By Alistair Aird.
On Thursday, 18 November 2021, the cameras clicked, and the flashbulbs popped. The door from the Manager’s Office into the Blue Room opened and the new Rangers manager, Giovanni Christiaan van Bronckhorst, emerged to address the assembled media masses.
I was fortunate enough to be there on that occasion, and I don’t think I am alone when I say that the Rangers supporters were still in a wee bit of disarray. We were still reeling at the sudden departure of the man who had delivered 55, Steven Gerrard, numbed by the suddenness of it all, and probably by the fact that Gerrard had left us for a basement battle in England with struggling Aston Villa. With Rangers top of the Scottish Premiership and the prospect of automatic Champions League most certainly achievable, why would Gerrard choose to leave? After all a few weeks earlier when quizzed about a possible move to pastures new he had told Emma Dodds not to ask silly questions. It turned it wasn’t that silly after all, and Gerrard obviously had his reasons for going.
Although we knew a lot about van Bronckhorst the player – 128 appearances, 25 goals, two league titles, one League Cup and two Scottish Cups during his three-year spell at Ibrox in addition to a glut of honours from his time with Arsenal and Barcelona and an appearance in the 2010 World Cup Final– I had to do a bit of digging to find out about his credentials as a manager.
In Holland, van Bronckhorst had won an Eredivisie title, two Dutch Cups, and two Dutch Super Cups with Feyenoord, but had posted a less than impressive record in matches against the big hitters of PSV Eindhoven and Ajax, his side winning four and losing nine of the 16 matches played. There had been a run of seven successive league defeats too. In Europe, his return from one single campaign in the Champions League was one win and five defeats.
A fairly decent track record with room for improvement then. But was Gio ready for Rangers? Twelve months down the line the answer to that has to be no.
When he took officially took over, Rangers were four points clear of Celtic at the top of the league. After a ropey start, Celtic were starting to find their feet under their new Australian manager, Ange Postecoglu, but Rangers had their noses in front. And despite suffering a 3-1 hammering at the hands of Hibernian in a League Cup semi-final that was played in the intervening period between the departure of Gerard and the arrival of van Bronckhorst, the Light Blues were not only favourites to retain their title but also found themselves on the cusp of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League.
Fast forward a year and aside from a stirring run to the Europa League Final and success in the Scottish Cup, the picture isn’t a pretty one. Rangers remarkably find themselves NINE points adrift of Celtic after just 15 of the 38 scheduled Premiership matches and badged as the worst-ever team in the history of the Champions League. After a 12-year absence, the Light Blues were back at the top table, but they didn’t seem to have the appetite to dine there. All six group matches were lost and a gut-churning 22 goals were conceded.
So where did it all go wrong for Giovanni van Bronckhorst?
The league match away from home against St Mirren – the last before the World Cup break – was van Bronckhorst’s sixty-eighth in charge of Rangers.
His breakdown of results is as follows:
Gio’s first league match in charge was a routine 3-1 away win over Livingston. That kicked off a run of seven straight wins which included victories at two of the most difficult away venues in Scotland, Easter Road and Tynecastle. That took Rangers into the winter break with a six-point lead, Celtic having dropped two points in a 0-0 draw against St Mirren three days before Christmas.
There were 18 league games remaining.
But remarkably, Rangers won only one of their four league fixtures when the action resumed in the middle of January. Points were carelessly spilled from winning positions against Aberdeen (1-1) and Ross County (3-3) which gave Celtic a glimmer of hope. And they pounced when the two sides met at Parkhead on 2 February, pulverising Rangers 3-0. The emphatic win, one that shell-shocked everyone associated with Rangers, took Celtic top of the table, a position they would retain for the rest of the season. And when another two points were dropped in a 1-1 draw against Dundee United at Tannadice, there had been a nine-point swing in the seven matches played since the break.
Rangers had suddenly gone from comfortably leading the pack to a team that was stumbling in pursuit. The draw at Tannadice also marked a fourth away game without a win, and although Gio’s home record in the league has been very good – only seven points have been dropped in the 20 league matches he has overseen at Ibrox – his record on the road isn’t.
