How Steven Gerrard built a juggernaut and what comes next

It was just after lunchtime on a chilly summer day when Steven Gerrard found himself staring at the wall.

It was his first day at Auchenhowie, Rangers’ training complex in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire. Something didn’t feel right. Are both those monitors supposed to be on the left side of the desk? Why are all those wires hanging down? Why is the sun glaring off the screen? Shouldn’t the projector face the other way? Is there a way to corner this area off? Why has that been left here? Where are all the people?

Gerrard, who lives with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which means he washes his hands between 20–30 times a day, sees everything. He notices the little things. He spies the loose wire. He hears the whirring of the fan. His eyes are a magnet for the inefficiencies of space. This isn’t right.

He stares some more. Suddenly, he’s on the move. He’s bouncing from room to room with all the frenetic energy of a 20-something during the glory days of the Haçienda. One room, examine, shuffle, then the next. Is he giddy? Antsy?

Bleep me. This is not good enough. It’s time to go to work.

Before his first week is out, Gerrard will have reconfigured the training complex. His office is given a makeover. New rooms are constructed, ones dedicated to data and analysis. New faces pop up in new corridors. Over at Ibrox, the club’s ground, the board accelerates plans to modernise a flagging space. A new staff changing room is installed, allowing the players and coaches a degree of separation and privacy. New facilities are opened for the medical departments — a physio room; a doctor’s room. A gym and a place for the players to eat and mingle is opened within a fortnight. Things are happening fast.

Gerrard isn’t done. There will be a new menu in the dining hall. And there will be new faces serving the food.

This may be a legacy club, one with a notorious shirt and a rabid fanbase, but it is not up to Gerrard’s standards. He focuses on the big and the small. The club installs a new, state-of-the-art pitch at the training ground, while Gerrard focuses on seating plans — one large room is split into two. A new band of specialists pop up all over the place: Player liaison officers; ‘live’ cooks making meals to-order; injury and recovery analysts; set-piece gurus.

It is a transformation: From Rangers the phoenix club stuck in the past to a new, modern Steven Gerrard FC. “He brought the Premier League to Rangers,” as a source put it to The Athletic.

It is Gerrard at his worst: A control freak. And it is Gerrard at his best: A man with exacting standards and an eye for detail. Whereas others would stare at the wall and let their minds drift, taking in a moment’s peace in a week of carnage, allowing themselves an exhale, Gerrard is already on the go. He is re-drawing floor plans. He doesn’t want to build a team; he wants to construct a club.

That was three years ago.

On Saturday, Gerrard’s Rangers moved to within one point of the Scottish League title. On Sunday, the team’s triumph was confirmed: For the first time in a decade, they would be league champions. It will be Gerrard’s first league title as a player or manager. It might not be the same as lifting the Premier League title for his boyhood club, but it will go some way to plugging the psychological hole.

It is hard to overstate the scale of his achievement. With six games to go in the season, Rangers remain undefeated — 28 wins, four draws, no losses. Not only has he denied Celtic, the club’s immortal rivals, from securing the much-desired ten league titles in a row, but he has done so in a way that has set the club up for sustained success. He has bridged the unbreachable gap; no mega-club has ever had the kind of head-start that Celtic had over Rangers at the start of the decade. They took advantage to punishing effect. Within three years, Gerrard has not only scaled the mountain but forced a re-think of the dynamics within both clubs. What he has built is not a microwave championship, but the start of a period of should-be continued success.

And he’s done it his way. It is a club of Gerrard’s making, but it is, importantly, not a club that needs Gerrard. He has built it this way, intentionally — to be the starting point of a new era of success, not the endpoint.

Toppling Celtic in this era was always going to be a mammoth task for anyone, all the more so with the pressure that comes with walking around as Steven Gerrard. Further pressure has been heaped on throughout his young managerial career thanks to the fact that every waking step is viewed through the prism of how it will impact his chances of becoming Liverpool manager post-Jurgen Klopp — not least by Gerrard himself. It’s Liverpool or bust, everything else is a precursor to that eventuality.

