Jürgen Klopp often bumps into Steven Gerrard while walking his dogs in the pretty coastal town where they both live, just north of Liverpool.
On Saturday, they’ll be meeting in a rather more intense setting.
Emotions are sure to run high at Anfield when Gerrard, now the manager of Aston Villa, returns to the stadium he graced for nearly two decades as one of Liverpool’s greatest players.
After preparing his team in the away locker room — surely a bizarre feeling, given his attachment to his boyhood club — he’ll walk through the tunnel, under the storied “This is Anfield” sign, and likely be greeted by a thunderous reception by Liverpool’s fans and a warm handshake by Klopp, the Liverpool manager.
Will there be any room for sentimentality on Gerrard’s part?
“None, none at all,” he has said. “I just want to go there and try and win.”
And that’s been Gerrard’s no-nonsense approach to the many Liverpool-related questions he has fielded since making his return to the Premier League as Villa manager, following 3½ years at Scottish champion Rangers.
They were to be expected. After all, he played 710 games for Liverpool from 1998-2015 and then coached its under-18 team before joining Rangers, where he was able to end the longtime dominance of cross-city rival Celtic in the Scottish game. Quite naturally, he has been anointed by many as the likely heir to Klopp whenever the German ends his successful time at Liverpool.
Yet the 41-year-old Gerrard has been keen to stress that Villa is no “stepping stone” for any permanent return to Anfield as Liverpool’s manager.
“Very unfair,” he said, firmly. “You’ll never hear me say it’s a stepping stone.”
Gerrard’s pledge that he is “all-in” on Villa has certainly been backed up by his actions in his short time at the central English club, where he has made a great start in winning three of his four league matches so far. The only loss came against champion and leader Manchester City.
The way he has celebrated goals and the way he has spoken about his new team, he is trying to come across as a person dedicated to and focused solely on Villa. As a hardened Liverpool fan, returning to Anfield will surely be a strange experience, though.
“Stevie is doing everything right so far, getting some experience here with the academy, taking his coaching experiences to Rangers, being very, very, very successful there, then he has made the next step,” Klopp said in an interview with Sky Sports. “So far it has been the perfect career.
“While I’m here, it’s difficult but of course (he can be Liverpool’s future manager). But it is important from now on that the Steven Gerrard Aston Villa chapter starts and that’s exactly what will happen.”
Klopp has 2½ years left on his latest contract, at which point he may decide to leave after nearly nine years at Liverpool. Of course, hiring a club great as manager has not worked out perfectly for Man United and Chelsea, in relation to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard, respectively.
Gerrard, then, might need these next three seasons to prove his worth as a Premier League manager before any possible return to Liverpool. He has already made a good start.
Aside from the improved results, 10th-place Villa is performing better than it had been under predecessor Dean Smith. Under Gerrard, the team has been more compact and well-organized, with his priority having been to tighten the team defensively.
Villa could easily have claimed a draw against City thanks to its strong second-half performance in the 2-1 loss last week.
“I had the feeling that he knows exactly what the opponent does, what he wants to do,” City manager Pep Guardiola said of Gerrard.
“He’s there, (thinking): ‘I shake your hand and OK, you beat me, but next time be careful.’ That’s why he had his career as a player and he will do it as a manager.”
So, Gerrard heads to Anfield with praise having already come his way from Klopp and Guardiola, quite possibly the two best managers in world soccer at the moment.
Beat the club he loves on Saturday and his managerial reputation will be enhanced even further.
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