By Alistair Aird.
On 21 September 1985, Rangers welcomed Dundee to Ibrox. We were top of the Premier Division table. Five wins and a draw had propelled Jock Wallace’s unbeaten side to the summit, and hopes were high that after years of inconsistency, Rangers were about to string together a run of results that would see them mount a sustained title challenge. But Stuart Rafferty scored the only goal of the game for the visitors, and that defeat was the first of four Rangers would suffer in succession.
A 2-0 defeat at Easter Road in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final followed – Ally McCoist had a penalty kick saved by Alan Rough – and on the Saturday, Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen inflicted a 3-0 thumping on the nine men of Rangers. Craig Paterson and Hugh Burns had been ordered off by referee George Smith in a tempestuous opening 45 minutes. And the fourth successive reverse came out in Pamplona when Rangers meekly exited the UEFA Cup, losing 2-0 to European debutants, CA Osasuna.
Fast forward 37 years and the current Rangers team stood on the verge of emulating the class of 1985. Heavy defeats against Celtic, Ajax and Napoli preceded the visit of Dundee United and it’s fair to say that Gio van Bronckhorst’s coat was hanging on the proverbial shoogly nail. Anything less than a win in this one could possibly have cost him his job.
Although the performance had been of a better standard midweek against Napoli, the concession of 11 goals in three games while Rangers hadn’t registered one, meant that the Light Blues weren’t in a good place. With fans raging over the lack of recruitment and asking questions of the strategy that had led to the arrival of those that had come in, van Bronckhorst had fuelled matters when he had stated in the week that his new players had to earn the right to get into the team.
Against Napoli he hadn’t listed any of the players signed in the summer window in his starting XI, and when the team lines were published for the United game, it was almost the same again. Antonio Colak, one of three changes, was the only summer purchase to make it. The other alterations saw an injection of youth, with Leon King and Charlie McCann drafted in to replace James Sands and Steven Davis.
On paper, this should have been the perfect match to get Rangers back on track. Dundee United were in an even worse place than Rangers. Rooted to the bottom of the table, they had been thumped 7-0 by AZ Alkmaar and then routed 9-0 at home by Celtic. A formality? Perhaps, but there was an air of unease and uncertainty around the stands at Ibrox as the followers made their way to their seats.
Ahead of kick off, there was another minute’s silence in memory of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately, the away support decided to sully it by booing and signing, humiliating themselves and their club in the process. The Rangers supporters on the other hand once again did the club proud and further enhanced their reputation across the globe. The stirring rendition of God Save The King was emotionally charged and spine tingling in equal measure too.
Rangers kicked off attacking the Broomloan Road end and should have been ahead inside the first minute. Ryan Jack got the crowd going when he went in hard on Liam Smith. Play raged forward and Jack picked out Kent in space, but he scuffed his shot. The goal drought therefore continued for Kent.
There was an intensity and hunger about Rangers’ early play. After six minutes, Arfield should have done better than spoon the ball over the bar after he was picked out by Kent, but a couple of minutes later, Rangers’ early endeavour was rewarded.
United had sprung to the other end, but King stood his ground against Tony Watt at the expense of a corner. It was cleared as far as Ian Harkes, but he was robbed by Tavernier. The skipper burst forward and released a perfect pass for Colak who took a touch before rifling the ball into the net with his right foot. It was the perfect present for the birthday boy, and those two touches would be two of only 15 the Croatian had in the opening 45 minutes. But as we have seen in a number of games already, his touches tend to be clinical ones.
It was also the perfect start for Rangers. They were pressing high and hounding United, forcing them to make errors and misplace passes. Both full backs were picking up the ball in advanced areas, and after 15 minutes, Rangers boasted 73% possession, with four shots, one on target, one off target, and two blocked. Their passing accuracy sat at 88% (114/129) compared to 67% for United (33/49).
After 22 minutes, the industrious Jack nipped in ahead of Harkes and motored into space. Jack, who was called up to the Scotland squad this week, has had an indifferent start to the season, but in the opening half hour, he had 31 touches and a passing accuracy of 92%. Two of those passes were key passes. On this occasion, he played a pass to Arfield, but he skewed his right foot shot wide of target. It seemed that it would only be a matter of time before the second goal arrived.
But it didn’t. In fact, the tempo dropped, and when United advanced, the ball was played wide to former Ranger, Glenn Middleton. He got the ball out of his feet, but McGregor saved his shot with an outstretched foot. Superb against Napoli, McGregor was once again reinforcing the point that he is the best goalkeeper at Ibrox.
What had started as relentless was now becoming ragged. Slickness had given way to slackness. Tavernier was booked for a tug of the jersey on halfway, and moments later he was short with a pass to Goldson. Tony Watt pounced, and his pass would have played in Middleton but for the intervention of Lundstram, who made up the ground to intercept.
