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Steven Gerrard

Rangers, 2018–

Steven Gerrard accepted a particularly high-pressured position for his first as a manager when in 2018 he agreed terms with Rangers to succeed the sacked Pedro Caixinha on a permanent basis. Such is the regard with which he is rightly held at Liverpool, he had already been considered a potential successor to Jürgen Klopp, whenever the time comes for the German to leave Anfield.

While it was under Gérard Houllier that Gerrard made his senior debut, in Rafa Benítez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers he worked with several highly-respected managers at Liverpool, and he was selected for England by Kevin Keegan, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Hodgson. He also became captain for club and country, leading England at two World Cups and a European Championship, but will be as aware as any that success as a player – even one as proven as Gerrard – is no guarantee of success as a manager.

Rangers have for so long trailed Celtic as Scottish football’s leading power that he could not have been expected to help Rangers usurp their rivals in his first season in charge, but he did lead them to second place – their best finish since 2012. More recently, Rangers broke a Scottish record that had stood since 1906 by keeping seven clean sheets from their first seven league games of 2020/21. “I started explaining about the tactics I’d use at Liverpool,” Benítez once said of his former captain. “It was my first conversation with Steven and it was all about tactics. Stevie was keen. It was at the beginning for us, when he didn’t need to do it.”

Playing style
Gerrard has most consistently favoured a 4-3-3 formation, but there have also been occasions when both a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-2-1 have been used – both, notably, represent subtle positional changes from Rangers’ 4-3-3. He has overseen a consistently attacking, possession-based style of play.

Their central defenders are responsible for building possession, usually after receiving the ball from goalkeeper Allan McGregor or a reset pass from midfield, when the centre-backs look to move the ball between them or to play it to a central midfielders in front of them or a full-back, but they will rarely  play longer passes. Rangers’ full-backs are responsible for providing their width and they therefore remain influential in both the defensive and attacking halves.

Of Gerrard’s three central midfielders, two remain deeper and one is given greater freedom. The deeper two operate in half-spaces – with the necessary awareness that invites their full-backs to advance – and often combine with the central defenders behind them to defend against opponents attacking on the counter. The third central midfielder contributes to attacks as much as he can, through penetrative off-the-ball runs, advancing with possession, switching play, linking with advanced full-backs, and combining with the front three.

It is, therefore, the roles of the defence and midfield that lead to those further forwards being free to attack; the triangles being formed between central defenders, full-backs and midfielders invite short, diagonal passes that overload opponents and help to advance beyond them. Similar movements can involve them adopting a diamond in midfield. Rangers’ front three remain in narrower positions (below) than is seen in most 4-3-3s. Their wide attackers operate in half-spaces, linking with the central midfielders, and creating space for their advancing full-backs.

Those narrow positions also give the defending full-backs a dilemma as to whether to remain close to a central defender to prevent a three-on-two overload, or moving wide to limit the spaces Rangers’ full-backs relish (below). There have been several occasions throughout 2019/20 when Rangers have moved possession horizontally, and the defending full-back has moved wide in anticipation of the ball doing the same, but as a consequence then been eliminated by a pass inside to a wide attacker, leading to a goal.

Opponents are regularly stretched by Rangers’ shape, which under Gerrard also involves positional discipline. When defending they prioritise protecting the central areas of the pitch; they largely maintain a mid-block, from which they wait for their opportunity to advance and to engage their opponents. If there is a vulnerability, it is in the channels during transitional phases, because of their full-backs being so advanced. Those still defending may offer protection against direct passes and counter-attacks through central positions, but spaces in wider positions remain tempting for opponents, contributing to the immediate counter-press Gerrard encourages, when the intention is to regain the ball during the moment of transition, and to discourage counters.

Tactical analysis
Not unlike Benítez, Gerrard has shown a willingness to use his squad. While Alfredo Morelos is his first-choice striker, Jermain Defoe has also appeared regularly; Joe Aribo and Scott Arfield vie for selection in midfield with Glen Kamara, while Sheyi Ojo and Ianis Hagi compete for positions in the front three.

Gerrard favours wide attackers who are both technically gifted, and capable of carrying possession, largely because Rangers’ shape demands that these players operate in half-spaces, and often get on the ball while under pressure from more than one direction. He is not reluctant to make changes during matches given the many options he has in his squad.

In the Scottish Premiership, the average time of the first substitution Gerrard makes is the 63rd minute. This is usually followed by further substitutions, on average, in the 74th and 80th minutes. If Rangers are leading, these changes can be delayed, but there is little hesitation when they are not. Aribo, Morelos and Ryan Kent are those most regularly replaced; Greg Stewart is Gerrard’s favoured impact substitute. Similarly noticeable is the fact that his first substitution tends to be an attacking one, likely in an attempt to satisfy those not starting, or to offer a varied attacking threat.

Steven Gerrard

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