The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Steven Gerrard

What is it about the way he plays? He plays like a beautiful lie. From his slumped shoulders and his loosely rounded back, you take the idea of a studious deliberateness, a determined, jealous, misaligned and ruminating patience; he has the air of a player who, when he finds the ball, hunches over it and shields it until the strategy comes to him by which he might designedly pass it away. But in fact he’s nothing like this. He plays with a deceptive heedlessness, is hectic, seldom does well when he keeps the ball for long. Most of his greatest moments have come from touches of the ball that lasted under two seconds. This is precisely why he’s disappointing when he’s played out on the wings: from the center of midfield his intuition has the most available targets. He takes criticism, when he isn’t playing well, for his number of aimless passes; it surprises people that he isn’t more accurate, because of his tactical forehead and furrowed-browed look. But in truth he’s just the sort of player who will kick the ball away often. His calculations are so instantaneous and unscrutinized that they’re bound to be frequently wrong. But when they’re right, he’ll see something that no one else sees, stretch out, and do something amazing.

It’s because he’s so surprising, I think, and surprising in such a sudden and thunderous way, that of all the players in England he seems to be the one most capable of producing inspiration—I mean of inspiring the people who watch him and rousing the ones who play with him. This takes something too from his seeming to be the last great player to participate in a truer old order of football, in which towns had clubs full of players from that town, so that a match was a testament to some local reality and not merely an abstraction that relied on geography to organize itself. Gerrard being from Liverpool (or near enough), having trained at Liverpool, and playing for Liverpool, seems to put us in contact (even if we see this eventually as only another marketed illusion) with a simpler system of ideals.

That he holds some kind of psychic centrality in English football can be seen from the enormous outpouring of energy into the question of what his role ought to be for England, and in particular how or whether he ought to be played with Frank Lampard. The vilification of Lampard that became widespread as soon as it appeared that there was an either/or choice between them owed at least something to a national sense that Gerrard must be a hero; and the growing dissatisfaction with Gerrard that has arisen since he finally won the dichotomy is largely an expression of people wanting him to be great so badly that they blame him for being what he is. He’ll never be the most reliable player in football, or be Liverpool’s Dixie Dean. But when you see him uncurl at the moment of impact (he’s a shambles at a trot, but a thoroughbred sprinting) and drive himself into the ball, and send it by some improbable long line, barely dipping only at the end, into the top corner of goal, you think there’s no other player who can have you on your feet more quickly: which is a great enough thing in itself.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Steven Gerrard

by Brian Phillips · November 20, 2007

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