Despite a trophy less campaign Gerrard has undoubtedly improved Rangers this season. Jody Black runs the rule over his first campaign at the helm.
This year has been another barren one on the trophy front for Rangers and typically this would put any Rangers manager's job security under threat. However, Steven Gerrard has shown Rangers fans and the board enough signs of progress that he'll become the first manager since Scot Symon (1954-55) to go into a second season as Rangers manager without a trophy. For a while there was a lot of debate whether there had been improvement especially after the Scottish Cup elimination to Aberdeen but there are a few reasons why Rangers' progress under Gerrard cannot be denied anymore.
Europe is where the evolution of Rangers under Gerrard began. It was only a year before the first round of Europa League Qualifying against Shkupi of Macedonia that Rangers hit another low in defeat in the same round to Luxembourg's Progreś Niederkorn. Rangers in the last 20 years have had a fair few European embarassments like Viktoria Zizkov, Kaunas and Unirea Urziceni. However, there was something about Progreś that was worse than the other three despite the teams losing were treble and double winning teams. The side that lost to Kaunas were 6 weeks off a UEFA cup final. At the time Progreś was just another scar on the already damaged Rangers psyche. The Progreś result was right in the middle of a five-year stretch were the club and the fans went through humiliation after humiliation. This preyed on many a Rangers fan's minds as the tie against Shkupi was announced.
A tie against the likes of Shkupi in normal Rangers tradition would be seen as a stroll and nothing to worry about. There was nothing traditional about Rangers in these games for the last 6 years. No game was "easy" anymore. Uninspiring but effective Rangers went through 2-0 on aggregate but the scars of Progreś were still visible particularly as Rangers chased for that second goal at Ibrox in the first leg.
The manager alluded to Progreś before Shkupi as "the easiest team talk I'll ever do" and so it proved. It was a non-negotiable expectation to beat a side from Macedonia but Gerrard in that tie laid down his expectations. Rangers did not roll over in the second round though and deservedly got through to the group stages after beating Osijek, Maribor & Ufa. Those late summer, early autumn nights brought hope and excitement back to Rangers.
Those 4 rounds of qualifying hinted that times were changing, it felt like Rangers sides of the past. There was a familiarity with what Rangers fans were seeing. At home, the team were hand in hand with the support by feeding off each other's energy to get results. Away from home the team were solid, hardworking and tough to grind down. All of these characteristics hearkened back to more successful Rangers sides of the past. Gerrard exceeded expectations in Europe and Rangers still could have qualified to the last 32 with a win in Vienna. Gerrard and his side also broke a 26-year record when Rangers went unbeaten in 11 matches in European competition. Walter Smith's 92/93 Rangers side are one of the most successful and adored sides in Rangers history and to take a record from that team takes some doing.
Gerrard by the start of September had shown that he hadn't just progressed Rangers in terms of which round they could get to but there were clear signs that the team were better. Despite some fans seeing Europe as a distraction in Rangers' hunt for a 55th title. However, the importance Europe has to the club in terms of finance and prestige shouldn't be questioned. It's a level of competition a club like Rangers should be competing in year in, year out and Gerrard has brought this back to Rangers
Gerrard, along with Director of Football Mark Allen, over the summer had a huge job of turning over a huge squad with a lot of players that were not reaching the standard needed at Rangers. There was a huge turnover of players and Gerrard's progression of the squad can be seen in the players that were kept at the club.
James Tavernier and Alfredo Morelos were never doubted in regards to their footballing ability, but both had issues in their game. Tavernier was seen as damaged mentally with huge defensive deficiencies and Morelos was bang out of form and was extremely temperamental, at least one of those things changed. Tavernier was given the armband and has slowly but surely improved defensively and probably for the first time in his Rangers career he hasn't been seen as a total bomb scare at the back. The captains attacking outlay of 14 goals and 16 assists (league only) completely outweighs any defensive issues he previously had. It should also be noted that Tavernier is hitting numbers higher than his first season at Rangers in the Championship. Morelos on the other hand is the league’s top scorer and has scored a fantastic 27 goals in 49 games. Despite his rocky disciplinary record his estimated value has doubled. Gerrard and Allen have also secured these players on lucrative deals seeing them as assets that are vital to the club and tempting potential suitors to pay top money.
