How successful was Gerrard at Rangers?
For fans of the Scottish Premiership, Steven Gerrard jumping ship mid-season came was a big shock.
The parallels to Brendan Rodgers’ leaving Celtic for Leicester in February 2019 are obvious and only further highlight the widening void between the top leagues in England and Scotland.
But, Gerrard’s departure from Glasgow is even more surprising, especially given his comments just a fortnight earlier.
Following Rangers’ 2-0 UEFA Europa League victory over Brøndby, Gerrard was asked about the speculation linking him ‘with a move away’, specifically to Newcastle.
His emphatic response was ‘Do I look happy? Do I look settled? Don’t ask me silly questions then’.
Well, it turns out that wasn’t a silly question but just 21 days later Gerrard was being unveiled as the new manager of Aston Villa.
Despite the rather unceremonious departure from the club, Gerrard leaves behind a strong legacy in Glasgow’s west end, even if a slightly tarnished one.
When he took over the Gers, they were an absolute shambles.
2017/18 was just their second season back in the top-flight, finishing third under three different managers.
Pedro Caixinha left in October, replaced by Graeme Murty before Jimmy Nicholl took charge for the final three fixtures.
Murty’s last game in charge was a 5-0 drubbing at Celtic Park, a result that clinched Celtic’s seventh successive title.
A fortnight early, the two had met at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-finals with Celtic winning 4-0.
What Rangers needed was a figurehead, someone with gravitas and authority to guide this directionless club forward.
On 4 May, Gerrard was announced as the new manager and, despite having only coached Liverpool U19s, was welcomed to Ibrox by a huge crowd.
He made an immediate impact in Glasgow and, despite the fact silverware wasn’t immediate, it was the Europa League where he came to prominence.
For context, in the season that proceeded Gerrard’s appointment, Rangers crashed out in the first qualifying round to Progrès Niederkorn, a part-time team from Luxembourg.
But, in the subsequent three seasons, they won all ten Europa League qualifiers, featuring victories over Midtjylland, Legia Warszawa and Galatasaray.
In 2018/19, their journey ended at the group stages but, in the next two season, they got all the way to the Europa League round of 16.
The Light Blues beat the Porto, Feyenoord, Benfica and others in group phases before last 32 victories over Braga and Royal Antwerp.
The win over Braga, in which they were 2-0 down, no one will ever forget while the 9-5 aggregate win over Antwerp is the highest scoring tie in Europa League history.
For context, Celtic haven’t won any of their last seven European knockout phase ties dating back to 2003.
So, for a Scottish club to be competing European competition the way Rangers have been is mightily impressive.
Stopping ten in a row
Of course, European escapades are important; they bring in revenue, raise the status of a club and are thoroughly enjoyable for supporters.
Nevertheless, everyone was well aware that Gerrard’s primary aim was to stop ten-in-a-row.
For those who aren’t aware, this is an obsession for the two Glasgow giants as both joint-hold the record for most successive league titles.
Celtic won nine on the spin between 1966 and 1974 under Jock Stein while Rangers matched that between 1989 and 1997.
For context, the day in 1998 Celtic ‘stopped ten in a row’ is still revered to this day, not because they won the title but because their rivals didn’t.
When Gerrard arrived, Celtic had just clinched number seven, mauling their rivals on derby day again, and sealing the ten seemed an inevitability.
Peculiarly, Gerrard’s first two seasons followed similar patterns with, ultimately, green and white ribbons being dropped on the trophy.
Both times, Rangers were top going into the winter break before their falling off the rails upon returning from warm weather training in Dubai.
The almost identical 2-1 defeat to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park 13 months apart optimised this.
Both times Rangers took the lead before losing 2-1 on a cold, midweek night in Ayrshire.
Eamonn Brophy scored in both and his 88th minute winner in 2020 symbolically ending the Gers’ title aspirations a month before the season was curtailed.
Not only did he not deliver the title, Rangers failed to win any of the four cups on offer, losing twice to Aberdeen, once to Hearts and the 2019 League Cup Final to Celtic.
To say everyone was convinced that Rangers would stop ten-in-a-row at the third attempt would be a lie but, last season, everything came together.
In 2020/21, Rangers posted a remarkable tally of 102 points, winning 32 league games, drawing the other six.
This is the second-highest points tally in Premiership history, behind Celtic 2016/17, but the statistics of just 13 goals conceded is record-breaking.
The title was clinched as early as 7 March with Rangers eventually finishing a remarkable 25 points clear of their great rivals.
The record for biggest winning margin in a major European league is held by Paris Saint-Germain who won Ligue 1 in 2016 by 31 points.
Gerrard may have only lifted one out of nine trophies in Scotland but he won the one that really mattered.
Why did Gerrard decide to leave?
So, seemingly, that is mission complete for Gerrard.
The side he leaves are currently four points clear at the top of the table which is key because this season’s Scottish Champions gain direct access to the Champions League group stages.
This is massive because Rangers’ have made a loss of around £40 million in the last two campaigns so Champions League revenue would be a game-changer.
But the prospects of managing at Europe’s top table is enough to see off the allure of the Premier League.
It’s been the worst kept secret in all of football that Gerrard’s ultimate ambition was to manage Liverpool.
