IAN HERBERT: Steven Gerrard has already achieved MORE as a manager than Lampard, Arteta and Solskjaer and sees a lot of Benitez in Rangers’ performances… halting Celtic’s ’10-in-a-row’ would help him on the long road home to Liverpool
- Rangers are top of the Scottish Premiership and lead rivals Celtic by nine points
- This season, Celtic are in pursuit of an unprecedented 10th straight title triumph
- The Hoops have two games in hand but Rangers are in superb form
- Halting that would cement Gerrard’s status as a legendary boss at Rangers
- Gerrard’s tactical nous in Europe shows how much he learned from Rafa Benitez
It’s fair to say that some people worried for Steven Gerrard when he headed off to manage Rangers a few years back.
The team had just been eliminated from the Europa League by Luxembourg’s fourth-best side, Progres Niederkorn, at the time – a humiliation which saw his predecessor, Pedro Caixinha, remonstrating with fans while standing in a bush.
Gerrard was taking on a major weight of expectation and an even bigger fan-base. There were 9,000 in Ibrox simply to watch him being presented as manager. And if you think that Celtic are the only obstacle – that an afternoon at Hamilton Academical is a literally a walk in a public park – then you’re forgetting the fact that beating the Old Firm sides is a matter of life or death for every other team.
People were worried for Steven Gerrard when he headed to Rangers to become manager
Gerrard has significantly improved the Rangers side and they are currently top of the league
Gerrard has managed to bring the best out of players such as defender Connor Goldson
‘It catches all the English managers out,’ observes one Scot who’s seen coaches come and go. ‘These teams want to kill you. They’re out to punch you in the face.’
Rangers had just finished 12 points adrift of Celtic – and were financially way adrift of them – when Gerrard pulled on the navy blue suit he’d had ready for days, to greet the 9,000. But now, having significantly improved the side in each of the last two seasons, he has them sitting top of the Scottish Premiership – nine points clear of Celtic, a side they justifiably beat 2-0 away, three weeks ago.
The pressure is currently etched across the face of Neil Lennon, Celtic’s manager, who is tasked with completing the fabled ‘ten-in-a-row’ – a 10th successive Scottish title – which has become his club’s daily obsession. Lennon will probably complete a treble with the delayed Scottish Cup final in December – yet can still expect the sack if Gerrard steals the hallowed crown. That’s the kind of madness you’re walking into in Glasgow.
In part, the reeling in of Celtic, whose £56m annual wages eclipse Rangers’ £34m – is a product of Gerrard buying and bringing the best out of players who were cheaper than theirs.
Defender Connor Goldson has become outstanding. Midfielders Ryan Jack and Steve Davies have taken their games up a level. The general assumption was that Gerrard might struggle to deal with an incalcitrant player, after a professional lifetime of others telling him how good he is.
Yet he’s deftly handled the Colombian Alfredo Morelos, the most naturally talented individual in his ranks. He drops Morelos with impunity but still gets goals out of him.
Gerrard has also dealt excellently with fiery players such as talented striker Alfredo Morelos
Gerrard’s Rangers work eclipses contemporaries such as Frank Lampard (left) and Mikel Arteta
Little of all this seems to register in England, where the all-consuming Premier League narrative drowns everything out. But compare Gerrard’s foray into management with those of the contemporaries who have made the same leap – Frank Lampard, Mikel Arteta, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or, at a push, John Terry – and you have to say he’s achieved more than any one of them.
Lampard took a Derby side who’d previously finished sixth in the Championship table to a finish of… sixth in the Championship table. Then he failed to win promotion through the play-offs. Then he landed the Chelsea job anyway.
Arteta won an FA Cup after leaving Pep Guardiola’s side but is yet to demonstrate that a hardly-impoverished Arsenal are that much better. Solskjaer took Cardiff City out of the Premier League and has taken Manchester United nowhere. Terry is yet to surface from the Aston Villa coaching staff.
There’s been a psychological component to what Gerrard delivers and in this respect it is fascinating to observe him discussing Rafa Benitez in far warmer terms than ever before, in one new interview.
‘I think at the time, when you’ve got this relationship with Rafa, you think he’s picking on you because he’s going into so much detail,’ Gerrard tells Champions Journal magazine. ‘Your ego gets in the way and you think he’s not liking you. Looking back, he was an absolute master of tough love.’
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is yet to return Manchester United to their aspired standard of football
Gerrard has made no secret of the influence of Rafa Benitez upon his work as a manager
Gerrard has described Benitez as ‘the master of tough love’ when he was Liverpool boss
The Benitez methodology evidently works. Where once Rangers would be mugged on some distant field and look surprised, now they look ready.
But in the European setting, where supporters have been able to feel proud once again, Gerrard has also demonstrated a tactical intelligence. In wins over Porto, Feyenoord and Braga in last season’s Europa League, before eventual elimination by Bayer Leverkusen, he was all over the tactical challenge.
All those years at Liverpool helped him with that. Rangers were also 3-1 up with 13 minutes to play at Benfica, last month, before the wealthy Portuguese side brought things back level.
‘A lot of our performances, especially away from home, have got a percentage of what I learned from Rafa,’ Gerrard adds in the new Champions Journal interview. ‘In terms of structure, in terms of principles: out of possession, how aggressive we want to be. There’s a lot of Rafa Benitez in Rangers performances.’
The Scottish writers who sit before Gerrard week-in, week-out, find him distinctly reluctant to engage in Liverpool talk.
But if he can bring the championship home to Ibrox after 10 years, and quash that ‘10-in-a-row’, a route to the manager’s office at his beloved Liverpool will seem a little more attainable. He’s taking the long way home. He’ll have earned it.
PISTORIOUS DOCUMENTARY IS A SCANDAL
Outcry followed hard on the heels of last month’s trailer for the new four-part documentary about Oscar Pistorius, which failed to mention the name of the young woman he had killed.
That much was fixable. A new promo was hastily thrown together. But the damage was done. The film’s hagiographic obsession with Pistorius’ personal struggle obscures all mention of Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old woman who had a whole life ahead of her. The documentary is a scandal.
The latest documentary about Oscar Pistorious obscures all mention of Reeva Steenkamp
BITTERSWEET FAREWELL AS LIVERPOOL LEAVE MELWOOD
There’s a sadness about Liverpool’s leaving of Melwood this week for a new purpose-built training ground.
The place, set amid suburban streets, embedded the club among fans who scaled ladders to peer over the exterior walls, for a glimpse of their heroes. The departure also removes another link to Bill Shankly and the glorious past.
The complex was nothing more than an old wooden pavilion with veranda and an air raid shelter when Shankly arrived at the club from Huddersfield Town, in 1959. He turned it into a production line for generations of world class talent.
Liverpool’s Melwood departure is saddening – it has a significant place in the club’s history