Football fans around the world would remember Steven Gerrard for a lot of different reasons. From his days as a Liverpool player and captain, to being named manager of Scottish Premiership side Rangers.
His biggest career regret would expectedly be his inability to win a league title as a player. However, as a manager, he has just wrapped up what will go down as Rangers’ best top-flight campaign ever, going the length of the just concluded 2020/21 Scottish Premiership season unbeaten. A remarkable fit.
Gerrard is a one-club man in England. He made his Liverpool debut in 1998 and went on to play for 17 seasons, winning every other trophy on demand except the Premier League. He was close to breaking the jinx in 2009 and 2014, before calling time on his time at Anfield in 2015 to move across the Atlantic with Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy.
As a player, he tried so hard to win the league but could not. As a teenager following his career, I was naive enough to believe he was cursed by some witchdoctor or something. No matter what he did or how hard he tried, he just couldn’t win the league as a player, but as a manager he has done it, and in emphatic style.
But how has he managed to make such a swift transition into the world of management?
It was a bright Tuesday afternoon in late November, inside the Estadio Ciudad Deportiva in Seville. A venue alien to what Steven Gerrard has been used to during his time playing at the top echelons of the game.
While the seniors – eventual Champions League finalists that year – were made to wait to confirm their spot in the next round, the young Reds made light work of Sevilla to record their fourth win in Group E of the 2017/18 UEFA Youth League, scoring four goals without reply to complete a remarkable 8-0 aggregate win over a team considered to be one of Europe’s most trusted sources for first-team talent.
With the opportunity to learn the ropes at the club where he earned such an outstanding reputation as a player and still unbeaten in the opening seven games in the league, the former captain’s first few months cutting his teeth in the world of management could not have been much better.
He was thriving in his new role, working with a hugely talented crop of youngsters, including familiar names like Curtis Jones, Rhian Brewster, Rhys Williams and Neco Williams.
“Sevilla’s manager said to me after the game: ‘You’ve got a superb team,’” said Gerrard at full-time.
“That’s credit to the players. He didn’t say to me: ‘You’ve got some good individuals.’
“That’s what pleased me most. That was a top, top team performance, especially away in Europe.
“I think that’s right up there in terms of the under-19.”
These comments point to one thing: Gerrard’s managerial style. An approach that emphasizes instinctive running, sheer ability, and more importantly, teamwork. No wonder it did not take long until his first big break came knocking.
Leap of faith
Gerrard had only been working as an academy coach at Liverpool’s Academy for a little over a year. And despite a lack of top-level managerial experience, the Rangers board had seen enough to convince them about Gerrard’s capabilities. The club was clearly in straight turmoil, but he was tasked with improving results instantly.
Despite this being one of the most high-pressure positions in British football, he took his leap of faith in May 2018 and signed the dotted lines to take over the vacant manager’s position at Ibrox left by Pedro Caixinha who was earlier relieved of his duties.
Graeme Murty had put in his best shot as an interim manager, but the club did not consider him in their long-term plans. The team lacked a playing identity under Caixinha, and while there was a level of identity under Mark Warburton, the football was grossly ineffective and found life too hard in the face of the Scottish top-flight.
Even though Gerrard probably wasn’t even thinking about leaving Liverpool at the time, this was too good an opportunity to turn down. It was a bold move that he had to take.
He departed his boyhood club once again – this time as a manager – and headed north of the border.
The then 38-year-old was joined by familiar faces; including Gary McAllister, Michael Beale, Tom Culshaw and Jordan Milsom in the backroom team and this made for a modern, forward-thinking, and accommodating atmosphere at the heart of the club.
It is important to note where Rangers were – on and off the pitch – leading up to this appointment. Even though he had funds made available for transfers, he too knew that he was joining a club performing way below its capabilities.
Legal battles had plagued the club’s money-making potential for quite some time, and on the pitch, they were no match for Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic who beat them 4-0 and 5-0 in the space of two weeks earlier in April.
A 5-5 draw at Hibernian on the final day summed up the story of their entire campaign in one game. How could they score that many goals and still not end up winning?
Rangers had played catch-up with Old Firm rivals Celtic as the county’s leading powerhouse for so long that the appointment of Gerrard could not have been realistically expected to help them get the better of their archrivals. So, a second placed finish – their highest finishing position since 2012 – was more than impressive.