His contract at Rangers expired on 30 June 2024, the same days Jürgen Klopp’s current contract at Liverpool runs out.
Thus, the plan seemed to be that Gerrard would do six years in Scotland, a reasonable amount of time, before, if all goes well, returning to Merseyside.
But, this assumption seems misguided; another step along the path to Anfield is obviously required.
How one of England’s biggest clubs and former European champions Aston Villa may feel about being labelled a ‘stepping stone’ remains to be seen.
Gerrard had been complaining about lack of funds this season and how it was prohibiting his team from competing further in European competitions.
This could be a direct result of their Champions League third qualifying round defeat to Malmö, a tie they really should’ve won.
Thus, the 41 year old clearly thinks the time is right to abandon a, if not sinking, possibly wobbling ship.
Will Gerrard’s style of play translate at Aston Villa?
One of the most impressive things about Gerrard’s time north of the boarder was how his team could compete domestically and in Europe simultaneously.
Getting the balance right is hard.
A game on a Saturday against, for example, Ross County or Livingston requires a completely different style to a midweek game in Europe.
Suddenly, as an Old Firm club, you’re facing a side from, for instance, Scandinavia who are as good as you or a Portuguese or a Dutch club with superior resources and players.
This balance all came together last season when Rangers conceded just 13 goals in the league.
Gerrard’s Rangers have constantly played a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with the width coming from the full-backs.
Since the start of 2019/20, right-back James Tavernier has racked up 42 assists with Borna Barišić on the other side accumulating 28.
This allows the wingers, such as Ryan Kent or Ianis Hagi, to play more as inside-forwards, closer to the loan front man.
This is how Aston Villa’s currently squad could line-up in a similar system.
The problem could come in midfield.
Rangers have steady defensive midfielders, notably Glen Kamara, who will sit in front of the centre-backs in four-man box shape.
As Scotland fans know, given that he’s scored 11 times for his country since September 2019, John McGinn is not that player.
In the summer, Aston Villa tried their hardest to sign Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse, in an attempt to address their midfield problems.
Thus, it was ironic that it was the Saints who ended Dean Smith’s time at Villa.
The good news for Gerrard is that he’s brining his entire coaching staff with him to the Midlands.
Assistants Gary McAllister and Michael Beale are the heralded members of his backroom team.
But also, technical coach Tom Culshaw, head of performance Jordan Milsom, doctor Mark Waller and analyst Scott Mason, are all making the move too.
As a team, they’ve enjoyed success together north of Hadrian’s Wall.
What can they achieve at a club who haven’t won a major trophy for 25 years of finished in the Premier League’s top ten since 2010/11?
Where do Rangers go from here?
The timing could hardly be worse for Rangers who have, potentially, season-defining games coming up in the next few days.
On Sunday, the Gers face Hibernian at Hampden in the Scottish League Cup semi-final.
They’re looking to win a major domestic cup for the first time since 2011, something Gerrard could not deliver.
Then, next Thursday, they host Sparta Prague in the UEFA Europa League, needing a win to secure post-Christmas knockout European football.
So, there’s an obvious desire from the Rangers board to appoint a successor and quickly.
It was reported on Monday that player-coach Jermain Defoe has been leading first-team training which isn’t ideal.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst has been and remains the overwhelming favourite to take the job.
He played for Rangers between 1998 and 2001, winning two league titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup.
He later joined Arsenal and then Barcelona, winning seven trophies with those two clubs including the Premier League and Champions League.
In his first job as a manager, van Bronckhorst won five honours in charge of Feyenoord, including their first Eredivisie title for 18 years in 2016/17.
Since leaving Rotterdam in May 2019, his only job has been with Guangzhou City, coming 11th in his one season in the Chinese Super League.
Whether or not van Bronckhorst would be a success remains to be seen.
But, as Manchester United fans can testify, managers shouldn’t be appointed just because they used to play for the club.
From Gerrard’s point of view, his legacy at Rangers could be determined by if his successor delivers the title and Champions League football.
If Rangers falter and don’t win the league this season, all of Gerrard’s hard work and good-will could be eradicated from memory.
Will Steven Gerrard be a success as Villa Park?
As Dick Advocaat famously said: “If you can manage the Old Firm, you can manage anywhere”.
Steven Gerrard was very much thrown in at the deep end to start his managerial career and, in broad terms, was a success.
However, taking over a side currently 16th in the Premier League, who’ve lost five in a row, is a different kettle of fish.
Many would’ve argued that managing Rangers was the perfect preparation for managing Liverpool which is, after all, Gerard’s ultimate ambition.
Former teammate Jamie Carragher always says that Jürgen Klopp ‘just gets it’ when it comes to being Liverpool manager.
Rangers fans and ex-players said the same about Gerrard, that he just had this intangible quality to connect with the millions of supports.
Whether or not Gerrard will be able to forge such a relationship with Aston Villa fans, against whom he played 27 times in his career, remains to be seen.
Just his fifth game in charge of the Claret and Blues is at Anfield on 11 December but, by then, his team could be in the relegation zone.
It’s a gamble from Gerrard who evidently wants to succeed Klopp, possibly in 2024, but that’ll only happen if he’s a success at Villa.