As Rangers fans celebrated luring Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard to Ibrox for a maiden senior management gig this summer, those at Anfield watched on with intrigued eyes.
How would a man that had only experienced management at Youth Academy level fare when thrown in at the deep end, with limited funds, at a club where the expectations and pressure are through the roof? Will it one day be the stepping stone that lands Gerrard the hot-seat back on Merseyside or the poisoned chalice that can sink a managerial career before it begins?
Starting with the bread and butter of the Scottish Premier League, Rangers have made a mixed start. Two wins, two draws and a defeat have left them with eight points from five games, in fourth position and two points off rivals Celtic – whilst Hearts’ 100% start has left them clear at the top.
It’s a start that Rangers fan John McIntosh (@JohnMcIntosh19) admitted ‘isn’t acceptable’ yet must be placed within the context of the season as a whole.
The Gers have dropped four points to Aberdeen and Motherwell courtesy of conceding late equalisers, whilst their 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park, Gerrard’s only loss thus far, was seen as something of a write-off in some quarters given European excursions days before.
It’s those European trips that have boosted Gerrard’s profile amongst Rangers fans so early into his tenure, with the 38-year-old leading his side into the group stages of European competition for the first time since 2010.
“The Europa run has been a level past what was to be expected,” said John, before praising Gerrard for the ‘level of tactical awareness’ demonstrated in bypassing four qualifying rounds.
Rangers’ European campaign started just a day after England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia in July, a 2-0 win over Macedonian minnows Shkupi giving them lift-off a staggering 77 days before their group campaign will begin – in Spain at Villarreal on Thursday.
Defensive diligence proving key
Moving past the Macedonian’s meant a trip to Croatia, Gerrard’s men showed their defensive solidity again to progress 2-1 on aggregate past NK Osijek.
Connor Goldson, whose 89th-minute own goal in the return leg left the score-line looking much less comfortable than the tie was, has been a big part of the defensive shake-up that’s seen Rangers concede just eight goals in 13 games.
Three of those came against Motherwell. In eight European qualifiers, only three goals have been shipped.
Gerrard’s finest career years came under Rafa Benitez, notorious for his ability to keep a tight defence during critical European matches. It’s clear to see where the inspiration for Rangers’ European strategy has come from.
That’s not to say that it’s all defence, no attack. Brendan Rodgers’ high-intensity pressing football helped Liverpool come so close to glory in Gerrard’s twilight years, and such tactics have been implemented by him so far in Scotland.
Another Gers fan, Jamie Currie (@JamieCurrie89), has been left surprisingly impressed by the style and results he’s seen.
“I like the high press and the high energy style,” said Jamie.
“It works well for us, especially in the league where we should be beating the majority of teams.
“His managerial ability has absolutely surprised me. His work in the transfer market has been excellent, with the emphasis on building a strong spine. He’s improved some existing players who were kept from last season like James Tavernier, Alfredo Morelos and Andy Halliday.
“The two things that have impressed me the most about his managerial work have been his man management and how tactically switched on he’s been so far – barring the Old Firm game where he got it wrong. It gives me great hope for the season ahead.”
Does Anfield await?
Before a valiant defensive display with nine men aided Rangers past FC Ufa in their Europa League play-off match they overcame a team that Liverpool met in the Champions League last season, Maribor, winning 3-1 on aggregate.
Such performances have left some whispering over whether Gerrard will one day be good enough to take the hot-seat back at his boyhood club.
Whilst it’s impossible to judge from a handful of games in Scotland, the overall consensus is that he’s started well and there’s huge potential for improvement. A surprising level of tactical nous has been shown in high-pressure situations while coping with expectations at a big club comes naturally to a man that led Liverpool to multiple trophies.
Improvements can be made, with John admitting that whilst Rangers are ‘dangerous on the counter’, they could ‘use the ball better in possession’ against teams sitting deep.
However, regardless of blemishes, a real affinity is being formed between players, management and fans at Ibrox according to Jamie.
“I think everyone is quickly falling in love with him. He says it how it is post-match, he bangs on about standards and we can see this taking shape on the park.”
Add that in with a tight defence, European progression and some riled up Celtic fans and Gerrard will be quietly pleased with his first few months. Liverpool fans should be too.