He is the son of an acknowledged champion. He is young and getting better. He might be better than his dad. He is close to the best midfielder in traffic in the competition. He is not Gary Ablett.
In the last five rounds Tom Liberatore has equalled the dual Brownlow medallist and the game’s best player for effectiveness. There are two key categories that separate Gazza and Libba – Ablett hits the scoreboard, Liberatore hits opponents.
Since round eight Ablett has kicked a goal-and-a-half a game while Libba scores about a goal every two games. In contrast Liberatore has averaged 12 tackles a game to Ablett’s six in those six rounds.
Naturally you don’t tackle as much when you have the ball as often as Gary does, but Liberatore’s possession count is on a par with Ablett’s for that period.
These figures pale somewhat when extended across the season. For the full 13 rounds Liberatore slides to about sixth among inside midfielders but what the recent rounds reveal is that he is enjoying a coming-of-age period of elevation into the true elite.
Any random poll of the best inside midfielders would typically include Ablett as the best inside – or outside for that matter – player. Joel Selwood across his career would be a consensus choice even if his form this year has been below his best. So would Josh Kennedy and Matt Priddis, but Nat Fyfe is the West Australian who has – even more so than Priddis – elevated his total game this year.
The idea of Liberatore now sitting bicep to bicep in that company might be something of a surprise but that is how good his past five weeks have been – he has been better than all but Ablett.
His proud 1990 Brownlow-winning father Tony modestly concedes that his son has already become a better player than he was.
‘‘At his age I don’t think I was playing as well as that and could do the things he is doing,’’ Liberatore snr said.
‘‘The game is obviously different so comparing me as a midfielder is different and time is another thing – he has to stand the test of time – but at the moment I would say I am very proud to say he is better than me.
‘‘How good can he get? I don’t know. At 22 now I know a lot will depend on staying injury free. There’s still parts of his game he needs to get better at.’’
Tom is different to Tony, he is taller to start with and he covers the ground better, but there is acute parity in their games in one aspect. Tom has inherited his dad’s thirst for the contest and capacity to lay a tackle at a rate greater than any other player in the game.
Liberatore snr figures the reason for the similarity in tackling is more osmosis and what he was exposed to from his dad’s game growing up.
‘‘I don’t know, maybe he has looked at the way I played the game and he watched me for a fair few years as a kid and thought that’s the way he has to do it. I don’t know,’’ he said.
What Libba snr does recognise is that the sort of form Tom is displaying now is the sort of form that has come as part of his work and evolution as a player.
‘‘It’s been a natural progression for him and he seems to have really stepped up each time there has been a challenge put to him and that that has been the case from Calder Cannons to his school footy. It’s been his natural progression.
‘‘I think what drives him is that he is very team-oriented and he puts team above any individual recognition more than anything. He aspires to win for the team, not for individual credit.’’
Tony agreed that the shift began last year in his son when he began to graduate from young player consolidating his place in the team to a player better understanding his capacity to influence games. Last year he won 14 Brownlow votes, this year he would have already amassed that number. Like father like son.
The story Little Libba is already standing tall among the midfielders first appeared on WA Today.