Anything other than a league title and rejuvenating a fallen giant would have been deemed a failure, even against the backdrop of Celtic’s dominance.

Gerrard has delivered domestic and European success — his side is undefeated in the Europa League this season, winning nine of eleven games. With Slavia Praha on deck in the round-of-16, there is a very real chance that they will advance to the quarter-finals, one step further than last season.

Once this season concludes, attention will immediately turn to what’s next for Gerrard, to his inevitable path back to the Anfield dugout. Should he stay another year or two at Rangers? Should he rack up league titles in Scotland? Dabble in the Champions League with a team of his creation? Or should he head south of the border now and try his hand in the English pyramid before Liverpool come calling?

If you had reservations about Gerrard’s suitability for management heading into his second career, that’s understandable. A ton of great players turn out to be lousy managers. They cannot relate to players. They’re overly invested; or they’re not invested enough, cruising along on the backs of their reputation as a player rather than putting in the hard graft it takes to be a top-level coach and manager.

There were warning signs that some of the things that made Gerrard a phenomenal player could undercut him as a manager — the emotion, the explosiveness, the demanding style. And in early bursts, that naivety came to the fore.

It’s worth remembering that things were rocky as recently as last season. Though Gerrard had his team edging closer and closer to the league title, the side was unable to get over the line. That was coupled with failure in all of the domestic cups, with Gerrard putting his focus on the league and Europe. Those have always been his barometers, why stop now?

But in those moments, as the whispers and pressure grew, Gerrard exposed some of his managerial naivety; those personality quirks that had those who know him best wondering if he was made of the right ‘stuff’ for management. His comments after a loss to Hearts stunk of a wounded player with the power of a manager, not a manager trying to help his players. “I am feeling pain right now because I want to win here,” Gerrard said. “I am desperate to win here. Looking from the side today, I didn’t get the impression that the feeling amongst my players was the same.”

He went on to cast doubt about whether or not he would stay with the club on the back of the cup defeat: “I need to think now. The plan was to have a day off on Sunday. But I need to think hard about where we are. I’ll do some serious thinking in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

At the top level, the very top level, managers cannot ebb and flow in such sudden emotional jolts. Defeat is part of the game. Growing and learning from it, particularly with a young squad, is important. Losing hurts. Duh. But a manager is supposed to have enough emotional maturity in such instances to shield his players and to take a longer-term view — Rangers were still building; they were not the finished article, no matter how much Gerrard willed it. He was antsy, again. He wanted it now, not knowing if there would be a resurgent Celtic side the following year.

It’s not that a young manager cannot scold his players, but that style usually comes when a manager has taken his fair dose of personal responsibility, either in prior weeks or during the same post-match soliloquy. Instead, Gerrard was happy to extol his own passion while admonishing his players — I care the mostest. It was in stark contrast to just a few days prior when Gerrard’s side delivered their biggest performance of the 2019/20 season, advancing to the last-16 of the Europa League with a win away at Braga. Post-match, Gerrard branded himself the “producest coach in Europe.” Not five days later, he was talking of walking away for good.

There was a chance Gerrard would bail on the Scottish game this summer. Offers have flooded in throughout his run at Rangers, the most concrete offer coming from Bristol City. Gerrard umm’d and ahh’d but ultimately decided to stay.

It was a wise move. By opting not to bounce to the Championship he was able to stick at a club where he has subsumed all of the power — transfers, staff, food, everything — while being able to see out the end-point of the project he started.

Not every club will be so willing to hand over the blueprints to a training ground to their manager, whether he’s Steven Gerrard or not.

Sticking it out was important. That reactionary streak that was often on display in his second season, when the pressure started to crank up, is why some feared for Gerrard’s prospects as a manager. Would he be able to take the long-view, to rise above the immediate, emotional reaction, and cast a wider, wiser gaze?

