Halfway through his maiden season in charge of the Liverpool U18s, Steven Gerrard is making excellent progress in his first foray into coaching.
Gerrard made his triumphant return to Kirkby in February, and after impressing in an all-round role at the academy took over from Neil Critchley as U18s manager.
Critchley made the move to the role with the U23s, and with many of his young charges making the step up to follow him, Gerrard was given something of a blank slate.
As 2017 comes to a close, and with the U18s not in action again until the beginning of January, Gerrard will be able to spend the festive period reflecting on his start to life back at Liverpool.
But how is the legendary former captain settling in, and what does his first half-season as a coach suggest about his career ahead?
Here, we take a look at Gerrard’s approach, the performances of his key players and what can be expected in the future.
Approach & Tactics
Befitting his style as a player, Gerrard arrived in the role with a stripped-back, no-nonsense approach, looking to run the rule over his squad before making any big calls.
He gave a telling insight into his demands as a coach speaking with BT Sport in April, saying in order to make it as a senior professional “you have to be obsessed.”
“I love talent and I love seeing it, but at Liverpool’s academy, the important thing is they need to understand the other side of the game,” he explained.
“Fighting, winning, tackling. Going where it hurts, letting your lungs burns, really digging deep.”
He elaborated on this outlook later that month, vowing: “My teams will be physical.”
When he took the reins at Kirkby, he began with the basics, in a back-four system, alternating between a 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-2-3-1.
But in the absence of right-back options Neco Williams, Jordan Hunter and captain Liam Coyle of late, Gerrard has switched to a 3-4-3, which has prompted an excellent run of performances.
This has typically seen a three-man defence of Anthony Driscoll-Glennon, Tom Clayton and the impressive Rhys Williams, with Adam Lewis and Rafa Camacho his most accomplished wing-backs.
Switching formations has allowed Gerrard to retain a solid base, with the energy of Edvard Tagseth and the composure of Elijah Dixon-Bonner providing a welcome platform in midfield.
And the use of wing-backs has seen the young Reds improve in fluidity in the final third, with Curtis Jones shining in a free attacking role and Liam Millar in particular thriving up front.
It’s not about just getting his best players on the pitch, however: Gerrard has showcased a refined tactical nous in his first half-season, too.
This has been most notable with the U19s in the UEFA Youth League, of which he acknowledged in September, saying: “You play against different tactics, different formations—a different style.”
One clear example of this came in October’s 4-1 win away to Maribor, fielding high defensive line to counter the Slovenians’ long-ball approach.
And this was again shown in November’s 4-0 triumph at Sevilla, when Liverpool began with a high-intensity pressing game before sitting back and playing on the counter in order to frustrate an emotional opponent.
Appointing a youth coach of Gerrard’s reputation was a bold move by the Reds, risking an overawed dressing room, while his lack of experience could have proved an issue.
But with Critchley attesting in August that the 37-year-old had “thrown himself right into it,” these concerns were swiftly allayed.
And Gerrard’s impact on Liverpool’s U18s ranks is clear in his excellent man-management.
Gerrard was fortunate in taking up a highly talented, new-look group when he stepped into the dugout last summer, with Liverpool’s academy prospects growing in recent years.
The jewel in his side this season is undoubtedly Jones, with the 16-year-old Scouser an unpredictable presence in the final third, with his skill, creativity and eye for goal.
Jones has already scored 13 goals and assisted a further six in 20 appearances for the U18s and U19s this season, despite not operating as a centre-forward.
And speaking in September, Gerrard admitted that “this team is built around him,” explaining how “it’s important he gets on the ball as much as he can because he makes us play.”
Providing Jones with the stability to express himself is Norwegian midfielder Tagseth, whose blend of energetic industry and intelligent dynamism has made him an integral player for Gerrard.
“Eddie does exactly what it says on the tin. He’s one of those players,” the manager said of the 16-year-old.
“I love having him, love coaching him, and he’s got a big future.”
And in the absence of Coyle, Lewis’ willingness to lead by example wearing the armband have been hugely commendable, particularly given Gerrard is relying on him in a new role as left wing-back.
While Lewis’ aggression can get the better of him at times, such as in December’s 2-2 draw at Man United, in which he was sent off for two bookable offences, he is an invaluable talent.
“If Adam can keep this consistency up I don’t think he’ll be around this team for much longer,” Gerrard said last month, suggesting a step up to the U23s was in the offing.
“Going forward, I haven’t seen anyone as good as him at that age, in terms of quality and what he can deliver in the final third.”
Elsewhere, Williams’ performances at the heart of Gerrard’s back three, both in defence and his ability to play out from the back, hint at a possible graduate to the first team in years to come.
And in Millar, Gerrard is developing a first-class goalscorer, with the Canadian quickly grasping the additional requirements of working under a demanding new manager.
Millar began the season a bit-part player, drifting in and out of games and playing with his head down, but six months in he is a predatory striker, with 13 goals to his name in 19 outings.
Gerrard is quickly proving his ability to both set up his side to shine at youth level and prepare his charges for the challenges ahead.
But what could be next for Gerrard himself if he continues his fine work with the U18s this season?
Before his return to Liverpool in a coaching capacity, Gerrard had already turned down the opportunity to take over as first-team manager at MK Dons.
“He could have walked into many first-team jobs, but he felt he wanted to go and get on the grass and get his boots dirty,” Critchley explained.
“The fact he’s working at U18s level [shows] he wants to go beneath the radar a little bit, which is very difficult when your name is Steven Gerrard.”
Gerrard is clearly eager to prove his worth before taking the route of many ex-pros in stepping back onto the senior stage, with the contrast between the Reds legend and Ryan Giggs stark.
But if his sides continue to progress at Kirkby, it won’t be long before talk returns of a first-team role.
For Gerrard, the holy grail remains the Liverpool job, but Jurgen Klopp is not planning to leave until at least 2022, when his current contract expires.
It certainly seems too soon for Gerrard to take over at Anfield just yet, but given his excellent start to life in the academy, he seems a stellar manager in the making.