Rangers v St Johnstone 15/12/2021
By Alistair Aird
Often when a new manager comes into a football club, there’s an immediate reaction, a positive upturn. In fairness, when Giovanni van Bronckhorst took over from Steven Gerrard, there hadn’t been much of a downturn – save the embarrassing League Cup semi-final defeat – and as we welcome bottom-of-the-table St Johnstone to Ibrox on Wednesday for the first of three successive home games, there is a real air of positivity among the Rangers support.
Under van Bronckhorst, Rangers, looking compact and dynamic, have gone to two notoriously difficult away venues – Easter Road and Tynecastle – and emerged not just with full points, but also with two clean sheets. There is no doubt that we are starting to see the GVB blueprint in action, and as we await the arrival of Santa Claus, Gio is the gift that seems to keep on giving.
Under his tutelage, several players are finding form that deserted them in the latter days of the Steven Gerrard era. Plenty has been written about Joe Aribo – and rightly so, he’s been immense – but who else has been galvanised by Gio?
What about our loveable wee rouge, Alfredo Morelos? He has taken a pounding on a few occasions this season, and most of the criticism has been warranted. Head down, sullen, shoulders sagging, face contorted into a snarl, negative body language and looking a tad overweight, the Colombian lumbered through his first 22 appearances this season, scoring just seven goals. But suddenly, he’s exploded back into life.
In Gio’s five matches in charge, he’s made four appearances and scored four goals. At Tynecastle on Sunday he was bubbly and effervescent, took his goal superbly, and his reaction at full time – smiling and beating the crest on his jacket as he applauded the fans – suggests that things are rosier now in the Morelos garden. Working with coaching staff that speak Spanish may be helping, but there is no doubt that he is playing further up the park than he did latterly under Gerrard. Morelos is a goalscorer, a pest and a nuisance for defenders. He does his best work in the final third, and it appears the days of him dropping deep to take the ball in and link up play seem to be in the past.
Scott Arfield has been prominent too. With his contract due to expire in the summer, it looked as if Scotty was going to play a bit-part role this season. But he has come in and made a difference, and not just when he has started games. At Easter Road, his introduction as sub with 24 minutes remaining had a positive impact and was one of the reasons why Rangers came back down the M8 that night with maximum points. He has been going box-to-box, interchanging superbly with Aribo, and he offers that dexterity that van Bronckhorst is looking for in his midfield players.
Borna Barisic was another who seemed to be flagging earlier in the season, but he has been strong and resolute recently. Both Borna and James Tavernier have had their games changed too. Their marauding tendencies have been curbed, and van Bronckhorst certainly seems to favour full backs who defend first and foremost. Both are still a threat with deliveries into the box, but of late, the majority of those have come from set pieces. But their emphasis on their defensive duties has undoubtedly helped make Rangers a more solid unit.
Calvin Bassey deserves a mention too – he’s still a little raw but has done well at centre back in the absence of Leon Balogun – as does Fashion Sakala. In fact, not many players have put a foot wrong in the 450 minutes or so of action under the watchful eye of the new manager.
But fixtures like this one against St Johnstone are banana skins waiting to happen if we aren’t switched on. Although they are having a wretched time of it just now – they have won just three of their 16 league games, albeit two of them were away from home – the last time the Perth Saints visited Ibrox they eliminated Rangers from the Scottish Cup. And the fact they won both domestic cup competitions last year is still fresh in the memory.
But this should be a straightforward assignment in the mission we have all chosen to accept, the quest for 56. The Saints have picked up a mere five points in their last seven league games, and they are finding goals hard to come by, netting only twice in those seven games. That shot shy attack up against a resolute Rangers defence should make this one a ‘no brainer’.
With Kemar Roofe joining the luckless Ryan Jack, Filip Helander and Leon Balogun on the sidelines, don’t be surprised if the starting XI isn’t too dissimilar to the one that kicked off at Tynecastle at the weekend. Aside from the game in Lyon, van Bronckhorst has resisted the temptation to rotate his squad, and he has a core content that he calls upon for each game. There are plenty banging on his door for a jersey – John Lundstram did well when he came on against Hearts and Steven Davis is well, Steven Davis – but I wouldn’t be surprised to see an unchanged team. After winning well in Edinburgh, the lads deserve it.
The chase continues as we move into a winter made bleaker by the spectre of further restrictions. Let’s hope we can still call upon a full Ibrox Stadium to roar the chosen few on to victory as we take another step along the road towards the retention of our title.
Enjoy the match!