It’s something he has developed over time. “Don’t worry about Alfredo,” he said this week when asked about whether his star striker, Alfredo Morelos, was upset at the perception he was being targeted by officials. “He’s in there [the dressing room] dancing with his top off to ‘Sweet Caroline’. He’ll be fine.”

It was a line telling in more ways than its online virality. In those early Rangers months — indeed, for much of the first two seasons — Gerrard cut a figure who was trying really, really hard to sound like a manager. It was as if he was doing an impression of what a manager should sound like, not answering questions within his natural flow. He’d read one too many leadership books (Leaders Eat Last!), by the sounds of it. Absorbed a little too much of the media training. It was all a little inauthentic.

In winning, in knowing the title is on its way, a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’, he has found his voice.

It is while winning that those Gerrard traits that gave such cause for pause have proven to be positives. All of the goodness of his instincts have been on show, the best of his playing days helping to elevate his role as a manager rather than overshadowing it: the passion; the ability to foster camaraderie; the leadership; absorbing the pressures of a taxing fanbase on his own back, deflecting away from the team; the coldness needed at the top level to move on from a player or ditch a system or make the crucial substitution; the tactical intellect.

What Gerrard has built this season is not just a title winner but an honest-to-goodness juggernaut, rolling all before them in Scotland and beating some excellent sides — ones with budgets that dwarf Gerrard’s — in the Europa League.

More than that: They haven’t just won. They haven’t just won comfortably. They have mauled folks.

As early as October, it was clear that Gerrard’s side was on course for the title. Rangers dominated the Old Firm Derby against a so-so Celtic outfit with a budget almost three times the size of their neighbours. Neil Lennon’s team looked rudderless, devoid of identity. Pay more than everyone and roll the talent out there, that should do it . There was no coherent philosophy.

It was in stark contrast to Gerrard’s sophisticated machine. The team doubled-down on the approach that almost brought an end to the title drought a year earlier, one that got them in a position to win the league but from which they couldn’t quite squeeze over the line. There was no panic over the summer; they refined the edges; kept hold of Morales; gelled fast, and blitzed everybody.

The team’s defensive record this season is triple-check-worthy. They have conceded just 9 goals in 32 league games, keeping 24 (!) clean sheets. They have beaten teams by three or more goals 11 times (!!) this season. Three times this year, they have played a five-game span in which they have conceded just two shots on target. Two.

Think about that. And it’s not like Gerrard’s side are playing tepid, plodding, Van Gaal-ian football. They’re playing a brand of free-form, slick-passing, possession-heavy excellence; they have recorded over 70 percent of possession in 19 matches.

There is a control, an authority to their play. Mostly based out of a 4–3–3, but with a roaming/morphing shape that on any given possession will switch between three-at-the-back looks, an asymmetric front-five, and a classic 4–2–3–1, they are playing imposing pass-and-move football. And when they lose the ball, they are relentless.

It would be hyperbolic to suggest it’s a blend of the styles of Rafa Benitez and Jürgen Klopp, the two influences Gerrard has cited most: strong and compact but eager to press without the ball; a mixture of directness and control with the ball… but … that is kind of, sort of the perfect blend that Gerrard’s side has struck this season.

It is that style, and Gerrard’s imprint on the style, that jumps out. As impressive: Gerrard has garnered a reputation for making pivotal systematic adjustments at just the right time. He will change shape within the flow of a game. There is constant rotation, often the bane of the support base. Behind a beefed-up data analysis and match performance department, the one installed at Gerrard’s request, he is able to make micro-adjustments to the positioning of players on a match-to-match basis.

Against select opponents, Rangers will ditch their traditional style if the numbers and pre-match scouting points to a significant advantage in adopting a new model. There has been an emphasis on set-pieces, with routines worked out based on the characteristics of opponents and whatever the data spits out as the best option — Rangers have scored 26 goals from set-pieces this season. It’s all part of Steven Gerrard, the Renaissance Manager.