If you add in the clear improvement in players such as Andy Halliday, who looked out of the door at Ibrox pre-Gerrard, Ryan Jack, Ross McCrorie and Daniel Candeias, who has been vital in those big European games, then there is a clear sign that Gerrard can improve players who are willing to work hard.
Despite two defeats at home to Aberdeen (the only team to win at Ibrox in 18/19) this season the improvement at Ibrox has been remarkable under Gerrard. Rangers in the 17/18 season won 10 out of their 19 home games (53% win rate) compared to this season were Rangers have won 14 out of 19 (74% win rate). Rangers also lost 7 home league games in 17/18 compared to just 1 in the 18/19 season. It's noticeable at home and abroad that Ibrox is a fortress again. This is down to a lot of factors but perhaps the most important is the improved defensive record at Ibrox. Last season Rangers conceded 20 goals in 19 matches (1.05 goals per game) and this season it has dramatically dropped to 7 goals in 19 matches (0.37 GPG) while keeping a clean sheet in 12 matches (63% of the time) compared to only 8 last season (42% of the time). Only once at Ibrox in all competitions this season has a team scored more than once at Ibrox this season and it was against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup. Even though Rangers have had poor performances at Ibrox this season it does, even if it doesn't excuse it, show that the cup replay loss was the exception rather than the rule.
Home and away Rangers have improved defensively and this was something most fans signalled as the first thing whoever the new manager was going to be had to fix and Gerrard has done that. With one game remaining (at the time of writing) he has cut the sides goals conceded in half from 50 goals conceded (1.31 GPG) to 25 goals conceded (0.68 GPG). The argument there would maybe be that in 17/18 ten of those goals were conceded over two games but Rangers shouldn't be conceding 5 goals in any match particularly against Celtic and especially against Hibs. This season in the league Rangers have conceded 2 goals or more 4 times compared to last season when Rangers conceded 2 or more goals 13 times. Even in all competitions Rangers only conceded twice or more 7 times in 59 games this season. It wasn't just the Celtic and Hibs games, it was a running theme and it has been fixed under Gerrard with signings such as Allan McGregor, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic and Joe Worrall as well as a change in mentality.
Gerrard has spoken about the mentally fragile squad he inherited and it has something he has made sure to fix. Perhaps the biggest area where this was of greatest of concern was in games against Celtic. Rangers had beat Celtic on penalties in the Scottish Cup semi-final in 2016 after a 2-2 draw but failed to beat Celtic after that and until the 29th of December 2018. Rangers hadn't beaten Celtic in 90 minutes since the 25th of March 2012. Fifteen matches were Rangers had failed to beat Celtic and out with a couple of morale boosting draws it was beating after beating from Celtic. In 16/17 the aggregate score in the 6 games was 16-4 including two 5-1 defeats. In the 17/18 campaign it was 13-2 in the 5 games played including a 4-0 & 5-0 beating in the space of a week as well as a 3-2 defeat that seen Celtic score a winner with a man less. It was a horrendous period and Gerrard has made sure Rangers have bounced back against Celtic and show that the team won’t roll over and get their bellies tickled anymore. Both games at Ibrox this season have shown just this.
Rangers didn't just sneak wins against Celtic, they thoroughly deserved them by playing the managers brand of football rather than trying to win, or draw, by all focus being on combatting what Celtic do. The 2-1 loss at Parkhead showed just how much the squad has grown in confidence against Celtic. 1-0 down, a man down and an hour to play. The last two years would have seen Rangers lose by four or five, not that day, they held on to half time and regrouped. Rangers came out in the second half and with a man less were the better side until Tavernier's slack pass gave Celtic a lifeline and ultimately won them the game. It was a tough loss but it was much more encouraging than another tanking and showed just how Gerrard has progressed this group. It's only 4 games in a 38-game season but if you can't beat your biggest rival in a title race in head to head matches then you will not win the title.
Gerrard hasn't just progressed the side from what was left by Mark Warburton, Pedro Caixinha & Graeme Murty but he's progressed the side during his time. There was a lot made of the loss to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park after the break and it's seen as the straw that broke the camel's back in regard to how the league campaign went from there. However, since then Rangers, overall, have actually gone from strength to strength.