The half ended shortly after that. Rangers had been, as you would expect, dominant in terms of possession, with 381 passes compared to 150 from the visitors and 72% possession. But the zip and zest in their early play had given way to the tedious sideways passing that has become a hallmark of late. You felt a second goal might just kill off the contest, but as beleaguered as United were supposed to be, they had still posed a threat albeit in fits and starts.
But the vim and vigour were back in Rangers’ play at the outset of the second half. Lundstram tried to find space for a shot on his left foot, but when it wasn’t forthcoming, he instead teed up Colak. His shot spun away, but within a minute, the Croat had his second of the afternoon.
Barisic, who had another fine game at left back, bent the ball in towards the front post and Colak got ahead of his marker to poke the ball into the net. That’s now nine goals in 13 appearances for the Croat, a very impressive return. Averaging under 20 touches per game, he may draw criticism at times, but he is extremely effective at doing what he was brought to the club to do, score goals. A predator, but it is a concern that the onus for scoring goals seems to lie on his shoulders at the moment.
‘Before the three defeats, we had players like Tom Lawrence scoring from midfield,’ admitted van Bronckhorst. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have him at the moment, but hopefully he will be back after the [international] break.
The second goal should have sealed the deal and given Rangers a freedom to push for more. Instead, they contrived to lose a poor goal – Liam Smith firing beyond McGregor – and that goal seemed to spook them. Possession was surrendered too often and too easily, and a game that should have been out of sight was now back in the balance.
There were several things wrong with the goal, but given that Smith is a right back, his run should have been tracked by Ryan Kent. Seemingly devoid of confidence, Kent’s influence on games is waning week by week. He did draw a save from the Dundee United goalkeeper when he cut inside onto his right foot, but since the start of season 2021/22, he has made 56 appearances, scoring three goals. In that time, he has been credited with 22 assists.
‘Ryan Kent is a player who is very dangerous, but he needs to improve his scoring and he knows that,’ said van Bronckhorst post-match.
Perhaps Kent’s head has been turned with his contract up at the end of the season, or he is still hurting after his late miss in Seville that might well have secured the Europa League for Rangers. Alternatively, given the lack of competition on the left side of the attack, he may well be in some sort of comfort zone, safe in the knowledge he will play irrespective of his form.
The manager made his first changes after 69 minutes – Arfield and Jack were replaced by Wright and Tillman – but there was still a lack of penetration. Play was pedestrian and lacked pace. Casting a glance towards the manager, you could see he was frustrated, at one point throwing his arms out in frustration after another pass went astray.
There was an applause on 70 minutes to commemorate 70 years on the throne for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but when it subsided there was a nervous air around the stadium. Rangers were probing, but too often the players chose the wrong option when well placed. This was summed up perfectly after 81 minutes when the United goalkeeper, Carl Johan Erikkson, who was unconvincing throughout played a slack pass out from the back. Tillman could well have taken a shot at goal given that Erikkson was advanced, but he opted for a slide rule pass to Colak that was overhit.
A minute later, Erikkson produced a fine reflex save to tip a header from Tillam over the bar, but that was the closest Rangers came to extending their lead.
Indeed, when the board was held up to indicate three minutes of additional time, it was United who looked the most likely to score. Sadat had a header from long range that was dealt with by McGregor, and hearts when in mouths when the visitors forced a corner. Given how poor Rangers have been at set pieces recently, you could understand that, but thankfully the delivery was dealt with.
It was a win which arrested the recent run of defeats, we have to take that as a positive. But the insipid and placid nature of Rangers’ play is becoming more and more of a concern. The intense, high pressing game that bore fruit in the shape of a run to the Europa League Final is absent for now. It needs to return, or this season may not pan out as we would like it to.
‘The most important thing today was to get back to winning ways,’ admitted van Bronckhorst. ‘We could have scored two or three times within the first 15 minutes, and in the second half we scored quite early too. But after we conceded the goal, you could see in the players’ minds it was like ‘what if’. That affected the game, although we did have some good chances to kill off the game and make it 3-1. But I’m really happy to finish this block [of fixtures] with a win.’
He added, ‘Mentally it is quite difficult after you have three defeats in a row. It can affect you. The most important tool you can have as a football player is to know what to do on the key moments. Johan Cruyff always said that football starts in the head and your feet will follow.’
There is no doubt that manager is facing an increasing amount of scrutiny, and the tolerance levels of the supporters aren’t particularly high. The international break gives us an opportunity to regroup and reset, but on the other side of it, we face tricky trips to Tynecastle and Anfield. The latter won’t be season-defining, but the former may well be.
The voyage towards 56 continues, but it’s not one for the faint-hearted. The turbulent seas of recent weeks have been calmed slightly, but they are still rough. Gio and his players need to rediscover their form, and if they do then season 2022/23 might well be silver-laden after all.