Steven Gerrard: The Rangers Journey to 55

In Steven Gerrard’s final days at Liverpool, he had bowed out in embarrassing fashion losing his final home game at Anfield 3-1 to Crystal Palace and losing 6-1 away to Stoke City in his final ever league game. It was certainly a bitter end to his Liverpool career and not the way he had hoped to part ways with his boyhood club following a glittering 17 years. Nonetheless, he can look back on his achievements at Anfield with immense pride. The next chapter of his career consisted of an 18-month spell at LA Galaxy before finally hanging up his boots in November 2016. Since his retirement, the Liverpool legend has embarked on quite a remarkable managerial journey that has seen him transform the Famous Glasgow Rangers into Scottish Champions in just his 3rd full season as manager. 

Setting the stage

Widely renowned for his leadership qualities both at club level and for the England national team, it was no surprise that Gerrard decided to pursue a career in management upon retirement. Following an illustrious playing career, he was sought after by a number of clubs for his services despite not having any managerial experience. Just a few months after he’d announced retirement, MK Dons offered him the opportunity to become manager but Gerrard smartly declined the quick lucrative jump into management citing that it had come too soon for him. Instead, Gerrard opted for a less high-profile role by coaching at the Liverpool Academy which would provide him with the platform to diligently work on his craft and hone the fundamental skills required for a career in management. He also had the benefit to do this in familiar surroundings and in a less pressurised environment which made the opportunity even more appealing to him.

The 2017-18 season was Gerrard’s first full season as head coach of the Liverpool U18’s and although Gerrard’s Reds failed to deliver any trophies, they did show good progress in most competitions by finishing 3rd in the league and reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League, only marginally losing to Manchester City on penalties. Throughout his short time at Melwood, Gerrard would have regular meetings with Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp. Acquiring invaluable advice from an experienced manager strongly aided his development, and perhaps in some ways, Klopp was a mentor to Gerrard as the pair were in constant dialogue.

Gerrard at the Liverpool Academy

Gerrard appointed at Rangers 

After Pedro Caxinha’s disastrous 227-day spell as manager and another caretaker stint for Graeme Murty, the Gers needed a man for the long-term.

When Gerrard arrived at Ibrox in June 2018, Rangers fans were reeling from a 5-0 demolition defeat by Celtic which secured a 7th League title in a row for their rivals. The Ibrox club were in desperate need of a mentality change and turned their attention to Steven Gerrard. 

In the lead up to his appointment, Gerrard had high praise for the club saying that it was a “no brainer decision” and mentioned that he had a special feeling about the Ibrox club. Gerrard also emphasised his ambition to win trophies and ended it with “bring it on” when asked about competing with his former manager Brendan Rodgers at Celtic.

To assist him in his first ever managerial role, Gerrard appointed close friend Gary McAllister and former coaching colleague Michael Beale to be part of his coaching staff which reinforced the Liverpool connection while providing an ambitious, forward-thinking team at the heart of the club. 

Gerrard appointed as Rangers Manager

The First Season (2018/19)

When Gerrard arrived, there were still a few problems off the pitch with legal battles surrounding retail impacting the club’s revenue potential and the operational backdrop needed a major reshuffle. In spite of that, Gerrard prepared for his first ever managerial season with a massive squad overhaul bringing in around 20 players. Over the course of the season, the likes of Glen Kamara, Steven Davis, Ryan Kent, Scott Arfield and Jermain Defoe all joined the club.

Offensively Rangers were already splendid, in the season before Gerrard’s arrival, Rangers had scored the most goals in the league, however, their defence was the worst in the top 7 and they had conceded 25 more goals than champions Celtic. To solve this problem, Gerrard brought in Allan McGregor, Borna Barisic, Conor Goldson, Nikola Katic and Filip Helander to alleviate their defensive issues and restore stability in the backline. In Gerrard’s first season he managed to drop that number from 50 goals conceded down to 27, giving them the second best defence in the league. Through tactics and personnel, Gerrard transformed his defence into a cohesive and well-structured unit that defended resolutely. The significant reduction in goals conceded is strongly indicative of this.

