Arsène Wenger believes he is still “deadly”. Brendan Rodgers said “someone dropped him from heaven” into his side’s game at the weekend.
Whatever the metaphor, Steven Gerrard remains a talismanic presence for Liverpool Football Club.
Luis Suarez has been exceptional this season, Daniel Sturridge has made a fine start for the Anfield side after his move from Chelsea, but you sense that Arsenal chances of beating Rodgers’ men at Emirates Stadium depend on their ability to stifle the will of Gerrard.
It has been that way for a decade.
The Liverpool captain nearly buffed up his halo once again on Sunday by rattling the Oldham bar from 25 yards as Liverpool searched frantically for a late equaliser in the FA Cup fourth round. Gerrard had been introduced for the final half-hour with his side trailing 3-1, and as Rodgers celestial quote suggested, he made a big difference.
"Gerrard is more involved with distribution now. His passes are still deadly, his crosses are still deadly but he is a bit more at the start of things"
By that time Arsenal were safely through, having beaten Brighton on Saturday but, sitting at home, Wenger must have made a mental note of the midfielder’s performance.
In recent weeks the manager has been priming a youngster to counteract the likes of Gerrard. Aaron Ramsey’s role for his last 180 minutes has had two steely components - a defensive shield but also a harrow, breaking up the opposition’s midfield fluency.
The Welshman performed well against West Ham and Brighton but Gerrard remains one of the ultimate tests. He has been one of the best British midfielders in the Premier League era and, in the past 18 months, has shown a mature side of his footballing character - the ability to evolve.
“Gerrard is more involved with distribution now,” Wenger said ahead of the game. “His passes are still deadly, his crosses are still deadly but he is a bit more at the start of things. Before he was more finishing things off. However for me he is still a great, great player.”
Ramsey has changed too and, like Gerrard, has altered his attacking instincts. The temperance of the Welshman, however, is because of the progression of the team, not the progression of time. Mikel Arteta and Francis Coquelin are injured so Wenger asked the 22-year-old to drop back. Reading between the lines, you sense Ramsey might not be merely keeping the seat warm.
“I believe Aaron has a fantastic engine and fantastic qualities, now he has to use them in a very intelligent way,” said the Frenchman.
“He is an bright player who understands football well and if he can bring his qualities to the team play he will be the outstanding player that I think he can be.
“He takes things on board and tries to do what you ask him to do. In the last two games I think you could see a really positive transformation in his game.”
Arteta and Coquelin might be involved against Stoke this weekend so Wednesday might be Ramsey’s last ‘free-run’ in the role. Elsewhere, Thomas Vermaelen (ankle) returns after missing the FA Cup win. Those rested or only partially employed on the south coast will be available too.
"Teams like Liverpool and ourselves have rebuilt over the course of the season and I think the final four or five months will determine how well the job has been done"
Before Sunday’s defeat, Liverpool were quietly gaining ground on the leading pack. Six wins out of the last nine Premier League games had taken them to within three points of their hosts and suggested Rodgers’ methods had started to take effect after his arrival last summer.
“He has got them to play in his style, the one he had at Swansea,” said Wenger. “I feel the most important thing for a manager is to know what he wants and be capable of transferring it to a team. I think he is doing that well.
“They’ve got Sturridge now and they’ve got Suarez of course, who has scored I think 16 of 40 of their goals. He’s a massive influence on their efficiency. Also Sterling is a young promising striker who, for me, has an England future.
“Teams like Liverpool and ourselves have rebuilt over the course of the season and I think the final four or five months will determine how well the job has been done.”
A 2-0 victory at Anfield in the early weeks was highly influential for both clubs. Rodgers suffered early pressure yet recovered, Arsenal had early optimism then they dipped. But they have come back in recent weeks. The wins against West Ham and Brighton were not perhaps watertight but Wenger’s side found goals at crucial times and played with their old-fashioned freedom.
“The win at Anfield in September gave us an idea that we have potential,” recalled Wenger. “From then on the team has got more confident. As much as some games can have a negative impact on the confidence of a team, this one had a positive impact.
“More recently,” he went on, “we felt very frustrated after the Manchester City and Chelsea games. But, first of all, it was important to respond and go on a positive run.
“And we know that every single game is very important for us now.”
Arsenal: Coquelin (hamstring), Arteta (calf), Fabianski (ankle), Gervinho (international duty)
Liverpool: Kelly (knee), Assaidi (international duty)
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