United, but he has also completed a unique double by being sent off twice against each of Liverpool’s major rivals: Everton and, now, United. Liverpool have celebrated Gerrard as an explosive, devastating force.
“He is a big-game player,” manager Brendan Rodgers said. “A big impact player.”
This constituted the wrong sort of big impact. Gerrard’s final performance against United was self-destructive, rather than destructive.
Imagine the reaction if a loose cannon such as Mario Balotelli had come on and gone off within 45 seconds.
Instead, the red mist descended on perhaps the greatest Red. The red card duly followed. So, after the final whistle, did a Gerrard apology.
“He was man enough to apologise,” Rodgers said.
Perhaps manliness was the issue. Liverpool were too meek in the first half. Enter, and exit, Gerrard. He smashed into a tackle with Juan Mata and stamped on Ander Herrera. The most experienced player on the pitch looked too pumped up, as he did when he was dismissed against United for a wild challenge on Michael Carrick in 2011.
That was Gerrard’s first game under a hero, after Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as caretaker-manager. This was his last against United. He featured for barely half an hour then, barely half a minute now, a substitute whose arrival had hardly been announced when his departure was being signalled by referee Martin Atkinson.
So Gerrard’s farewell tour has been derailed. A three-match ban will also deprive him of a final appearance against Arsenal. Liverpool’s journeys next season look likelier to include Europa League destinations, not Champions League venues.
A momentum team found theirs was halted, dramatically, perhaps decisively. A first Premier League defeat since their last meeting with United was potentially season-defining. It was not just the result, nor the suspensions incurred by Gerrard and, potentially, Martin Skrtel.
It was a game where plans unravelled at remarkable speed. Liverpool ended with Raheem Sterling, the man Manuel Pellegrini had described as a potential £100 million (Dh549m) attacker, operating as an ersatz left-back. United dissected Rodgers’ 3-4-2-1. Gerrard was required in a rethink because of systemic failings.
There have been warning signs of late. Opponents have grown better at countering Liverpool’s 3-4-2-1 formation. They have devised plans. Blackburn cramped them for space. Swansea City deployed a midfield diamond. United went for 4-3-3, plunging Liverpool into uncertainty with their positioning.
Every system has its imperfections. Play with wing-backs and opposing wingers can exploit the space behind them. Alberto Moreno was doubly culpable for Mata’s opener, first losing possession and then his man as the Spaniard glided on to Ander Herrera’s lovely pass.
Twin talismen Emre Can and Jordan Henderson were troubled by the roving destroyer, Marouane Fellaini. Further forward, Adam Lallana was lost between the lines and had to be withdrawn into a deeper position even before, fatefully, he came off for Gerrard. As Rodgers accepted, Liverpool neither passed nor pressed well.
Inspiration has seemed to characterise some of his recent decisions. Here, there was an air of desperation. Minus the dismissed Gerrard, Liverpool seemed to be playing 2-3-3-1. Sterling was wasted at wing-back. Liverpool lacked rhythm and fluency before mounting a late, frenzied assault on the United goal. It failed.
Gerrard was sorry, Liverpool suddenly slumping. Anfield has known some dark days but this, for one of its greatest servants, was among the most chastening.
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