Saudi Arabia Flag Against Clear Sky

Can Steven Gerrard Resurrect his Managerial Career in Saudi Arabia?

There’s little doubt that Steven Gerrard had a glittering playing career. Although he never won the Premier League (partly due to that famous slip!), he did win the Champions League, two FA Cups, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a UEFA Super Cup, which isn’t bad going. It’s fair to suggest, however, that Gerrard hasn’t quite attained such success as a manager, with just a single Scottish Premier title to show for his five years or so in the dugout.

Gerrard was sacked as Aston Villa boss back in October 2022 after less than a year in charge. But on 3rd July 2023, he was appointed as the manager of Saudi Pro League club Al-Ettifaq. The side will probably be less familiar to most Liverpool fans than Accrington Stanley, but could this move to the Middle East rejuvenate Gerrard’s coaching career… or is it simply a way to make a lot of money as Saudi Arabia indulge in their latest sportswashing venture?

Gerrard’s Managerial Career to Date

Gerrard retired from playing in November 2016 at the age of 36 and in January 2017 he was given a youth coach job at his beloved Liverpool. He apparently impressed the Reds’ first-team boss Jurgen Klopp and was promoted from the under-18 side to the under-19s. But it wasn’t long before Gerrard was given a “proper” job in management: north of the border to take charge of Scottish giants Rangers.

Reasonable Success at Rangers

Chart That Shows Steven Gerrard's Managerial Record at Rangers

Gerrard was appointed manager of Rangers in advance of the 2018/19 season, at a time when bitter rivals Celtic had won seven Scottish titles on the bounce (though some of those happened while Rangers were languishing in the lower divisions after forced demotion). Gerrard was tasked with bringing the glory back to Rangers, but it wasn’t until his third season in charge that the former Liverpool favourite led the Gers to the Sottish Premiership title.

That championship turned out to be the only thing Gerrard won at Rangers, with a runners-up spot in the 2019/20 League Cup the closest he came to leading them to a cup triumph. Still, Gerrard showed he was a capable (if not necessarily ground-breaking) manager and achieved a win percentage of around 64% while at the club. That puts him slightly ahead of the likes of Walter Smith (in his second stint) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst but behind Alex McLeish, Dick Advocaat, Ally McCoist and Walter Smith’s first stint at the club.

Aston Villa – the Next Stepping Stone to Liverpool?

Chart That Shows Steven Gerrard's Managerial Record at Aston Villa

There was always a sense that Gerrard wanted to build up his managerial experience (and reputation) in the hope that he might, one day, return to manage the club at which he spent the majority of his playing days: Liverpool. So when he left Rangers to take the manager’s job at Aston Villa in November 2021, many observers saw this as Gerrard’s stepping-stone post: one step up from the Scottish Premiership and perhaps one below his hoped-for destination.

If this was indeed Gerrard’s plan, it didn’t quite work out for him. Things started well enough with the former Liverpool man guiding Villa to three wins in his first four league games (the other being a narrow defeat to Manchester City). But the season petered out somewhat and the Villans ended up in a rather uninspiring 14th position in the table. Still, they were 10 points clear of relegation and there were some positive signs for the following campaign.

Things didn’t go well for Villa or Gerrard at the start of the 2022/23 season, however. He guided his side to just two wins from their first 11 league matches, and they were against Southampton (who would finish bottom) and Everton (who only narrowly avoided relegation). Despite Gerrard’s strong reputation as a player, the Villa board had seen enough and they sacked him on 20th October 2022 after just 40 games in charge (with a rather unimpressive win percentage of 32.5%).

The fact that Villa eventually finished the campaign in seventh position in the Premier League under the guidance of former Arsenal, PSG and Sevilla boss Unai Emery could be viewed one of two ways: either Gerrard just isn’t that good a manager or, just maybe, he laid the foundations for a successful campaign and was sacked too soon. You can make up your own mind on that one!

Gerrard’s Arabian Adventure

Dammam in Saudi Arabia

After a few months out of the game, Gerrard has been appointed manager of Al-Ettifaq FC. Despite them not being exactly household names in the UK, Al-Ettifaq have been around for almost 80 years and have twice been crowned champions, in 1982/83 and 1986/87. Gerrard took the role despite saying just a few weeks ago that he’d been invited to Saudi Arabia to “look at” a potential offer but that he would not be following it up.

We can’t be certain what made Gerrard reconsider and we certainly wouldn’t want to suggest it would be anything to do with the massive pay package he was likely offered (there are reports that his two-year contract is worth something in the region of £8m per year, but this is unconfirmed).

While Gerrard’s new team are not a household name, not many of his new players will not be too well-known to most Premier League fans either. Former Mainz and Palermo attacker Robin Quaison is in the squad and the Swede has played almost 50 times for his country at the time of writing. And they have a couple of Brazilians on their books including former CSKA Moscow striker Vitinho. They are joined by mostly home-grown talent and a few other international journeymen. It would be no surprise if Gerrard picks up a few signings though, his name acting as a potential draw to players who might fancy a change of scene.

Is the Move Continued Sportswashing?

Increasing Piles of Saudi Riyal Banknotes

Whenever Saudi Arabia are involved in sport, whether than be the recent controversies over LIV Golf or the takeover of Newcastle United, there are accusations of sportswashing. This is understandable given the reported human rights abuses perpetrated by the oil-rich nation over the years. Where you stand on such things will perhaps depend on how political you are. But there are many who believe the Saudis are trying to buy their way into the hearts and minds of sports fans around the world, exerting soft power (but splashing plenty of cash to do so).

If that is the case, there could be a moral argument for sports people choosing not to take the Saudi cash and instead stick with the wholly morally sound world of European football (which of course has never had any kind of scandals or morally dubious practices…). We leave open the question of whether Saudi Arabia are simply using Gerrard and others to bolster their reputation on the world stage, and instead turn to another question: is the move good for Gerrard’s managerial career?

Could the Move Lead Gerrard Back to Anfield?

Green Liverpool Road Sign

In the eyes of most fans and pundits, the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A are the best (highest quality) football leagues in the world. Of course, it’s hard to be totally objective in such assessments, but it’s hard to put the Saudi Pro League anywhere near the top leagues in world football in terms of prestige or quality, at least as things currently stand.

Perhaps if Saudi Arabia keep throwing tens of millions of dollars at their league and start attracting more players who are at the top of the game (instead of the tail-end of their career), it could start challenging some of the better-established leagues. As things stand though, even if Gerrard were to win numerous titles and cups in Saudi Arabia, there is no reason to suggest that a Premier League club (least of all a club as big as Liverpool) would see that as evidence that he could be successful in England.

Of course, there might be an element of snobbery involved with many pundits simply not happy that the Saudis are putting a cat amongst the pigeons (as was similarly seen in the world of golf). And after all, there were plenty of pundits who questioned Arsenal for appointing a manager who had most recently managed in an up-and-coming but little-known league in Japan. But things went pretty darn well for Arsene Wenger. So maybe this is just what Gerrard needs to bolster his career… or perhaps it’s just what the Saudis need to bolster their international reputation!