The emotion was evident in Steven Gerrard’s voice as he implied to the assembled media that he would consider his position as Rangers boss.
The 39-year-old had just endured the most testing week of his managerial career to date having seen his team crash out of the Scottish Cup to bottom-of-the-table Hearts just seven days after the title race had effectively been conceded with a draw against St Johnstone. “It’s the lowest I’ve felt since I came into the job by a long way,” he said.
Even more puzzling to Gerrard than Rangers’ domestic collapse was that these two catastrophic results had come either side of arguably the best performance in the club’s recent history. Indeed, Rangers’ Europa League win over Braga on the Wednesday was viewed by many as a demonstration of all that Gerrard has instilled in the Ibrox outfit since his appointment there two summers ago. This made what happened at Tynecastle just three days later all the more difficult to explain.
“On Wednesday night I was the proudest man in Europe because my players were outstanding,” he said. “Everything we’ve worked on for two years, I could see it on the sidelines. I was proud as punch, it was incredible. But today for 90 minutes, I didn’t recognise anything. So I’m feeling really low.”
Gerrard has good reason to feel low. Victory over Celtic on December 29 put Rangers in control of the Scottish Premiership title race. There appeared to be a new mental strength to the Govan side, losing just one league game all season up until that point. Alfredo Morelos had 28 goals in 35 games and Rangers looked to have the talent and depth to maintain a challenge on all fronts.
Since then, Rangers have lost to Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Hearts twice, also dropping points to Aberdeen and St Johnstone. They are 13 points adrift of top spot in the Scottish Premiership table and are out of the Scottish Cup. This was the season in which Rangers were expected to make the final step in their development under Gerrard. Instead, Celtic are on course for a fourth successive Treble of trophies.
So why have Rangers succeeded in Europe, improving as their Europa League campaign has progressed when they have faltered so dramatically domestically? Why was Gerrard able to guide his team to an assured, measured win away to Braga when such performances have evaded them back home?
As a player, Gerrard was always something of a tortured soul. That worked to his advantage as he became a leader of a club that, at the time, had to punch above its weight to compete at the elite level. Gerrard has carried this character trait into management, but it doesn’t have the same effect when he’s the one making the decisions, and when he’s the manager of a club that prides itself on being Scotland’s best.
In Europe, Gerrard has been able to indulge his innate underdog spirit. Rangers were not expected to get this far in this season’s Europa League, but they have kept their best, most complete performances for the competition. Despite the club’s status and the expectation that comes with it, Rangers have been built as a reactive team, not a proactive one.
The first half of the season suggested Gerrard had found a way to break through opponents who sit deep and employ a low defensive block. Now, though, nothing is coming easily. Morelos’ goals have dried up, having gone eight league games without finding the back of the net, and Gerrard is struggling for solutions. Even when Rangers have won domestically recently, they have been decided by the odd goal.
Gerrard’s record in Europe is mightily impressive, suffering just three defeats in 30 games in charge on the continent. European football seems to bring the best out of him as a manager just as it did when he was a player.
Unfortunately for him, Rangers is a club defined by their domestic success and Gerrard remains some way off delivering more of that.
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