How the relationship between Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard shapes Celtic and Rangers
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A few minutes before the 12pm kick-off the Sky Sports cameras, plus a horde of finger-clicking photographers, will be focussed on the technical area as they wait they embrace between Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard.
It is not quite the master taking on the apprentice, considering the influence both Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez had over the Rangers boss during their time in charge at Anfield.
Yet, Rodgers and Gerrard have history, good and bad. And it’s this confrontation - it can’t be anything else when on opposite sides of the Old Firm divide - which has provided Scottish football with yet another selling point.
It has the entertainment, the authenticity, the intensity and the blood-and-thunder, and certainly the patter. Now, with both Rodgers and Gerrard in tow, Scottish football has genuine A-list names and high profile storylines.
While Scottish football is very defensive in terms of its reputation and suspicious of those from outwith the country sticking their nose into its business, genuine interest from across the across the border and further afield is very much welcomed.
There has already been an interesting and in-depth piece written in The Independent on Gerrard’s assimilation at Ibrox, while Liverpool legend and revered Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher dedicated his Daily Telegraph column to the meeting between the pair.
It’s not just news. It is big news. And it is happening in Scotland.
The relationship between Gerrard and Rodgers started in 2012 when the Northern Irishman took over a Liverpool side who had just finished eighth in the Premier League. There was a slight improvement in his first season with a seventh place finish. Therefore no one expected what was to come the following season, with bookies pricing Liverpool at 33/1 to win the 2013-2014 Premier League.
Forward duo Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez ran riot as Liverpool became genuine title contenders but, as Michael Cox writes in the excellent ‘The Mixer - the story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines’, “the most significant development... involved Gerrard.”
The Liverpool captain had been deeply unhappy with his performances as a forward-thinking midfielder and sought out Rodgers’ help. The Celtic boss pinpointed an issue with the way Gerrard was receiving the ball, namely is head movement in scanning what was around him, and they decided a move to a deeper playmaking role would be best.
Defensively it didn’t aid the team with Gerrard not renowned for his positional discipline. But it suited the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling as he was used to start attack from deeps, helping Liverpool become direct and an exhilarating watch.
After beating Manchester City in a thrilling game at Anfield, the day Gerrard uttered those immortal words: “This does not f***ing slip now”, it appeared Rodgers was destined to deliver Liverpool’s first league title since 1990.
“I worried about how we were planning to play against Chelsea. I sensed an overconfidence in Brendan’s team talk.”
However, Gerrard wrote that in his autobiography; his thoughts on the disastrous home defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The game in which he slipped and the Premier League title began to slip away.
Cracks, if you can call them that considering the respect Gerrard had for Rodgers and vice versa, began to show the season after. Liverpool were struggling to build on their title tilt and their Champions League campaign was not much better.
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Rodgers had begun managing Gerrard’s game time ahead of a trip to the Bernabeau to face Real Madrid. The player started on the bench as Liverpool lost. It would be the beginning of the end of his Liverpool career.
Gerrard said: “When I was told I wasn’t playing for the sake of the team and the squad and my relationship with Brendan, I took it and I accepted it. But I sat on that bench devastated because I wanted to play so, it is one of those situations.”
As Carragher notes in his column, Rodgers didn’t owe Gerrard anything. There was no place for sentiment, only what was best for Liverpool.
Fast forward to present day Glasgow, any relationship is put to the side as they do what’s best for their respective sides with Sunday’s encounter an early staging post in the season and arguably the most eagerly anticipated Old Firm clash in many a year.
Few could have predicted the transformation under Gerrard, let alone the pace of the transformation. The club have made 14 signings as they tidy up the mess left by Pedro Caixiha and Graeme Murty who appeared to dismissively treat Ibrox like an Airbnb, hosting a colourful, weird and ultimately shambolic house party.
What Gerrard has done is recognise what Rangers need while treating Scottish football with the respect it deserves and the peculiarities it presents. You need to be able to play football, and quickly, or you’ll be found out. And you need to be able to battle.
He has rebuilt the defence - with the excellence of Allan McGregor between the sticks the base - but also developed a strategy and organisation throughout the team which has been missing. Many could have expected Gerrard to put together an anarchic and attacking outfit, similar to how he played. However, the 38-year-old cherishes clean sheets.
He has admitted previously the cold relationship he shared with Benitez but it is clear he has been heavily influenced by the Spaniard. That can be seen in the way the team press in a systematic and organised manner. If they sniff a vulnerability they pounce. If they need to defend deep and make it difficult they will, as seen in Europe.
Reaching the group stages of the Europa League has given Gerrard and this Rangers team credibility. Something which has been lacking in the latter for a long time.
Yet, there needs to be a reality check, something which Motherwell provided on Sunday past. If Rangers were to get beat against Celtic they would be on five points after four games, and six behind the champions.
Bigger picture, however, under Gerrard Rangers are moving forward and on the up.
Curiously the same can’t be said for Celtic. The bigger picture has become blurred this summer. Recruitment has been sloppy and now slapdash, Rodgers has faced his toughest spell as Celtic manager and two key players have, and possibly still do, want to leave.
When Scott Brown lifted the Ladbrokes Premiership title in May seven-in-a-row looked like it would become ten-in-a-row without too much hassle. That’s no longer the case, such is the shifting landscape in football, especially in Glasgow.
Celtic are still favourites to achieve the feat but it is far from straightforward. There is a sense, with his frustrations in the transfer window and on a quest of progress, this could be the beginning of the end for Rodgers.
Alternatively, he could be stimulated by the challenge of Rangers and Steven Gerrard, and an increasingly competitive Scottish Premiership, to continue with Celtic in the long-term and consolidate his position as one of, if not the best current British manager.
However, on Sunday, for 90 minutes, the only picture that matters is the then and now. Win, no matter what. All eyes will be on Celtic Park and specifically the opposing dug-outs.