The defensive rock Steven Gerrard has carved out at Rangers isn’t only down to a managerial blueprint. A Spanish redprint is chiselled into the edifice. The former Liverpool captain has demonstrated an adeptness at setting out his team to be sturdy on the road in the Europa League that is at odds with his novice stature in the role. It is, though, perfectly in keeping with those that Rafael Benitez patented when he managed Gerrard at Anfield in an era that brought the club that miracle in Istanbul.
The Spaniard was a coach who crafted his system to repel opposition when facing hazardous away assignments. Game management it is called in modern football parlance and it is an aspect of coaching that Gerrard has shown a rare aptitude for across his opening two months in the post.
The scoreless draw in Maribor on Thursday propelled Rangers into a Europa League play-off tie that will bring a home leg against Russian side FC Ufa on Thursday and allowed Gerrard’s newly fashioned team to bring up a couple of landmarks. They have become the first Scottish team to make it through three qualifying rounds in the competition. Moreover, following the 1-0 victory against Croats Osijek in the previous round and the scoreless encounter with Shkupi with which they began the season, they are the first Rangers side to rack up three consecutive away clean sheets in continental competition since Dick Advocaat’s men in 2001. That is the only other time such a triple has been achieved by an Ibrox squad.
Gerrard doesn’t downplay the influence of Benitez on his tactical strategies that are patently paying dividends. “You certainly try to dig into experiences as a player and coaches you worked under. Rafa was the master of defending away in Europe and being hard to play against. Then using the power of Anfield in the home leg,” said the Rangers manager, who takes his team to Kilmarnock for a Betfred Cup tie this lunchtime.
“The important thing for me was that teams used to fancy playing against Rangers. Teams would fancy themselves to create and score. For us it was important to make teams fear us. When you came up against Rangers they were hard to beat and organised and had players who were prepared to put their body on the line. I think we have got that at the moment but it is important we continue it.”
Benitez instilled in Gerrard the player a discipline that he now concedes he might have lacked before the Spaniard arrived in 2004. “He helped me become a better player tactically,” he said. “When Rafa got me maybe I couldn’t be trusted fully positionally. I maybe had too much energy and would lose my slot at an important time.
“I had too much enthusiasm to go forward and get goals. It was maybe a bit of ego. But individual performances don’t always get you the right result in Europe. It is about the team, the structure, the organisation. Rafa was a master at it and he improved that side of my game massively.”
Gerrard has improved Rangers massively as a team capable of repelling opponents. He presents this not as an option to bring the ends that he is striving for but a necessity. Equally to the necessity of performing major surgery on the individuals entrusted with goal prevention. Only captain James Tavernier has been retained from the back five that played regularly, and lost goals regularly, last season. The additions of keeper Allan McGregor, centre-backs Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic, and Liverpool full-back Jon Flanagan have transformed the Ibrox men as a defensive force.
“It’s the only way to progress, not just in Europe,” he said. “Moving forward, if we have any ideas of being successful it’s important that you defend your goal and we’ve got people now in the door who are capable of doing that. Hopefully, we can maybe add one more in that area as well because I do feel we are a little bit light, certainly at the heart of our back four.
“It was certainly an area I knew when I came in that I had to address and strengthen, to try and build a strong spine through the team and so far defensively we’ve performed very well.
“My players deserve a lot of credit for [three clean sheets away from home in Europe]. Big players have stood tall and put in big performances for us, sometimes heroic performances like Allan [who saved a penalty] in Maribor and Connor and Niko again, their consistency has been superb.
“The likes of Tav [Tavernier] and Flanno [Flanagan] as well have bought into us being an organised team, tough to beat and break down.” That has allowed Rangers to step up.