Steven Gerrard the provider, Luis Suarez the scorer. It is the sort of recipe that normally delights Anfield. It was a formula to disappoint England as a combination of colleagues at club level that all but ended their World Cup campaign and, in all probability, their captain’s international career.
It wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks Gerrard has erred with costly consequences. Perhaps, given his career-long crusade to win the Premier League, it wasn’t even the cruellest. Yet after the fateful slip that allowed Demba Ba to skip clear, score and fundamentally change the title race came another mistake. Two, even, given his part in Suarez’s opener.
Just as he did against Chelsea, Gerrard blundered on the half-way line for Uruguay’s first goal. When central midfielders lose tackles in the centre circle and the back four is in situ, it isn’t necessarily a problem. When, a few seconds later, the ball is in his own net, it is. Often so forthright, Gerrard’s challenge was strangely timid. Nicolas Lodeiro broke clear, fed Edinson Cavani and his cross was brilliantly headed in by Suarez.
Yet the winner will live longest in the memory. This brought reminders of an earlier faux pas: not against Chelsea but, a decade ago, the disastrous back-pass that led to France’s winner in Euro 2004. This was less deliberate, a flick-on as Cavani challenged him. This time he found Suarez instead of Thierry Henry. The eventual outcome was the same, though: a rasping Suarez shot, just like the Zinedine Zidane penalty which followed David James’ foul on Henry, condemned England to defeat.
So this, for Gerrard, was a Casillas of a game, to give it the new technical term, the day the captain was culpable, the game the man with the armband led by the wrong sort of example. Gerrard exited the pitch in Sao Paolo head down and trapped in his own thoughts, a player who has always harboured a downbeat side looking utterly despondent. He has not confirmed if he will carry on for his country, and Roy Hodgson is keen to keep him, but the suspicion is that this will be it. The end.
Gerrard has always had this ability to decide major matches – think of the explosive brilliance that made him the hero of Istanbul and Cardiff – but sometimes his opponents benefit from his influence. This was one such.
And, while his outstanding form for Liverpool ought to have been of some consolation in the disappointment of the domestic campaign, he can take no such solace from this World Cup. Andrea Pirlo, not him, ran the midfield in Manaus. Gerrard’s evening in Sao Paolo threatened to be better – his set-piece expertise was apparent when Wayne Rooney headed a free kick against the bar – and ended up proving far worse.
There were, though, some common denominators to his difficulties. The secret – which isn’t very secret – lies in outnumbering England in the midfield. Oscar Tabarez took note of Cesare Prandelli’s plans. Italy fielded five men in various parts of the central midfield area. Uruguay, by switching to a diamond, had four. England only had two: pity the poor pair of Gerrard and Jordan Henderson.
They have prospered at Anfield, but usually as two of a trio. They required a third man; Gerrard does in particular, a concern for a 34-year-old who relies on younger team-mates to do his running.
Wide open space is the undoing of ageing legs. England protected John Terry in Euro 2012 by giving him a small zone to patrol, something he did assiduously. Gerrard could see uncovered grass, to his right and in front of him. His isolation was a loner’s dream, but a concern for a veteran.
Long before Suarez’s second, his frustration was apparent in the hack at Cristian Rodriguez that brought a deserved booking. Then, after his Liverpool colleague scored the decider, he embarked on a desperate quest for redemption. There was none this time. It is almost over, for England and for Gerrard.