In the 20 league games played away from Ibrox during his tenure, Rangers have won 55% of them. Ignoring the two thrashings at Parkhead – as hard as that might be – the eight points dropped in the four drawn away games proved costly last season and the ones dropped in draws at Easter Road (2-2) and New St Mirren Park (1-1) and the defeat in Perth (1-2) this season are likely to prove likewise both in terms of the league title and Gio’s job.
The February defeat at Parkhead may have rattled Rangers, but it was arguably the 2-2 draw at home against Motherwell in February that shattered their title aspirations. With Celtic drawing a blank at Easter Road in the early kick-off and Rangers cruising into a 2-0 lead at half-time, a chunk looked to have been taken out of Celtic’s lead at the top of the table. But inexplicably, two goals were cheaply conceded in the second half and it was status quo.
Post-match van Bronckhorst drew criticism for his resistance to change. The match came three days after an energy-sapping match against Borussia Dortmund, yet the Rangers manager made only one substitution, Kemar Roofe replacing Fashion Sakala with seven minutes remaining. It wouldn’t be the last time that the Dutchman’s reluctance to introduce fresh legs would perplex the Rangers supporters.
After the Motherwell draw, Rangers only dropped five points in their remaining 10 league games. Crucially, though, they were spilled against Celtic, a 2-1 loss at Ibrox and a 1-1 draw at Parkhead. The title had gone and in the cold light of day you had to reflect and say that van Bronckhorst and his players had thrown it away.
And they have done something similar this season too. Of the 45 league points up for grabs thus far, Rangers have claimed 33. Of the 12 points dropped, all but two have come on the road. While the players have let the manager down and there has been a significant number of injuries, Gio’s stubbornness when it comes to not altering his tactical approach has proved fatal.
Passing and possession stats may be among the best in the league, but a lack of incision and intensity have been the hallmarks of performances this season Such an approach is tailor-made for the way teams play against Rangers away from Ibrox and the fact it doesn’t appear the manager has switched on to that and made the necessary changes is one of the principal reasons we find ourselves in the predicament we are in.
Another damning stat comes when you consider what Gio referred to as ‘keeping the zero’. In the 20 league games played away from home in the league, Rangers have shut out the opposition on just five occasions. Only one of them has come this season, the 4-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle.
Comparison – Celtic
Since Gio’s first league match, Celtic have also played 40 Scottish Premiership matches. Their overall record is:
Another damning indictment. I still maintain the margins between the teams are small, but in a year, they have accrued 109 league points compared with the 92 we’ve picked up. They average 2.775 goals a game (2.125 for Rangers), and although they have a frustrating habit of scoring late in games, simply put they are more clinical and ruthless than we are. Who should shoulder the blame for that? In my opinion, it should be the manager and the plodding, passive playing style we have adopted this season in particular.
So often a barometer for measuring the success of a Rangers manager, Gio’s Old Firm record is dire. Two comprehensive defeats at Parkhead are the book ends at the moment for his five matches in charge against Celtic. Sandwiched in between are a 1-1 draw at Parkhead – a match we probably should have won – a 2-1 defeat at Ibrox where we started superbly then lost our way, and the miraculous Scottish Cup semi-final where we outlasted Celtic in extra time just three days after going the distance against Braga in the Europa League.
Room for improvement? Absolutely. This year’s title race should have been decided by the Old Firm results. But while both sides will drop points, at this moment in time, Rangers will spill many more than Celtic. That aside, if there is no change in the management, there can’t be many Rangers supporters out there who are confident that this side would pick up many points in the three Old Firm league encounters that remain in any case.
If you are looking for an example of polar opposites in football, then look no further than the European campaigns Rangers embarked on in season 2021/22 and season 2022/23.
‘Swashbuckling’ and ‘relentless’ are operative words when it comes to describing the performances, particularly at Ibrox, as we dared to dream of glory in the Europa League last season. Not many teams would have fancied coming to Ibrox as we pressed high and hounded visiting teams.
Although the step up to the Champions League is a gargantuan one, there should have been no reason why we didn’t opt for a similar pressing game in the home matches in the group stages. For an hour against Napoli, we did and the start against Liverpool suggested we might, but in the end, we submitted when the big boys flexed their muscles. We became the whipping boys, and although much of this had to do with the mentality of the players, the manager didn’t help with his post-match comments on Matchday 1. That planted seeds that sprouted weeds that strangled and stifled any potential growth Rangers could have had at this level.