This triumph will without a doubt engrave Gerrard’s imprint and footprints in Rangers folklore forever, but what’s even more impressive is the manner in which his team has done it.
So far, he has been known to switch between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, where he uses either a single or double pivot to shield the midfield area, while also demanding a highly attacking and possession-based style of football.
As if inheriting an imbalanced squad was not bad enough, the club had adopted a revolving door policy for their summer transfer dealings over the past couple of years. 11 in, 11 out, that was the flow. Under Caixinha, the likes of Eduardo Herrera, Carlos Peña and Fabio Cardoso had to be moved on. Not because they were the worst players in the world but because the process of rebuilding had to take place.
This was far from ideal and it was carried into Gerrard’s tenure, as he tried to find the right balance for his squad. Some of the players brought in that summer however remain key components of the first team till date.
Center back Scott Arfield was signed from the Premier League side Burnley, goalkeeper Allan McGregor returned to the club from Hull City, Connor Goldson has also been a mainstay in the starting line up for three years, while Nikola Katic had shown great potential until his season was curtailed by injury last summer. Also, Borna Barisic’s influence to the way Rangers set up cannot be overstated.
Rangers conceded a whopping 50 times in the league before Gerrard’s arrival – the most of any of the top ranked seven teams. McGregor, Goldson, Katic and Barisic and more recently Leon Balogun have been able to solve this problem.
Fast forward three years later, Rangers have only lost by two clear goals four times under Gerrard; first against Bayer Leverkusen, before bowing out to Slavia Prague in the Europa League.
Gerrard’s outlook has evolved as the players at his disposal have changed. Kemar Roofe has been deployed as an additional striker, alongside Alfredo Morelos and one of Ianis Hagi or Ryan Kent up front. This allows Roofe, a natural center forward, to play more like an inside forward, leaving room on the wings for attacking fullbacks to maraud into. Rangers are particularly effective in applying those movements towards the right where ultra-attacking full-back James Tavernier bumps forward and delivers accurate crosses.
The 29-year- right back almost certainly will not be challenging the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James or Kieran Trippier for a place on Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions entourage to the Euros this summer, but his 19 goals and 16 assists I reckon, put him up there as the best attacking full-back – in the whole of Europe – over the course of the 2020/21 season.
Central attacking midfielders, especially Joe Aribo, are also able to attack in between pockets of space left by full-back and wide forward. Aribo was also deployed as a makeshift left-back towards the end of the just concluded invincible season.
Tavernier was named club captain in Gerrard’s second season, but it was McGregor who showed the most promise earlier on, especially in Europe. They were beginning to keep clean sheets and at the end of the season, they had almost halved the number of goals conceded in Gerrard’s first season to 27. That number dropped further in his third season to 19, with Rangers having played only 29 games that season after the season was cut short by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier this year in January, in his 150th game in charge at Ibrox, Rangers were once again at their clinical best as they breezed past Ross County 5-0 in the Premiership. Even though the visitors had caught the eye with some good football, in a game which saw them hit the woodwork a couple of times, manager John Hughes could not hide how impressed he was by what he described to his counterpart Steven Gerrard as “proper football” at full-time.
“Thanks very much,” Hughes said Gerrard responded. “It was three years in the making.”
Though he’s been a bit more pragmatic as a manager than as a player, it’s easy to see that burning desire in his eyes.
You know, sometimes I stop and wonder how he’s been able to face his devils staring at him in the mirror every single day since that slip against Chelsea in 2014, in a season where he and his Liverpool teammates could have and should have won the Premier League.
Gerrard thinks this was three years in the making, I reckon this was the making of all those years of disappointment of failing to win the league as a player.
From the Liverpool U23s dugout to Ibrox, Steven Gerrard has delivered the now fabled 55th league title for the Gers while also stopping Celtic from claiming a tenth consecutive title. He finally has his hands on a league title and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
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Mubarak Mohammed Zakari He prefers to be known not as just a Sports Journalist; but as a "modern broadcaster" because of his ability to create content for visual, audio and print media. He co-hosts a football podcast with a growing audience from 17 countries across the globe.