W hen Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both took their first steps into management, we were all intrigued to see the two greatest English attacking midfielders of their generation take such different routes to their ultimate aim, managing the teams they were synonymous with as players. Without wishing to delve too deep into why Lampard veered off course, it is fair to say that having got Derby into the play-offs - an impressive feat, Lampard made the step up to a major club far too early into his managerial career.
Frank had a good debut season at Chelsea, when expectations were low and the squad was smaller but once Chelsea made five major acquisitions in the summer transfer window in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz, and Édouard Mendy, he came unstuck. In his head he had build a certain style of playing but he did not know how to adapt his philosophy to the new players at his disposal. This eventually led to a downturn in results and he was swiftly replaced by 'Mr Versatile', Thomas Tuchel and the rest is history.
In stark contrast, Gerrard deliberately evaded the fierce media lense under which the elite English game operates and sought to learn his trade first in academy football before initiating his senior management career in Scottish football. In this article we will take a brief look at his achievements as an Academy coach and then undertake a more detailed analysis of the tactics he deployed at Rangers before assessing what we can expect to see from him when he takes the ropes at Aston Villa.
After rejecting an offer to manage MK Dons, Gerrard on the advice of Jurgen Klopp initially took on a floating coaching role at Liverpool FC, shadowing a range of coaches at Melwood and getting a feel for the various demands expected of coaches at different age levels. He used this time to hone his coaching and session management - learning about fitness and technical drills, how to implement patterns of play as well as the sports psychology side of things i.e. general management of the individual and the collective.
By choosing to learn his trade in a pressure free environment where he was not calling the shots, Gerrard was able to learn from other peoples mistakes and run his sessions outside the gaze of the public eye. The expert hand of Academy Director Alex Inglethorpe helped guide him through this phase and after consulting with Jurgen Klopp, they believed the time was right to unleash Gerrard in a results driven environment. His preferred age group? the under 18's, close enough to the first team for Gerrard to feel like he was playing a significant role in the shaping of future professional footballers but still far enough from the mainstream media to go relatively unnoticed.
Gerrard's debut season as Head Coach of Liverpool Under 18's (2017/2018)
By the time Gerrard was about to embark on his debut season as a Head Coach, he had completed his UEFA 'A' Licence and had formed his own ideas of how football should be played. One particular bone of contention was the lack of physicality demonstrated at Academy level and how underprepared he felt young footballers were for the men's game. In terms of his tactical approach, he had rudimentary ideas but nothing that was set in stone.
In an under-18s fixture against Manchester City in March, he called for – and received – greater intensity from the Liverpool players as City were beaten for the first time in 28 months. Gerrard demanded the same the following week against Manchester United and the 2-2 draw proved a ferocious encounter. Adam Lewis, a lifelong Liverpool fan who idolises Gerrard, was sent off after 30 minutes for a dangerous tackle.
This competitive edge set the tone for the season as Gerrard's young Reds took part in the Premier League, Premier League Cup, and FA Youth Cup. Gerrard also took charge of an Under 19s side in the UEFA Youth League, combining both the reserve and Under 18s squads where they finished top of their group, knocked out Manchester United in the Round of 16 before falling to Manchester City on penalties in the Quarter-Finals.
Ultimately, Gerrard’s Reds failed to deliver any trophies, but did show good progress in most competitions. Aside from the aforementioned journey in the UEFA Youth League, the young side also reached the quarter-final of the Premier League Cup and finished 3rd in the League, after going unbeaten in their opening twelve fixtures. However it was not all positives, a slump of five defeats in eight left them behind Manchester United and Manchester City in the standings and a disappointing 3-2 defeat at home to Arsenal knocked Liverpool out in the early stages of the FA Youth Cup.
After the disastrous reign of Pedro Caixinha, the Ibrox hierarchy had at first placed Graeme Murty in interim charge of the team, only to remove him after poor results and then proceed to put Jimmy Nicholl in charge for three games. The search for a new manager had a sense of urgency, but the club had to find the right candidate after a tumultuous season. Gerrard was identified as the man to revive the side’s fortunes and the former Liverpool and England captain agreed a four-year-deal at Ibrox.
