Anfield has changed a lot since Steven Gerrard last called the place home, but Liverpool remains the former midfielder’s spiritual cradle, writes Graham Ruthven.
The romanticism will be difficult to avoid when the 41-year-old returns to his old stomping ground for the first time as an opposition manager with Aston Villa this Saturday. The sense that Gerrard might be Liverpool’s next manager in-waiting will only add to the intrigue around the club’s former captain this weekend. However, Aston Villa’s Premier League clash with Liverpool will highlight how Gerrard might not be the perfect man to succeed Jurgen Klopp as so many believe him to be.
Gerrard certainly looks at home in the Premier League as a manager. His experiences at Rangers, where every defeat is followed by an inquest, gave him the perfect introduction to management at the elite level with the English top-flight currently stronger for coaches than at any other point in its history. And yet three wins from Gerrard’s first four matches in charge of Aston Villa hint at what could be the start of a very successful managerial career in the Premier League. But this doesn’t mean he would be a good Liverpool manager. His status as a club legend shouldn’t be enough to anoint him as Klopp’s natural successor.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have become one of the most dynamic, proactive teams in European football. He might have adapted his ‘Gegenpressing’ style that made his Borussia Dortmund team so eye-catching, but Klopp’s approach remains high-energy and high-octane. The Anfield faithful have grown accustomed to watching their team play in this way.
"The one small regret I have was not signing the year that was offered to me at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers. I felt I was between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to stay and for the journey to continue." #awlive [liverpool echo] pic.twitter.com/FzZqTinyTW
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) December 6, 2021
With Gerrard at the helm, though, Liverpool would be a different sort of side. Naturally attack-minded as a player, Gerrard prefers to focus on the defensive structure of his teams first and foremost. This was key to the way Rangers won their first league title under the former England captain, registering an incredible 25 clean sheets in 38 fixtures.
Rangers under Gerrard played in a narrow shape with two central attacking midfielders behind a central striker. How exactly would this approach work with Liverpool’s frontline of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, an attack the Anfield club would surely be reluctance to see broken apart?
While there are some similarities in the way both Gerrard and Klopp rely on their full-backs for width and creativity, there aren’t many other parallels in the managerial approach of the two. In fact, Gerrard is closer, in terms of his coaching outlook, to Jose Mourinho than Klopp. Is that what Liverpool want when the time comes for a change in the dugout?
“None. None at all,” Gerrard replied when asked whether or not he would feel any sentiment about returning to Liverpool on Saturday. “We just want to go there, try to win and try to take what we can. For us, we’re not competing with Liverpool in terms of the level we’re both at at the moment, but we’ll certainly go there and give everything we’ve got. We took City to the wire, and I believe we should have taken something out of the game with our second-half performance. So we go there with confidence and belief, with three wins out of four, and we go and try make it as difficult as we can.”
The sentimental appeal of Gerrard as Liverpool manager is understandable. As a player, he defined an entire era of the Reds’ recent history and led the club to some moments of pure, unbridled glory. But Istanbul and the 2006 FA Cup final mustn’t come into Liverpool’s thought-process when weighing up potential successors for Klopp. They need the best managerial fit possible and Gerrard might not be that.