After the defeat to Kilmarnock in the league Rangers had played 22, won 12, drawn 6 and lost 4 (a win rate of 55%). Since that point Rangers have played 15, won 11, drawn 3 and lost 1 (73%). In this 15 game run Rangers have the best record in the league (on goal difference) and have improved their points per game from 1.91 to 2.4. If you were to use these PPG over 38 games the first 22 games would leave Rangers on 73 points and the other 15 games would leave Rangers with 91 points which would have won Rangers 8 out of the last 13 titles.
Earlier the defence was highlighted as a big area of improvement under Gerrard and this area of the park also got stronger as the season has gone on. In the first 22 games Rangers conceded 18 goals (0.82 GPG) with 7 clean sheets in that time (32% clean sheet rate). Compare this with the last 15 league games in which the team has conceded 7 goals in 15 games (0.47 GPG) and collected 10 clean sheets in 15 matches (67% of the time). The progress has been stark in such a small space of time and it isn't just defensively.
Going forward has been an issue at times for Rangers and when key players such as Alfredo Morelos, Scott Arfield or Ryan Kent have been missing Rangers have struggled to score goals. However, like with the defence we can see an upward swing since the defeat to Kilmarnock. In the first 22 games Rangers scored 44 goals (2 goals per game), scored 3 or more goals in 7 out of 22 games (32% of the time) and scored 1 goal or less in 11 out of those 22 matches (50%). In the previous 15 matches this has improved again with Rangers scoring 37 goals in 15 matches (2.47 per game), scoring 3 or more goals in 8 out of 15 matches (53%) and scoring 1 or less in 5 out of 15 matches (33%).
This shows that Rangers are scoring more often, in higher numbers more frequently and aren't hitting blanks as often.
It wouldn't be fair not to include that 3 of the 4 Scottish Cup matches against Kilmarnock & Aberdeen were games that Rangers scored 1 goal or less. However, this was perhaps another example of the rookie Rangers manager improving the squad and another reason to point at why Gerrard has taken Rangers forward and why he will continue to.
The combination of being forced into changing things after the suspensions of both Kent & Morelos after the game against Celtic at Parkhead has added another string to Gerrard's bow. The switch from the 4-3-3 to the 4-3-2-1 has suited the players and it's got the best out of them. The three central midfield combination of Steven Davis, Ryan Jack & Glen Kamara can keep the ball, move the ball, create space, go into space and there is always one spare to help out with defensive duties. Scott Arfield has thrived knowing that he doesn't have to think about what's going on behind him too much and has been chipping in with goals and assists. Winter signing Jermain Defoe isn't as isolated as he was in the 4-3-3 and like Arfield has been scoring goals and providing assists for team mates. The formation does allow the opposition the get the ball wide but due to the amount of bodies centrally it's making Rangers compact and hard to break down defensively and the numbers show this. It's also an encouraging sign for Rangers to see that they can play well without hugely influential plays who may not be here next season like Morelos and Kent.
Three names are very important in that line up mentioned: Steven Davis, Glen Kamara & Jermain Defoe. All three joining in the January window and are now starting to show just what great signings they are. Davis & Defoe in particular took a while to show their class. With a lack of football at Southampton & Bournemouth it meant they took a few months to get up to speed physically. Now they have broken into the side and with a formation and style that suits them, as well as Kamara, they are now starting to thrive. It's no real surprise that Rangers are now starting to really kick on after the manager's second transfer window.
Under Gerrard, Rangers have improved at home and abroad and results show that. He's made Rangers a tough side to beat by fixing the leaky defence as well as building a tough side to keep out and both ends of the pitch have only improved as the season has gone on. He's fixed the abysmal record at Ibrox. He's improved the squad by bringing in better players and has also improved the players he inherited. Perhaps most importantly he has changed the mentality of the club. He knows the demands and how to fulfil those demands which could not be said of his predecessors. Gerrard, along with the visible results, has brought back the high standards and expectations that are expected at Rangers. Gerrard through his own high standards and expectations is becoming a perfect match for Rangers and the manager is now channelling great Rangers managers of the past such as Jock Wallace, Graeme Souness and Walter Smith to improve Rangers. Gerrard has laid the foundations; his next challenge is to turn those foundations into silverware like the greats before him.