Is Steven Gerrard the Heir Apparent to Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool Manager?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 12, 2020

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MARCH 04: Rangers Manager Steven Gerrard looks on during the Ladbrokes Premiership match between Rangers and Hamilton Academical at Ibrox Stadium on March 04, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

In Steven Gerrard's 2015 autobiography, My Story, the former Liverpool captain gives only fleeting thought to the manager he might one day become.

In one paragraph in the book's fifth chapter, in which he compares the different approaches to man management taken by former Liverpool managers Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers, Gerrard briefly sketches a portrait of the kind of boss he would want to be. "I'd try to fuse the best of Rafa's tactical thinking with Brendan's skill as a man manager," he writes.

Later on, he states that he cannot see himself becoming "a coach who puts up the cones, takes sessions, sets up possessions, shooting practice and all the routine day-to-day drills." While he has committed to taking his coaching badges, he concedes, "I still really don't know if it's the road I will follow."

Fast-forward four-and-a-half years, and those uncertain flickerings have morphed into one of the most intriguing nascent managerial careers in European football. Gerrard is 21 months into his tenure as Rangers manager and has already had a major impact on the club's fortunes, guiding his team into this season's Europa League knockout phase and closing the gap on reigning Scottish champions Celtic to its narrowest point since the Ibrox outfit went into administration in 2012.

Gerrard remains a rookie manager, and Rangers' recent slump in form has doused much of the early-season optimism felt by the club's supporters, but with each positive result, the prospect that he takes over at Liverpool one day becomes a little more credible. Gerrard has long held ambitions to manage Liverpool, and Jurgen Klopp, the current incumbent of the Anfield dugout, has publicly identified the former England captain as his preferred successor.

The fact that both men are under contract at their respective clubs until 2024 only adds to the sense that it is Gerrard's destiny to take up the reins from Klopp. But with the 39-year-old's managerial career still in its infancy, just what kind of manager is he, and does anything suggest he might have what it takes to succeed the man who has led Liverpool back to the pinnacle of the sport?

Tactics: Well-drilled but one-dimensional?

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Rangers Manager, Steven Gerrard gives his team instructions during the Ladbrokes Scottish Premier League between Celtic and at Ibrox Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, Gerrard leaned heavily on his Liverpool connections when assembling his Ibrox backroom staff, appointing his old midfield partner Gary McAllister as his assistant, bringing in former Anfield physiotherapist Jordan Milsom as head of performance and installing former Liverpool academy coach Tom Culshaw as technical coach.

His most significant recruitment decision was the appointment of Michael Beale, another Liverpool academy alumnus, as first-team coach. Beale, who started his coaching career at Chelsea and also had a stint in Brazil with Sao Paulo, takes the lead on the training pitches at Rangers' Milngavie base, six miles north-west of central Glasgow, while Gerrard assumes responsibility for overall strategy.

There is a strong Liverpool feel about Rangers' tactics, too. Like Klopp's side, Gerrard's Rangers play with attacking full-backs, a functional midfield three and a narrow attacking trio. Right-back James Tavernier, the captain, and left-back Borna Barisic provide most of the team's width, with one of the two No. 8s—typically two from Ryan Jack, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield—shuttling across to protect the space that they vacate when they go forward.

The chief novelty of Rangers' system is that rather than two wingers, the two players who play in support of lone striker Alfredo Morelos—generally two from Ryan Kent, Joe Aribo and January signing Ianis Hagi—tuck in as twin No. 10s, meaning that the team's shape is usually referred to as a 4-3-2-1 or Christmas tree formation.

Compact, well-oiled and aggressive, Gerrard's Rangers have enjoyed particular success in European competition. The season before his appointment, the club reached a nadir when they were knocked out in the Europa League qualifying rounds by Luxembourgish part-timers Progres Niederkorn. But they battled through four qualifying ties to reach the group phase in Gerrard's first season, and this term they have made it all the way from the first qualifying round to the last 16, where they face Bundesliga stalwarts Bayer Leverkusen (Update: They lost the first leg 3-1). Celtic have not progressed this far in European competition since 2013.