One of the most important factors behind Gerrard's subsequent success at Ibrox was the meticulous nature with how he put together his coaching staff. He quickly assessed what strengths he brought to the table and where he was found wanting. As he succinctly put it "I haven't had the luxury of retiring early from the game or not having been a player in terms of having that pitch time to really become a coach who's done so for 20 years, like Brendan Rodgers, Jose Mourinho or Michael Beale.
Beale was appointed as Rangers First Team Coach and was formerly head of coaching at the LFC academy, managing their under-23s team. This came after starting his career at Chelsea, spending time as assistant manager at Brazilian giants Sao Paulo. He has subsequently earned rave reviews for his coaching sessions with Kyle Lafferty, a signing from Hearts who played for a season under Gerrard stating:
"No disrespect to Steven Gerrard who I think is an amazing manager, where he has taken the club from day one to now is night and day - he's made Rangers a force again in the Premiership and Europe. But Michael Beale is behind the scenes and I think he's the brains behind it. Tactically he's amazing."
Gerrard himself admitted as much by saying "It would take me 15 to 20 years to get as good as Michael Beale as an on pitch coach, to deliver sessions on a daily basis, so I let Mick be Mick Beale because he's the expert and has the skillset.” This Fergusonesque approach has been adopted by the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to much derision but as we will touch upon further, there is a difference between having a tactical philosophy and leaning on others to help implement it versus wholly relying on your coaches for setting the tone on how you want the team to play full stop.
Another integral member of Gerrard's backroom staff is Gary McAllister. McAllister, of course, had aspirations to be a manager in his own right, starting out at Coventry City – a spell cut short by tragedy when he lost his wife to cancer – before returning to the game at another of his former clubs, Leeds United. But after being sacked in 2008 he held a number of assistant managerial roles, starting with Middlebrough before hooking up with his old Liverpool boss Gerard Houlier at Villa Park in 2010 until Alex McLeish’s appointment in 2011.
He returned to Anfield as first team coach under Brendan Rodgers before joining Gerrard at Ibrox. A former colleague of his Julian Joachim who played under McAllister during his player manager spell at Coventry said “Technically, Gary Mac was very good and had great ability and he’ll want to get the best out of the players and make sure the players make the most of their ability. Asked if McAllister is a strict disciplinarian and serious task master, Joachim said: “Yes, and I think you have got to be. When I knew him as a player manager he always had high standards about himself and the team otherwise you’ll not get anywhere."
In effect, McAllister acts as Gerrard's second pair of eyes and is versatile enough to play good cop, bad cop depending on how Gerrard is feeling and what he feels the players need at the time. He is also able to call upon his previous experiences to guide Gerrard and correct him if he disagrees with something. McAllister played an important role in Gerrard's own development as a player and as a result he has a gravitas and authority that Gerrard values and wants by his side.
Other members of Gerrard's backroom staff at Rangers included set-piece specialist Tom Culshaw - Gerrard's former U18 assistant coach - whose quality of work may be overstated based on some of the analysis I have done on Rangers' defensive set piece organisation (we will touch upon this further on in the piece) and head of performance Jordan Milsom, a man who was tasked with implementing Gerrard's 'physically intense' style of play.
In terms of achievements, within his first two months at the club, Gerrard led Rangers through four rounds of Europa League qualifying, a feat he would repeat over the next two seasons. He also led the Rangers to their first group stage appearance in seven years and delivered a first Old Firm victory in six years in December 2018. The Gers agonisingly finished third in the Europa League group stage but showed signs of progress by drawing twice against Spanish giants Villarreal.
On the domestic scene, Cup competitions were not so kind to Gerrard as Aberdeen knocked them out of both competitions in Glasgow during his first season in charge. In the League, Celtic would clinch another league by nine points, despite changing their manager in February when Brendan Rodgers decided to take over the vacant seat at Leicester. As we will touch upon in the tactics, the failure of Rangers to convert draws into wins would prove to be their downfall.
Gerrard’s first nine months in charge saw a number of formations utilised ranging from the 4-3-3, to 4-1-4-1 and the 4-2-3-1. Initially the 4-3-3 was the formation of choice and the primary focus was on Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent being tasked with getting wide and delivering the ball into Alfredo Morelos at every opportunity. What made Gerrard's utilisation of these wide players unique was how ambidextrous they were and this made Rangers pretty unpredictable in transitional situations.