In only their third season back in the top flight, no one would have anticipated for Rangers to win the league given how dominant Rodgers’ Celtic were but many pundits expected them to end their 7-year trophy drought through the domestic cup competitions. However, Rangers were undone by Aberdeen in both cup competitions. A real missed opportunity especially given that Rangers finished a comfortable 11 points above Aberdeen in the league. 

 Among the highlights of the season was finishing in the top two for the first time since promotion back to the SPL in 2016. Secondly, they broke the Old Firm curse by beating Celtic twice in what was their first league wins against them since 2012. As well as the victories, the performances were just as eye-catching. Rangers became a side that was fearless, expressive on the pitch and more importantly the camel of not beating their arch-rivals was finally off their back.

Ryan Jack’s goal clinches Rangers’ first league win over Celtic since 2012

The Second Season (2019/20)

Gerrard now had a full season of management under his belt and it was this season where Rangers were expected to challenge for the title especially after acquiring highly-rated Joe Aribo from Charlton to an already potent attack and made key players such as Ryan Kent and Steven Davis’ loan moves permanent.

In Gerrard’s second season, Rangers started the season like a house on fire winning 19 of their first league 22 games, a symbolic game was the win away at Celtic on 29 December 2019, their first win at Celtic Park since 2010. This put Rangers 2 points behind Celtic with a game in hand. 

Just before the new year, Rangers reached the Scottish League Cup final but narrowly lost to the 10-men of Celtic at Hampden Park. To say Rangers dominated that game would be an understatement, they obliterated Celtic from minute 1 to 90 but a man of the match performance from Celtic keeper Fraser Forster, who also saved a Morelos penalty, compounded Rangers to yet again another near miss at winning a trophy, a very difficult loss for Gerrard to take especially given that Celtic’s winning goal was offside. 

As we entered 2020, Rangers’ league form dipped dramatically winning only 5 of their next 10. Meanwhile, Celtic won 9 out of their 10 and ran away with the title. It seemed as if Gerrard’s men had run out of steam and fans were questioning his team selections and tactics. 

During that disappointing run Rangers did manage to reach the last 16 of the Europa League after an impressive win at Braga and Gerrard mentioned that he was the “proudest man in Europe” but that happiness was short-lived because only 3 days later they suffered a shock Scottish Cup defeat to Hearts. A week later Rangers bore another shock defeat, this time in the league to Hamilton at home, leaving them 13 points behind Celtic. Furthermore, there was also friction within the dressing room as Alfredo Morelos was omitted from the squad for two games by Gerrard for disciplinary reasons. Given that Morelos was the top scorer, unsurprisingly, Rangers looked less potent in attack without their star man. Consequently, this sparked rumours that Gerrard may walk out the door given the domestic collapse.

No football would be played after that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Celtic would eventually be awarded the league title on a points per game basis as the league was not able to be completed.

Overall, it was another frustrating trophyless season for the blue side of Glasgow, who could only cement their status as Scotland’s second-best football team, again. But every cloud does have a silver lining. The disappointing season helped Steven Gerrard mature as a manager and identify the weaknesses within the team.

Morelos misses penalty at Hampden Park in Cup final defeat to Celtic

Historic Third Season (2020/21)

Importance of stopping 10 in a row

This season was important because Celtic were now within one of the lucrative 10 in a row and Gerrard did not want to be the manager remembered for allowing Celtic to accomplish this great feat. The 10 in a row is significant in the Old Firm rivalry because both Rangers and Celtic have fallen short by getting to 9. Celtic fell one short in the years from 1966-1974 and Rangers similarly from 1989-1997. 

It was a make-or-break season for Gerrard who had shown significant progress with back-to-back second placed finishes and an impressive Europa League campaign where Rangers reached the last 16. However, domestic cup disappointments were still a big mark on his short managerial career. Gerrard emphasised that he and the players understood the significance of stopping 10 in a row in what was going to be a historic season in Scottish football. Either Rangers would secure a world record 55th League title or Celtic would be the first team in the Old Firm to eclipse 10 in a row.

Winning Mentality

Gerrard bolstered his squad by adding Leon Balogun, Cedric Itten and Kemar Roofe. He also made loanees, Jermain Defoe and Ianis Hagi, permanent moves from Bournemouth and Genk respectively.