In domestic football, where Rangers routinely encounter super-motivated opponents who defend deep and in numbers, the formula has not always proved as effective. A recent return of 11 points from a possible 24 in the Scottish Premiership has highlighted the absence of an effective plan B.

"The European setup suits them because [opposing] teams take more risks, which gives Rangers' forward players space to play in," former Rangers left-back Steven Smith tells Bleacher Report. "They're very good on the counter-attack as well. But sometimes at Rangers, when you're expected to win every game and dictate the tempo, teams sit in and make it really, really difficult. They've struggled against teams that sit in a low block."


Handling the media: Shooting from the hip

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - DECEMBER 12: Head coach Steven Gerrard of Rangers during Rangers FC Training and Press Conference at Weststadion on December 12, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Johann Schwarz/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)
Johann Schwarz/Getty Images

Having sat through more press conferences than he probably cares to remember during his glittering 18-year playing career, one area where Gerrard was never going to struggle was in his dealings with the media.

"There will be few people, even in the Premier League, that have the comfort that he has sitting down to a press conference and the ability to bat away questions," says Daily Record football journalist Jonny McFarlane. "This is a guy that's been there and done it with Liverpool and England so many times, so the media element is just something that he glides through."

A striking feature of Gerrard's media appearances since he arrived at Rangers has been his honesty. He has been publicly critical of his team on numerous occasions when he has been disappointed by their performances, and it has prompted observations that he is still coming to terms with the transition from captain to coach.

Gerrard has himself acknowledged that he needs to work on disguising his emotions, telling former Liverpool team-mate Danny Murphy in a recent interview for the Daily Mail: "I need to get better at that."

But Smith, who made over 100 appearances for Rangers across two spells, believes Gerrard's straight-talking approach represents a key aspect of the winning environment he is trying to cultivate at the club.

"I've not heard him mention one player's name—it's always been about the team," Smith says. "He's always taken responsibility for results, and he's very open and very honest.

"There was a game recently against Kilmarnock where the refereeing decisions were really, really poor and they lost the game [2-1]. But he never blamed the referee. He's trying to build a 'no excuse' culture. If the pitches are poor, which they generally are at this time of year in Scotland, or they're playing on AstroTurf, he never mentions it. It's always about no excuses."


Man management: Tough love

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 18: Alfredo Morelos of Rangers is congratulated by Rangers manger Steven Gerrard at the final whistle after scoring a hat trick during the UEFA Europa League First Qualifying round 2nd Leg match between Rangers and St Joseph at Ib
Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

In his drive to raise standards at Ibrox, Gerrard has necessarily been demanding towards his players, but there is a softer side to his management as well.

"Everything is measured and there is a lot of positivity, building players, building levels—he's working on it all the time," former Rangers centre-back Gareth McAuley, who played under Gerrard last season, told BBC Sport in January. "People might think he's a shouter or a bawler or up and at them, but he's not. He's very constructive in what he does."

As former Rangers loanee Joe Worrall told the Daily Record last season: "He is firm, but gets his arm around you when you need a cuddle."

Perhaps the biggest test of Gerrard's man-management skills has been provided by mercurial centre-forward Morelos, whose ability to sniff out goals is matched only by his ability to sniff out trouble.

Having stood by Morelos throughout last season, Gerrard's patience finally snapped when the Colombian received his fifth red card of the campaign (one of which was subsequently rescinded) against Celtic last April, for which he was fined a week's wages.

Morelos started the current campaign like a train, scoring 28 goals in his first 35 games, but was sent off twice in three matches at the end of December and has found the net only once in nine appearances since the winter break. Gerrard dropped Morelos after he returned late from a recent trip to Colombia, only to see his side crash to defeat against Hearts in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals in the 23-year-old's absence.

In much the same way that a succession of Liverpool managers grappled with Luis Suarez during the Uruguayan's three-and-a-half-year stint at Anfield, Gerrard is still learning how best to handle his own wayward South American striker.


