Balancing acts performed in deftly-measured fashion have allowed Steven Gerrard to begin his managerial tenure at Rangers in an impressive fashion. The 38-year-old has delicately weighted the task of integrating a raft of new signings while retaining worthwhile elements from last season’s side.
The games have come thick and fast for Gerrard in these early weeks and he will not allow himself to be distracted by what might ensue in Slovenia on Thursday while St Mirren have still to be faced up to at Ibrox this afternoon in the club’s first home Premiership game of the campaign. And, after much of the focus has been on the resolute nature of his new defence, it was midfield balance that underpinned Rangers’ irrepressible drive and determination in the second half of their encounter with Maribor on Thursday. It was key to them seizing a 3-1 advantage to take into the second leg of the Europa League third round qualifier in four days’ time.
The performance also set a benchmark that Gerrard will demand on all fronts. Such propulsion and strength of character were often posted missing during the last campaign, particularly at home. As a result Ibrox bore witness to eight home league defeats across a single season for the first time in a century.
“We are not good enough to pick and choose when we turn up for our games,” Gerrard said of turning the club’s home into a “fortress”. “We have to be at it in every single game. We need to treat St Mirren as we would if it was a Celtic coming to town, an Aberdeen or a Maribor. We have to have the same focus and attitude and try to improve our home form from last year.
“[Last season’s record] was not good enough for a team like Rangers. You can’t be dropping that amount of points at home. I have seen it happen at many other clubs before. If the team is not right and the mentality is not right or your squad or your team is not strong enough, it’s possible these things can happen. I think a lot of the games where Rangers dropped points last season was down to mentality and approach to these types of games.
“We’ve made it clear to the players that it’s not acceptable because we’re not good enough where we can become complacent. We’re building something here and we need to have the same attitude and intensity. If any players in my team think they can waltz into this game and turn up, it won’t happen.”
His team possessing that crucial midfield balance is second nature to Gerrard after his Liverpool years. The central line at Anfield functioned at its smoothest when he was the dynamic lynchpin alongside the solidity and craft offered in equal measure by Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso.
Having acquired a “destroyer”, in Lassana Coulibaly, that Rangers have painfully lacked, Gerrard has a figure to build his midfield around. The Malian has the dimensions to his game to play a number of roles. He can do so to fuse his attributes with the industry offered by Ryan Jack – who should return today after a head knock against Aberdeen last week – the darting runs of Scott Arfield and the scamping qualities of Ovie Ejaria.
“Balance is exactly what we need. You can’t have three Coulibalys, three Scott Arfields, it doesn’t work,” Gerrard said. “If you play with three in midfield it’s important that the blend is right. You have your tough enforcer type, who can go and bite, snap and bark it up, who’s a powerful runner. You need your artist in there who can open the door if you’re up against blocks and teams who are difficult to break down. Then you need someone who can complement both.
“So against Maribor the balance was really good, and in the previous game Ryan Jack did a tremendous job as well. The competition is getting hot in that midfield, there’s four, but you’ve also got Jordan Rossiter to come back in.”
With St Mirren in his direct sightline, Gerrard was pained at even having to cast one eye on to what may possibly lie in store for his side in Maribor on Thursday as they look to seal a Europa League play-off tie that few would have given them an earthly of reaching following such a comprehensive summer overhaul. Moreover, the group stage appears to be genuinely within reach. With last season’s vanquishers Progres Niederkorn losing only 2-1 in Russia to FC Ufa in the tie whose winners will face either Rangers or the Slovenians, keeping their nerve in Maribor could open up the possibility of a £10m group stage bounty.
“We had someone at the game, so we’ll get a report, but I’ll watch the game as well,” he said. “The important thing is to go and finish the job off next week. It’s not a straightforward tie, there’s still more to come from Maribor. It’s a tricky scoreline against a good team. It’s not over, there’s a lot of work to do. But my focus at the moment is picking the right team to start our home campaign well in the league.”