Rangers started the season off strongly, winning 8 out of their first 10 games and only conceding 3 goals. After they beat St Johnstone on matchday three to go top of the league, Gerrard’s men never relinquished top spot and stayed there the whole rest of the way. He had a settled starting XI who all knew their roles and carried out their duties expertly. They were just quicker, stronger and quite frankly much better than any opposition they came up against including Celtic. Gerrard established a winning mentality amongst his squad who believed that they would come back and win games even if one or two goals down, just like the glorious days under Walter Smith. In a truly remarkable season where they won 15 games in a row at one stage, Gerrard had finally found the consistency needed to eclipse Celtic and mount a serious title challenge.

Throughout the 20/21 season, Rangers smashed many records for example, they set a Scottish record for longest run of clean sheets (7), they surpassed Chelsea in a British record for least goals conceded in a 38-game season (13). Also, this was the first time that Rangers had ever eclipsed 100 points, gone a season undefeated and it was their biggest points margin over Celtic by finishing 25 points clear of them. Rangers made Ibrox a fortress by winning every single home league game, which is testament to Gerrard and his team given that fans were not allowed in stadiums. 

The 55th record-breaking league title was clinched when Celtic failed to beat Dundee Utd away from home and from then on it was mathematically impossible for Celtic to catch them with still 6 games to play. The title was finally back on the blue side of Glasgow after a torrid 10 years which included administration, liquidation, 7 different managers, derby day massacres and Hampden heartbreak, it was all over. Rangers were Champions again and this was led by Steven Gerrard.

Rangers fans celebrating their 55th League title at George Square

Tightening the defence

Under Gerrard, the Rangers backline gradually improved season after season. From conceding 27 in his first season to 19 in his second, but this season, Rangers only conceded 13 goals, which is testament to the spine that Gerrard has built. A settled back four is always crucial in winning titles and this was evident throughout the season with Conor Goldson playing all 38 games, alongside either one of Balogun or Helander who both played significant minutes. Goalkeeper Allan McGregor played 27 games and full backs Barisic and Tavernier played 33.

Impact of full-backs

Since Gerrard’s arrival, Rangers’ game has largely progressed thanks to their full-backs who have offered stunning contributions offensively. The two main full-backs responsible are Borna Barisic on the left and club captain James Tavernier on the right. In Barisic’s first season (2018/19), he struggled to adapt to the physicality that the demands of Scottish football required and spent some time out on the sidelines. His replacements, either one of Jon Flannagan or Andy Halliday, simply did not have the burst of pace or quality of delivery to compliment what Barisic could bring. 

The miss of Barisic in Gerrard’s first two seasons particularly impacted the productivity of talented winger Ryan Kent who was unable to be as dominant in the final third without Barisic offering additional support and overlaps. Tavernier, who has always been renowned for his attacking quality, struggled if Barisic wasn’t able to compliment him on the other side. Although Rangers’ full backs have been caught high up the pitch a few times, the reward has by far outweighed the risk. In the 2020/21 season, Tavernier and Barisic combined for a total of 24 goals and 30 assists in all competition, a stunning return.

Superb Attacking Contribution

In Gerrard’s first two seasons, Rangers were heavily reliant on the form of Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos and when he was injured, suspended or off form then the team as a whole suffered. As Gerrard’s approach evolved, sole reliance has been heavily taken off Morelos this season and Gerrard has increasingly used an additional striker – most notably Kemar Roofe, so that the team can attack with the additional central presence that he provides. Roofe’s intelligent movement in drifting defenders away and picking up pockets of space has offered a different dimension to the Rangers’ attack. This paid dividends this season as Roofe was the top scorer in the league contributing to 14 league goals closely followed by Tavernier and Morelos on 12, with Ryan Kent bagging 10. In all competitions, 5 Rangers players were in double-digit assists and 4 players had double-digit goal contributions.

Conclusion

It has been a tough, dogged but exciting 3 seasons for Gerrard at Rangers. He has brought hope and optimism back to Ibrox through bringing the league title back home and stopping 10 in a row in unbeaten fashion, putting Gerrard in Rangers folklore. As he prepares to lead his side into the Champions League qualification stages for the first time since 2012, while defending their crown, there is arguably no hotter manager on the planet.

Steven Gerrard celebrates with the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership trophy

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