“I don’t think we were at our fluent best,” the former Liverpool captain told Sky Sports shortly after the match. “But we’ve come here and controlled the game with and without the ball.”
More often than not, football managers throw cliches and benign phrases towards the media come win, draw or loss, but Gerrard’s honest appraisal of his side was rather telling. “Controlled” may seem like a bland term to describe a team just after an emphatic win over their rivals, but when it comes to Rangers and Gerrard’s role as the club’s manager, it’s exactly what he’s been striving towards ever since he arrived at Ibrox.
When Gerrard agreed to become the new Rangers manager in May 2018, the club’s squad was a mess. Despite the best efforts of care-taker manager Graeme Murty – who replaced Pedro Caixinha in October the previous year – the Ibrox club had failed to finish second, lingering 12 points behind Celtic and one behind Aberdeen on the final day of the season.
While the squad Gerrard inherited had actually finished the season as top goalscorers, they had conceded twice as many as Celtic and sat seventh in the table when it came to goals conceded. That was where the relatively untested manager began his work, knowing fine well that Rangers would never challenge for league titles if they couldn’t keep clean sheets.
In his first summer transfer window, Gerrard brought in no less than seven defensive players as he set about plugging the holes and trying to bridge the gap between Rangers and Celtic. Allan McGregor was back between the sticks, former Brighton defender Connor Goldson was signed to lead from the centre of defence alongside Nikola Katic, and Borna Barisic and Jon Flanagan were brought in to bolster either full-back position.
In midfield, Gerrard borrowed the 4-3-3 formation he had used while coaching in the Liverpool academy, implementing new signings Steven Davis and Glen Kamara alongside Ryan Jack in a midfield trio that defended first and foremost, then worried about scoring goals after the hard work was done.
It had an immediate impact. Gerrard navigated Rangers through eight Europa League qualifying matches to the group stages with four wins, four draws and zero defeats, while conceding just three goals. Not bad for a club that had been knocked out in the first round by Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn just 12 months prior.
Although the history books may only show an extra eight points on the Premiership league table for Rangers in May 2019, the club’s defensive record dropped from 1.31 goals conceded per game to just 0.92, winning two of the four Old Firm derbies that season and conceding just three goals in the process.
The following summer, Gerrard signed another two central defenders in George Edmundson and Filip Helander as the Rangers manager continued to tighten his grip on his defence and his ambitions. The Ibrox club’s goals-conceded-per-game average dropped once again to 0.8, as Rangers marched to the last 16 of the Europa League with nine clean sheets in 18 games.
Domestically, Rangers continued to gain on Neil Lennon’s Celtic. In the League Cup final, the Ibrox club battered their rivals with 24 shots to Celtic’s eight, only to then lose to a Christopher Jullien header in the 60th minute – four minutes before Alfredo Morelos missed an all-important penalty. Yet three weeks later, a 2-1 win at Celtic Park put Rangers one point behind Lennon’s side with a game in hand as the league paused for the winter break.
Celtic, to their credit, used the winter break to wipe their tactics board clean and start again – a move that offered them the necessary impetus to restart and push on in the Premiership. Meanwhile, Gerrard stuck to his tried and tested system but overlooked the risks of relying so heavily on Morelos, his team’s only consistent goalscorer.
Although Rangers’ defensive system held up – they only conceded eight goals in their remaining nine league fixtures – Morelos scored just one goal in the second half of the season and missed the club’s unexpected Scottish Cup quarter-final defeat to Hearts through suspension. After losing just one of their opening 15 games of the league campaign, Gerrard’s side capitulated to a lack of alternative firepower and dropped 13 points in their remaining nine league games.
Gerrard accepted and addressed this clear oversight ahead of the 2020/21 season by signing two extra strikers, as well as Jermaine Defoe on a permanent deal. And while Morelos did start against Celtic on Saturday, Gerrard had at least three goalscorers on his bench to turn to if needed.
Yet it was Gerrard’s defence that won the day at Celtic Park on Saturday. Quite literally, in the form of Goldson’s two goals but also in an overall performance that stopped Celtic from getting a single shot on goal. It was Rangers’ third clean sheet in eight games against Celtic and Gerrard’s fourth win against a club with vastly superior resources to his own.
“We have worked on our shape for two years now and used it against some top teams,” noted Goldson after a win in which nine of the Rangers starting XI were players that Gerrard had either inherited or signed in his first summer at the club.
Indeed, it has been Gerrard’s tactics that have allowed Rangers to control games against better teams in Europe and bridge an almighty financial gap between themselves and Celtic. The Ibrox side now sit four points clear at the top of the Premiership table, with their sights set firmly on stopping Celtic’s march to a tenth, consecutive league title.