However when an attack becomes too dangerous and direct in large acres of space, opposition teams will soon clock on and put bodies behind the ball, taking away the space in behind. When this happened, all too often Rangers were stifled by passive low defensive blocks and Alfredo Morelos was left isolated and frustrated. There was simply no subtlety to Rangers' attacking.
Back to back losses against Aberdeen in the League Cup and in the SPL during the Winter period would prove to be the first turning points of Gerrard's tenure from a tactical perspective. He realised that the midfield he was using did not really possess the requisite quality to support the forwards and that there was too much space between midfield and attack.
Consequently Gerrard switched to a 4-2-3-1 shape that saw Scott Arfield play behind Morelos. Having Arfield in a more advanced role made use of his incredible work rate and energy in high pressing, furthermore it emphasised the quality of Arfield’s movement off the ball offensively, as he could find space between the lines and link attacks. This would lead to a brief upturn in results before Rangers once again found themselves suffering from the same issue.
After beating Dundee 4-0 in the SPL, in the Scottish FA Cup Rangers once again found themselves up against Aberdeen who had beat them twice early in the season. In a feisty affair at the Pittodrie Stadium, Rangers and Arfield in particular could not make their influence felt in front of goal despite enjoying the lions share of possession. Aberdeen set up in a 4-1-4-1 and by having a man occupying Arfield's zone on the pitch, they killed the supply chain from him to Morales, successfully earning a replay.
In the replay Aberdeen used the same tactic but to even greater effect, winning 2-0 away from home. Aberdeen's tactical approach was soon imitated by the likes of Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Celtic who between them ensured Rangers did not win a single game during March. The result at Celtic was particularly harrowing but the fall out from Alfredo Morelos’ red card in this encounter was a crucial factor in how Rangers progressed and would result in the next major tactical shift of the Gerrard era.
Morales' replacement in the team was January signing Jermaine Defoe, and a shift in tactical approach was deemed necessary to provide close support for Defoe who was not as adept at dropping deep to link play as his counterpart. To do this, Rangers asked their wide players to play as ‘inside 10’s’ and working within 10 yards infield from the flanks in the left and right half spaces.
In order to ensure Rangers had the right type of players to execute the 4-3-2-1, Scott Arfield, a more natural central player replaced Daniel Candeias in the team. The idea was that Arfield and Ryan Kent would be able to support Defoe better from this starting position and form a tight three pronged attack. Another key benefit of this approach was the ability to better overload the low block opposition defence by taking advantage of space between opposition full backs and centre backs.
Another fundamental change conducted by Gerrard was the composition of the midfield. Steven Davis was to act as the team's deep lying playmaker and was to be flanked by box to box midfielders who could do the hard yards defensively as well as provide width both defensively and offensively. Suddenly the angles with which Rangers could hurt teams, the sheer variety of positions they could take up when they had the ball meant that teams were now going to find it hard to put up a defensive structure which sent Rangers into cul de sacs.
Hearts would be the first victims of this new structure as Rangers reeled off 6 straight successive victories, beating all of their rivals including Celtic. They did lose the last game of the season but that is only because they rested the likes of Davis and put out their old 4-3-3 structure with Kent and Candeias out wide again - putting the final nail in the coffin for that particular set up.
A new season and another four EL qualifiers to tackle; which this time would include St Josephs, Progress Neidercorn, Midtjylland, and Legia Warsaw. Victory against the Polish club guaranteed entry to the Europa group stage and enabled the permanent signing of Ryan Kent, for £6.5m; an unimaginable level of investment and ambition from just a year or so before. A particularly key signing was the left footed centre back Helander (£3.5m) who would take Ranger's possession game to an even greater level.
Niko Katic had been a prominent figure in Gerrard's debut season and was renowned for his toughness and siege mentality. However he was limited on the ball and this was particularly apparent in the opening Old Firm game of the 2019/20 season. Rangers were undefeated going into this match but Celtic successfully cut off the passing angles and pressed in a way that left Rangers with no option but to attempt to build play down their left hand side with Jon Flanagan and Niko Katic, both right footed and the two least technical players in the team.
