Steven Gerrard wants to manage Liverpool. For now, he will manage Aston Villa. After three seasons in Scotland at the helm of Rangers, he has left the club to take over the recently vacated spot at Aston Villa, marking a return to the Premier League. Gerrard’s new club announced the move on Thursday:
The Pool Boys legend’s coaching path has been as ideal as possible. A month after Gerrard retired from the LA Galaxy, Liverpool announced that he would join the youth academy as a coach. Three months later, the club promoted him to the manager of the under-18 side for the 2017-18 season, and then later also named him boss of the under-19s in the UEFA Youth League. Like Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, Gerrard was charged with learning his managerial craft from the inside. Unlike those two, he had a Jürgen Klopp-sized roadblock on his path to taking over the main team.
That’s when Scotland came calling. Rangers made Gerrard the manager ahead of the 2018-19 season, on the back end of a decade-long tailspin. The winningest club in Scotland had been placed in financial administration in 2012 and was eventually liquidated. A new ownership group bought in and kept the assets intact, albeit with a heavy punishment: The club would be starting over from the third division of the country’s soccer pyramid, having to work its way back up to the Premiership.
By the time Gerrard came to Glasgow, Rangers had settled back into the top two of Scotland, albeit a tier below its rivals Celtic. It wasn’t the worst position for a new manager with no top-flight experience. Gerrard was given time to figure out his process, and he gave back from the start, starting undefeated in his first 12 games, and giving Rangers its first league win over Celtic in six years on Dec. 29, 2018. The COVID-shortened 2019-20 season saw Celtic win its ninth league title in a row, with Rangers falling off before the March stoppage.
Once soccer returned, Gerrard and Rangers took the next step. The 2020-21 season was a return to domestic dominance, and it was as great a season as any Scottish club could have: two victories against Celtic, 102 points, undefeated, and Rangers’ first league title since 2011. Gerrard’s attacking brand of 4-3-3 soccer thoroughly stomped through the competition, and made him worthy of a higher-profile job.
It’s unfair to Rangers that the timing worked out like this, but Aston Villa was too good of an opportunity to pass up. At Villa, Gerrard will have ownership support, diehard fans, and manageable expectations. Though the Lions have had a decent couple of seasons, peaking early on last year thanks to the now-departed Jack Grealish, they are in a terrible state to start this current campaign: 10 points through 11 matches and, more worryingly, only two points clear of the relegation zone.
No reasonable person expects Gerrard to come in and immediately push this side into the European slots; his only goal for this campaign will be to ensure that Villa does not get relegated into the Championship. If he can manage that, he will likely have a ton of money to spend on building the squad to his liking next summer, as well as a full pre-season to really incorporate his attacking philosophy.
Villa is working with more urgency. This year the club has struggled with midfield control and defensive rigidity. Villa has given up 20 goals, more than all but two Premier League clubs (relegation fodder Norwich City and newly purchased Newcastle United), and it struggles with the ball, ranking in the bottom half of the Premier League on possession and pass percentage. Gerrard will have to quickly and efficiently build the lineup, though having one of the Premier League’s most decorated midfielders in charge of a midfield refresh isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s theoretically an ideal fit.
On a longer timeline, though, Villa has to understand that Gerrard is using the club not for its past glories or current benefits, but as a stepping stone. Look at the contract he signed: His new deal at Villa runs through 2024, which coincidentally is the same length as Klopp’s current deal at Liverpool. There have already been rumblings that Klopp will not sign a new contract with the Reds, and that he will step away in 2024. The implication here, at least from Gerrard’s camp, is that nearly three seasons at Villa will either tank his managerial career, or lead to his appointment as the next Liverpool manager.
That’s a risk, but it’s one that pales in comparison to some of Gerrard’s playing contemporaries. Recent soccer history has seen a handful of ex-players jump into the deep end with less seasoning than Gerrard, and most have flopped. Andrea Pirlo went from coaching Juventus’ under-23 team for nine days to a one-season debacle managing the top team. Frank Lampard parlayed a failed promotion campaign in the Championship into a catastrophic stint at Chelsea. Worst of all, Thierry Henry flamed out at Monaco after three months. Barcelona is taking a similar approach with its recent hiring of Xavi; the Catalan club will hope he’s more successful, even though he’s only managed in the Qatari league.
There’s no guarantee that Gerrard’s slower path will work out better than it did for his peers. Villa is a tough job, even with all of the benefits outlined above, and the Premier League requires a more deft touch than Scotland’s top division does. As a young manager joining mid-season, he may have trouble in immediately getting teams to buy into his vision. He could have finished the season out in Scotland then taken his pick of the open Premier League roles ahead of next season, but those options might not have been as appealing, or as helpful to his ultimate goal.