If 2022 could have started any worse for Rangers fans, then I think only avoiding defeat against Stirling Albion in the Scottish Cup counts.
Draws away to Aberdeen and Ross County and our long unbeaten run blown into smithereens with as bad a performance as we’ve seen at Parkhead in many a year means not only have we dropped seven points in the four league games this year, we’ve now surrendered our position at the top of the table to Celtic as well.
What has gone wrong? I’d imagine we’d all have our own opinions on that – personnel wise at least. However the bringing forward of the winter break is arguably the biggest factor. Yes, we weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders through December but we did win all six league games and only Lyon managed to score against us in the Europa League. Meanwhile key players like Morelos and Kent seemed to be finding some much-needed form, confidence was high and we were going into games with Aberdeen and Celtic as favourites. The three week break stopped that momentum and it’s fair to say we’ve not got going again since.
Nevertheless, the break cannot be used as excuse – quite the opposite in fact. For one thing, when Gio arrived in late November, fans were worried he’d not have time to bed in with a tricky run of games in December. However, the Dutchman started well and his ‘keep the zero’ mantra as well as scoring more goals meant our form was healthy. Yes, a premature break was disagreeable but it allowed us to regroup, get injured players fit and work on tactics under the new manager. One or two players were going to be missing through international duties but there’s something far wrong if a 26-man squad can’t cope with the loss of a few players.
Unfortunately, struggle we have and the loss of confidence right through the side appears stark in the last week or two. From the goalkeeper, through the defence, midfield and attack, it’s difficult to point to any player and say they’ve turned up in 2022. McGregor had a nightmare in Dingwall, the full backs were appalling at Parkhead, the centre backs seem unable to communicate, our midfield is non-existent, our wingers rarely beat their man and our strikers lack presence. All in all, if there is a system to speak of it’s not working. We carry a minimal threat and ‘keep the zero’ seems to have instilled a defensive mindset in periods of matches that is now difficult to shake off.
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Last night’s game at Parkhead summed much of these criticisms up. The starting XI was one many supporters (yours truly included) predicted and wanted. It was a strong line-up, one with attacking intent and a defence more than capable of providing the platform. Yet, almost immediately Celtic forced us back and it quickly became evident, we could not contain our hosts. Worse, as is becoming a habit this year so far, it was very difficult to suggest a Rangers player that did their job. Substitutes Ryan Jack and Leon Balogun undoubtedly steadied the ship but, by that time, Celtic players were smoking cigars.
In retrospect, it’s easy to criticise our starting line-up and I’m happy to concede I under-estimated the opposition. If we had to contain Celtic in the first half, then a double-pivot should have been deployed but, if not, why were so many players incapable of following instruction? Celtic could have driven a bus through either flank and, even when we did get the ball, in possession we were so weak – mentally and physically – it was obvious we didn’t believe in our own abilities. So much so, waiting until half-time to make changes resulted in the game being out of our reach by the time the whistle did go.
What now for the team? Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s fair to say the honeymoon period for the manager is now well and truly over. But, it’s also fair to say, all is not lost yet and that must be the mindset going forward, even if our next two matches against Hearts and Hibs won’t be easy. With both games at home and the return of the hugely missed Alfredo Morelos, the Rangers camp simply must remain positive over the next week in particular. Yes, losing our place at the top of table hurts but everyone, from the manager to the players and supporters should use that hurt, that palpable pain of an Old Firm humbling, to turn things around.
Of course that can be easier said than done so it will be interesting to see how the manager achieves it. Does he change his system back to something more familiar to the players? Does he make wholesale changes to his personnel and, if so, who is dropped? And, who among the squad will show the leadership qualities required to change our fortunes?
One thing is for sure these players are capable. Right through the squad, we have more than enough talent to win us games and many of them demonstrated this last season. The addition of Aaron Ramsey will help and, whilst Amad Diallo had a dreadful evening against Celtic, he won’t be the last to do that. Both come with impressive reputations but their profile won’t be enough to deliver results. Effort, humility and teamwork will also be required and that goes for all of the existing squad.
The winning of league title 55 is still fresh in the memory for many of us and shows what remains possible for this group of players. Delivering a 56th title will now be much more difficult but that challenge should be something successful players crave and face head-on. The next few weeks will show if last season was a one-off and if a genuine winning mentality is something we can rely on at Rangers. At this point I could conclude with a suitable Bill Struth quote but I’d rather Gio and his team made their own history. I cannot wait to get back to Ibrox on Sunday afternoon – I hope the players are making their way onto the training pitch today with the same hunger, determination and belief.
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