Fan relations: Harnessing the Ibrox roar

Former England and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard gestures as he is introduced to supporters inside Ibrox stadium after being unveiled as Rangers' new manager in Glasgow, Scotland on May 4, 2018. - Rangers on Friday confirmed former Liverpool and Englan

Rangers were at a low ebb when Gerrard joined. Following their return to the Scottish Premiership in 2016, they had twice finished third and were on a run of 11 games without victory against eternal foes Celtic, which included defeats by scores of 5-1 (twice), 4-0 and 5-0.

Last season, Rangers recorded their first win over Celtic since August 2016, while in the most recent Old Firm derby in December, they prevailed at Celtic Park for the first time in over eight years. Recent results may have harpooned Rangers' hopes of thwarting Celtic's quest for a record-equalling ninth successive Scottish title, but the Light Blues are on course for a second straight second-place finish, and at the very least, Gerrard has got them competing on an equal footing.

"He gave the whole place a jolt," says Rangers fan and blogger Jamie Currie. "He's given the fans a bit of pride back in their team. Before he walked in the door, every time they were playing Celtic, you were a bit fearful. Now you've got the belief that Rangers will turn up and match Celtic all the way."

Gerrard's emotional reaction after Rangers' win at Parkhead in December, which saw him scream into a pitch-side television camera, drew mockery from the green half of Glasgow, with former Celtic striker Chris Sutton accusing him of "celebrating like he'd won the league." But for Rangers fans, it was an indication that the manager understood the significance of the moment.

"I'll challenge any Rangers fan that says they weren't celebrating like that when the final whistle went in December," says Ibrox season ticket-holder James Black. "It's clear that Gerrard has bought into the whole passion of the club and the fanbase. I think he probably sees certain similarities between Rangers and Liverpool, both as cities, populations and fanbases. With the magnitude of that win, he was always going to celebrate that way."


Transfers: Pulling power

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 11: Jermain Defoe of Rangers is seen as he embraces Rangers Manager Steven Gerrard during the Ladbrokes Premiership match between Rangers and Hibernian at Ibrox Stadium on August 11, 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacN
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

In conjunction with Mark Allen and Ross Wilson, the two sporting directors with whom he has worked since taking charge in June 2018, Gerrard has presided over a significant overhaul of Rangers' playing staff, with no fewer than 31 new players arriving at the club in a combination of permanent transfers and loan moves.

Here again, his Liverpool links have served a purpose. Kent and Jon Flanagan have both swapped Anfield for Ibrox on a permanent basis (the former for an initial transfer fee of £6.5 million that was the second-highest in Rangers' history), while Sheyi Ojo is currently on a season-long loan and Ovie Ejaria spent time on loan at the club last season. Gerrard's name has also proved a pull for players without Liverpool connections, such as January 2019 signing Jermain Defoe.

Not all of the signings since Gerrard arrived have been successful—for every Steven Davis (good) an Umar Sadiq (bad)—and Rangers cannot yet compete with Celtic when it comes to strength in depth, but those who follow the club closely believe the manager has significantly increased the level of quality in the squad.

"If you look at where Rangers are now compared to where they were when he took over, there is absolutely no doubt that he has added a lot of value to that team," says McFarlane. "If Steven Gerrard were to leave tomorrow, Rangers could sell James Tavernier, Borna Barisic, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic, Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos, Scott Arfield, Ryan Jack. ... Some of these players were there when he took over, but he's added to their value significantly through what the team has achieved while he's been there."

Quite apart from all that he still hopes to achieve at Rangers, Gerrard has been realistic enough to admit that he still needs time to prove himself before he can be considered a serious contender to succeed Klopp, telling the Mail: "They aren't going to pick me if I am only the 20th-best candidate."

But if it is too early to say with certainty that he should be the man to eventually take over from Klopp, there are equally few reasons to say that he should not be.

"It's always going to be on his mind because of who he is and where he grew up and all he did for the football club," says Smith. "I think it's inevitable that he will be the Liverpool manager one day. But hopefully that's after a successful period at Rangers."