Tactically flexible last year – moving John Lundstram into a three-man central defence against Dortmund was a defining moment in the tie – Gio was found wanting this year. His failure to ‘shut up shop’ against Liverpool at Ibrox which resulted in a record home defeat should have been the last straw.
His record in Europe reads:
Five of the seven wins have come at Ibrox, although 19 goals have been conceded both home and away. However, 13 of the 19 lost at Ibrox came in the disastrous and damaging 2022/23 Champions League campaign. And once again the lack of cutting edge and pragmatic approach on the road is apparent; Rangers have scored just eight times away from Ibrox in Europe under Gio.
Before offering concluding remarks, it is prudent to compare Gio’s record to those of his predecessor, Steven Gerrard, and his main rival, Ange Postecoglu, after they had been in charge for 68 games.
Comparison – Steven Gerrard
After 68 games as the Rangers manager, Steven Gerrard boasted the following record:
Gerard’s win percentage is therefore lower, but more goals were scored and less conceded when you compare the numbers to those under van Bronckhorst. And as much as many felt Gerrard didn’t have a Plan B, Plan A was more pleasing on the eye than what we have seen of late under Gio.
It’s fair to say that Gerrard was afforded time to rebuild and remould his Rangers side and that reaped the reward of the coveted ‘55’. He reached a domestic cup final, 2019 League Cup, and although he re-established our reputation in Europe, he didn’t take us as deep into a tournament as van Bronckhorst did. And although his overall Old Firm record is good, Gerrard won two and lost two of his first four derby games.
Is there an argument therefore that Gio should be afforded the same latitude Gerrard got to put his stamp on the Rangers squad? Were we perhaps a bit less harsh on Gerrard because he was Steven Gerrard? Perhaps, but I have no doubt that while we may well not have made a European final, we would have been much better placed to retain the title had Steven stayed at the football club.
Comparison – Ange Postecoglu
Ange Postecoglu’s sixty-eighth match in charge of Celtic was a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of European champions Real Madrid at Parkhead. But while his European record is questionable, after a ropey start, he has Celtic playing in a manner and a style that we would perhaps have liked to have seen Gio imprinting on his own team. They are fast paced, with high intensity pressing and a relentlessness that has seen them rack up goals. In Postecoglu’s first 68 games as manager, Celtic netted 166 goals and scored four times or more on 19 occasions. In contrast, under van Bronckhorst, Rangers have only achieved that 10 times, and one of those was against Stirling Albion in the Scottish Cup.
But there is vulnerability in this Celtic team too and we have seen signs of that in the matches played against them under Gio. Although judgement has probably been clouded by the two heavy defeats at Parkhead, Rangers started superbly in the 2-1 defeat at Ibrox last season, hustling and harrying the Celtic defence, and in the 1-1 draw at Parkhead, we were the better side for the most part and only the inside of the post denied Fashion Sakala a morale-boosting winning goal. It was the same in the Scottish Cup semi at Hampden when our intensity eventually wore them down in extra-time.
Postecoglu’s record after 68 games was:
Once again, we see more goals scored and less conceded. In addition to that, Postecoglu delivered a league title and a League Cup. Yet I still maintain that they are beatable. Unfortunately, we seem to be paralysed when we play them, particularly at Parkhead. We haven’t laid a glove on them in their own backyard and that is unacceptable.
Gio has used 48 players during his tenure thus far. James Tavernier has made the most appearances (64) and has also claimed the most goals (23). Alfredo Morelos and Antonio Colak come next in the goalscoring charts with 14 apiece. And although he has been widely criticised (and rightly so), Ryan Kent tops the assists chart with 20. However, only six of those assists have been registered this season.
In terms of the players that Gio has signed, James Sands has made the most appearances (34) followed by Colak (24) and Malik Tillman (23). Remarkably, of the 10 players Gio has brought in since January 2022, those three are the only ones to have made more than 20 appearances for the club.
When I started to write this piece, I was firmly in the ‘Gio must stay’ camp. But as I round it off now, the numbers don’t lie. He was at the helm for an exhilarating run to a major European final and probably should be only the second manager in our history to deliver silverware at that level. We thank him for that, but domestically we have been found wanting and that’s ultimately where a Rangers manager is measured.
It’s time for change. The quest for 56 is at a standstill and the Giovanni van Bronckhorst era should be over.