As a player, Steven Gerrard was defined by his achievements in Europe. Think of the former midfielder’s greatest moments in a Liverpool shirt and with the exception of his stoppage time stunner in the 2006 FA Cup final, you’ll recall his screamer at the Kop end against Olympiacos, his brace against Real Madrid and, of course, his header in Istanbul to spark the comeback to end all comebacks.
All these moments came in the Champions League, though. The Europa League isn’t a competition Gerrard knows as well, but it could be where he truly underlines his potential as a manager with Rangers set to face Slavia Praha in the round of 16 this week.
The first leg of this tie will come just days after Rangers clinched the Scottish Premiership title, their first in 10 years. Gerrard was hired to halt Celtic’s charge to 10 straight league titles and he has now delivered on that objective, with Rangers on course for an invincible season.
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This alone is enough to mark out Gerrard as a talented manager. Rangers were a shell of a club when he took over nearly three years ago. Now, they lead the Scottish game in almost every way, from their performances and results on the pitch to their recruitment in the transfer market. There has been a culture change in Govan.
Gerrard’s Rangers have been most impressive in Europe, though, with the Ibrox side unbeaten in the 11 matches they have played this season (including qualifiers). The only points they dropped in the group stages were to Benfica home and away, and even then this was only through the concession of late equalisers in both games.
In the last three seasons, Rangers have also claimed wins over Feyenoord, Galatasaray and Porto, also taking points off Villarreal home and away. They smashed nine goals past Royal Antwerp in this season’s Europa League round of 32 tie and stand a good chance of making it past Slavia Praha and into the quarter finals.
The coaching principles and values instilled in Gerrard’s players have been most visible in continental competition, where bad practices are frequently exposed. While both legs of the last 32 tie against Royal Antwerp were somewhat wild, Rangers have earned a reputation for being a well-drilled, disciplined side.
First team coach Michael Beale, Gerrard’s right hand man, is widely seen as the tactical mastermind behind the operation. The former Chelsea and Sao Paulo coach followed Gerrard to Glasgow from Liverpool and the strong relationship between the two figures is evident in the in-depth conversations that take place on the bench.
Gary McAllister, Gerrard’s assistant manager, also deserves a mention for the role he plays, with the former Scotland international thought to be the one who offers an arm of support around the players’ shoulder. As a unit, Gerrard and his staff have clearly struck the right balance at Ibrox.
This self-awareness to surround himself with others who bring different qualities bodes well for the rest of Gerrard’s managerial career, as does his patience not to rush to his next destination. Just this week the 40-year-old rejected the notion that he could replace Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager any time soon. "The Liverpool fans don't want me to be the manager of Liverpool Football Club,” he said. “They want Jurgen Klopp to continue to be the Liverpool manager, and I'm totally with all of them.”
If, however, Gerrard is to one day scale the same heights as a manager as he did a player, it’s the Europa League that could offer him that route to the top. The Scottish title might have been the thing the Rangers fans, thousands of whom crowded Glasgow’s streets in celebration on Sunday, craved most of all, but it’s not what will prove their manager as destined for the top.
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