It’s clear that Gerrad’s time as a youth coach at Liverpool, where he guided the under-18s for a season, was a true information-gathering exercise. He was not just seeing if he fancied it. If he got the bug. He was tracking the how and why of not only Jurgen Klopp and his staff but the entire culture of a club that was unrecognisable from the one that he played for in the waning days of his career. What part did data have to play for the coaching staff? How can analytics and analysis be used to give a real advantage during a match week? Which members of staff or young players could jump up a couple of levels? Who here fits my philosophy, and could help bring some of these teachings to another club? Where do they put their monitors on their desks?

It is that streak — of club-building — that bodes best for Gerrard as he advances through his managerial career. He brought each and every lesson from those Liverpool days to Rangers. He didn’t copy the blueprint, but he tailored it to his own ideas, on and off the pitch.

That is an important part of this story, particularly as Gerrard gears up for whatever comes next. He didn’t just build a tactic and sign a bunch of players on the back of his reputation and contacts. He built a program. He built a system of success. He helped build something — a culture — that will last long after he decides to leave.

He modernised a flagging institution, re-ignited the spirit of its fan-base, and in doing so built the kind of triumvirate — players, fans, manager — that could take down the biggest guys on the block. There are echoes of the job Klopp has done at Liverpool: facing an opponent with a maddening head start and a near-unlimited budget (for the level), having to maximise efficiencies, developing a cohesive playing model, developing individuals who were deemed not good enough for the level. Not adding the best players to a group; building the best team.

Think about Frank Lampard, the player and now manager that will forever be compared to Gerrard. At Derby, Lampard was given a beefy budget to add as many players via his contact network as possible. He added genuine Premier League quality at the championship level because of his second name, and in doing so built a team that was good enough to reach the playoffs — though the underlying numbers for that side painted Derby as just the 16th best team in the division. It was not a free-flowing side that ripped through the league with a clear identity.

Lampard did not tear down walls and restructure the club in his image. He rocked up to a club run by a friend, helped himself to a tidy budget, added pieces no other manager at that level would have been able to add, and relied on those individuals to overcome the team’s structural flaws.

The same thing happened at Chelsea. There was no clear doctrine, no Lampard-ism. Shut your eyes and try to picture how a Lampard team plays. Outside of play-out-from-the-back vagaries, can you picture how the side moves with and without the ball? Is there a staple goal? Again, it was a system reliant on individuals overcoming structural flaws. It worked for a year, and then it did not, regardless of the kind of cash and talent the club chucked at it.

Lampard, like Andrea Pirlo and perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (among others), will be held up as the model whenever it is that Liverpool face the Steven Gerrard question. It will be framed as a matter of the head and the heart. It will be about the emotional bond, whether it’s worth it, and whether the man himself can cope with it — can he deal with that kind of emotional investment, with the pressure. He may have done it before, but that was as a player, not a manager smart-thinkers will say. It’s different.

Only Gerrard has taken a different path. Concerns about his style, attitude, or unpreparedness would be true had he ridden up to Scotland, pinched a league title with a credit card team built on the back of his playing kudos, and then skedaddled before he could be found out. But that’s not what he did. He tore down walls. He rebuilt a club. He examined his own attitude and adjusted. He grew into the role, as the cliche goes. He ditched the Brent-isms and Klopp mimicry. He found his voice and personality as a manager, harnessing the good of his playing days while working on those traits that may have held him back.

He has proven to be a studious learner, constantly looking for those infamous marginal gains — the little things that add up to a whole lot. And he’s done so with that trademark sense of passion and fight, the kind that gets a roaring support onside.

Gerrard has built something special. He has turned doubters into believers. What better apprenticeship to serve before taking up his dream post?

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on March 7, 2021.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.