Lessons were learned from this defeat and as a natural left footer, Helander provided a balance to the defence that just wasn’t possible with right footed Katic. Helander's superior positional and technical ability opened that left hand side and provided Rangers with an avenue to progress the ball quickly through the lines. Louis Van Gaal was always a staunch advocate of a left footed defender in the left centre back role and for now, Gerrard could count himself as a disciple of that principle.
In his second season, Gerrard’s side improved dramatically, advancing in Europa League to reach the last 16, famously beating Porto and Feyenoord in the group stages and recording victories in both legs against Braga during the first knockout round before succumbing to the might of Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen. They rode their luck in a lot of these games but the results would not have been possible without the tactical evolution and mental shift that Gerrard and his management staff had carried out.
One goal which encapsulated this was Steven Davis' goal to put Rangers 2-0 ahead against Porto. Only in the new 4-3-2-1 system and having such an attacking minded deep lying player could that goal have been scored. Gerrard's system allowed him to drift from a deeper area and get to the edge of the box and take a long shot. In terms of the mental reset, the comeback against Braga and the relentless attacking style of Rangers even when all seemed lost is a Gerrard trademark as a player and as a manager.
Whilst there was a lot to celebrate in terms of the growth of this side on a number of fronts, domestically Rangers still disappointed and did not really put together a title challenge. The biggest issue they faced was a lack of consistency in terms of team selection. Very rarely were they able to put together their best line-up week in week out - one week there would be Morales missing, then it might be Tavernier or Davis. For one reason or another, they just couldn't put them out for a prolonged period.
Following a long-enforced break, the 2020/21 season began without supporters against the backdrop of empty stadiums. This was a pivotal season for Steven Gerrard as the threat of Celtic completing a historic ten-in-a-row bid got underway.
Rangers continued growing their squad and some serious additions strengthened the group for the challenges ahead. Ianis Hagi’s loan was made permanent and Jermain Defoe extended his stay after his Bournemouth contract expired. Calvin Bassey, and Leon Balogun were added to the defence, while Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten offered different qualities in attack. Jon McLaughlin and the loan of Bongani Zungu completed the list of arrivals.
During this season, Rangers deployed the 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 for the majority of the season, utilising it 70% of the time. They were also able to field a more consistent starting XI. This was confirmation that Rangers now had a settled tactical philosophy and were ready to win a major trophy. One thing we have not quite touched upon yet is the perpetually improving pressing strategy which Gerrard had implemented since the first season. By his third season, it was close to perfection.
It involved an energetic front three working very tightly as a collective unit moving from side to side, screening passes into central midfield and forcing the opponents into one side of the pitch and using the midfield behind them to clear up any loose passes. The pressing was less intense than in previous seasons, averaging 10.42 PPDA in 2020/21 versus the scarcely believable 7.79 PPDA of 2018/19, but it was more efficient. Despite making less interceptions as a side, they reduced shots conceded on goal from 9 per game to 7 per game.
Rangers' domestic campaign started with a narrow victory against bitter rivals Aberdeen. They played some sumptuous football, Morales moving out wide to allow the likes of Aribo, Hagi and Kent to wreak havoc with their interplay and running with the ball. Gerrard's men were now effortlessly destroying the low block and there seemed to be a synchronised fluidity to Ranger's patterns of play. When one player moved out of his usual position and took up an unorthodox space, his colleagues seemingly understood instinctively how to fill that space. An attack ready to take the nation by storm.
By the end of the season, Rangers had scored a mammoth 92 goals and conceded only 13, compared to only 64 goals scored and 19 goals conceded in 2019/20. A key tenet of Michael Beale's coaching philosophy is winning in both penalty areas, and by Gerrard's third season - they were most certainly doing that. They would go the season unbeaten, beating Celtic in back to back victories and finishing their domestic campaign with a 4-0 trashing of Aberdeen.
In Europe, Galatasaray were disposed of before topping their Europa League group ahead of Portuguese giants Benfica. Rangers then put a historic nine goals past Belgian side Royal Antwerp over both legs in the last 32 and didn’t lose a game in the competition until Slavia Prague beat them in the last 16. The defeats against Prague perhaps illustrated that Gerrard and his management staff were not quite the finished articles just yet. The next step of their journey would have to take place south of the border....
