By Duncan Wright.
As we move into the second international break it seems an opportune point to reflect on Rangers season so far. With eight league games played Rangers sit atop of the Premiership, one point clear of second placed Hearts. The club, for the fourth season in a row, are competing in the Europa League group stages. Progress has been made in the League Cup where they will play Hibernian in the semi-final in late November. It makes for positive reading and suggests a club in good shape, continuing to progress from last season when title 55 was delivered in early March.
However, if we scratch beneath the surface of the first three months of the season a slightly different picture starts to emerge. In the Premiership Rangers have lost to Dundee United, drawn at home to Motherwell and scraped a 1-0 victory away from home to bottom side Dundee. Europa League qualification has come about as a result of being knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Swedish champions Malmo with League cup progression facing little in the way of opposition other than an awful Dunfermline side and a home tie against Livingston.
Perhaps most striking in Rangers season so far has been the enormous inconsistency in their performances. The proverbial ‘game of two halves’ seems to have been written with Rangers’ previous run of games purely in mind. Excellent in the first half against Motherwell in the league, in the 2nd half it felt like the team’s twin brother had appeared. The teams may have looked the same but they performed very differently and it was a frustrating afternoon at Ibrox which saw two points dropped. In Perth in early September Rangers produced a forgettable first half performance and then found themselves 1-0 down 15 minutes into the second half. On that occasion the loss of the goal seemed to rouse a sleepy lion and the team found a hunger and desire to go and win the game, albeit through a wonderful individual strike by the captain, James Tavernier.
Some will argue that this inconsistency is a direct result of Steven Gerrard not being able to field a settled team in the opening sixteen fixtures. There has been disruption to the team through injuries and of course Co-Vid, in particular in the lead up to the Europa League Group Stage qualifier and Celtic game. However, Gerrard and his coaching team have also chosen to make changes in personnel outside of the requirement to do so because of external factors. This was most striking versus Hibernian on Sunday where six changes were made to the team following the defeat vs Sparta Prague on Thursday. The most notable of these was club captain James Tavernier being relegated to the bench in place of Nathan Patterson.
Sunday was perhaps an acknowledgement from Gerrard and his coaching staff that the team required a freshness to be brought to it. Alongside Patterson, John Lundstram started in place of Steven Davis and Scott Wright earned a place in the starting XI. As well as a change of personnel, there was also a change in formation as Rangers moved away from their traditional 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 shape. Morelos took on the role of lone striker whilst Wright, Aribo and Hagi made up a fluid three in behind him. The change in personnel, including the big call to leave out the captain in a top of the table clash, alongside a change in shape would suggest that Gerrard has accepted that his teams this season have not been performing at the same level as last season.
The high standard set by Gerrard in European competition has also not been met this season. In August they played Swedish Champions Malmo in a very winnable Champions League tie but were unable to progress following a particularly poor second half performance in the home leg. And although they did secure Europa League Qualification this campaign has started with two defeats and their next tie, versus the Danes, Brondby has become a must-win to have any chance of progression from the group.
Yet despite the inconsistency displayed so far this season, Rangers, domestically, are only one point worse off than at the same stage of last season, are six points clear of Celtic and have defeated both Hibs and Celtic at Ibrox. Despite the issues that have been apparent in their performances this season Rangers remain in a position of strength domestically and can take great satisfaction that at this point of the season, with an acknowledgement that they have been far from their best, they remain at the top of the Premiership table.
Sunday’s victory against Hibernian which saw them retain their position at the top of the table saw an outpouring of emotion at the end of the game from Steven Gerrard. Following the final whistle he strode onto the pitch and acknowledged all four stands of Ibrox, fist pumping and clearly highly charged. In the post match press conference Gerrad made no apology for his display of emotion, saying
”I really enjoyed that today. Nothing wrong with getting emotional…the support, the players, the staff, we’re going to need each other, to lift each other over the course of the season, so that’s the reason why I wanted to show a bit of emotion at the end of the game”.
The display of emotion was perhaps an acknowledgement from Gerrard of the importance of the result and perhaps a sense of relief on his part that his bold decisions in terms of personnel had got the result.
Gerrard also stated that “We can still improve and get better’ and he also spoke about the maturity he saw in his side.
“…they are maturing, they are getting better, that experience of last year, I think we are benefitting from that moving forward”
Winning titles and earning medals can change the psychology of both individual players and teams collectively and it felt that the experience this team has gained over the last 18 months came to the fore in a positive manner on Sunday.
Despite the autumnal feel in the air, the clocks are yet to go back and there is a lot of football still to be played this season. Rangers resume their domestic campaign in another top of the table clash against Hearts followed by that must-win Europa League tie versus Brondby. Results, and maybe just as importantly, performances in these two games will allow us to see if Rangers have reset and are ready to go again in their challenge to retain the league title and progress once again in European competition.