Gerrard's managerial philosophy places a great emphasis on physical dynamism, especially in areas such as striker, the box to box midfielder positions and full back. These are non-negotiable. He also prefers to have at least one livewire wide player and fleet footed ball-playing defenders who are very progressive and forward thinking. Whilst the vast majority of Gerrard's club career was under the tutelage of pragmatic managers such as Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, in truth there is very little of their influence in his tactics.
If anything he seems much more influenced by a manager he begrudgingly admired from afar... Sir Alex Ferguson. His Rangers side are reminiscent of the high octane style perfected by Fergie's United in the 1990's. It has a very 'British' feel in terms of the emphasis on relentless work rate and never giving up until the final whistle. In truth it also reflects on what Gerrard was like as a player, an absolute powerhouse.
Gerrard's teams for the most part always tend to dominate possession. One of the major reasons for that is their relentless pressing - they do not make it easy for opponents to dominate the ball. Another key reason is that Gerrard and Beale have instilled a very front foot mentality in the team. If you can, go out and dominate the game and play it on your own terms. In truth against bigger sides, Rangers rarely outright dominate the ball and this can be attributed to the fact that Gerrard's mastery of ball possession coaching is still very much in its infancy and the quality of the players at his disposal especially in midfield is limited.
Jorginho is one of those rare examples of a deep-lying playmaker excelling in the English game. Gerrard's Rangers were utterly transformed once Steven Davis was deployed as a deeper lying midfielder and tasked with bringing control and progression to Rangers' build up phase. It is very likely that with this ploy working in Europe and winning a title for Gerrard, that he is likely to want to find such a midfielder for Aston Villa.
It is really difficult to envisage Gerrard or Beale-Ball working with a cumbersome number 9. The sheer speed of their positive transition, the intensity of their press, their love of the 4-3-2-1 which works best with a Shevchenko-esque striker who roams into the wide areas and can look comfortable wherever he picks the ball up in the final third. What Morales also has is a maverick edge which allows him to score long range goals or goals which defy XG - this is priceless in a system where there is no natural width and there is a danger of congestion in central areas.
Gerrard may have started his Rangers reign with flying wingers, but by the end of it - he had developed a more complex attacking system which relied on his full backs to provide the natural width, with some support from the box to box midfielders such as Kamara and Aribo who can bomb down the flanks and inside forwards who operate in close proximity to the centre forward. So a team that was playing in straight lines has evolved into a team that does anything but. Quite the transformation.
Players who will almost certainly thrive under Gerrard's management and tactical philosophy are the likes of Matty Cash and John McGinn. Players who could see their fortunes change are Emi Buendia (surely tailor made for a 4-3-2-1), Tyrone Mings (Gerrard likes a left footed left centre back), Leon Bailey (there is room for one livewire winger in Gerrard's system) and Olly Watkins (it is hard to envisage Ings being able to cope with the physical demands of Gerrard's tactics in the long term - he may however play the Defoe role).
Signings he will need to make are a new deep lying midfielder, a new left back and potentially another box to box midfielder to mirror the impact of John McGinn. Having said that, if Gerrard is able to implement his current tactical philosophy and finds that it is not quite as effective in the Premier League - he will probably tweak it and undergo another stage of evolution. Gerrard's teams do not stand still. They eventually find a way to overcome obstacles. Villa might start in a 4-3-2-1 but there is no guarantee that by the end of Gerrard's tenure that the formation will persist.
One issue that I have spotted with Gerrard's tactical approach is defending set pieces. It is heavily in favour of man-marking and there does not seem to be enough of a zonal element to it. I am a big fan of a hybrid approach and it does seem Rangers especially in Europe have been susceptible to being found all at sea when defending corners. The English League it not forgiving in this regard.
It also goes without saying that if the current crop of players are unable to meet Gerrard's demands or Beale's for that matter - they will be out on their ear. He is a man who is extremely ambitious and views Villa as the perfect stepping stone to getting the hot seat at Anfield. The only way that can happen is if he manages to turn Villa into the new Leicester City i.e. a team which can consistently qualify for Europa League and regularly give the big boys a bloody nose.