Disappointing results on the park at Rangers are nothing new in recent years. As such, when we do drop points in games, I usually enjoy an internet break to take stock as there's a tendency for people to overreact. Indeed, as I now read through the inevitable backlash to Saturday's draw with Livingston, I think a few more fans could do with copying my strategy.
First of all, of course we played pretty poorly on Saturday. Quite simply, despite having the usual vast majority of possession and creating two or three excellent opportunities, a combination of bad luck and poor finishing once again resulted in just the one goal. Add in some sloppy defending (especially from our midfield) then we always ran the risk of conceding a goal and it doesn't matter how good the strike was, we gave the ball away cheaply and passed the buck when it came to retrieving it. There's no coincidence several goals have come from outside our box and it is frustrating lessons are clearly not being learned in that respect.
That being said, it’s not a surprise to see the manager – perhaps for the first time – taking some strong criticism over the last couple of days. After all, Mark Warburton is constantly at pains to talk about he’s only ever really interested in what our team do so it must be a source of great concern to him that we continually leak goals from long range. And who is going to take responsibility for this flaw? Is it the defence who fail to close down shots in time or is the midfield who often lose the ball and don’t track back quickly enough? Generally it’s fine to say we don’t worry about opposition teams but if we’re not doing our job properly then they don’t have to worry about us either.
In fact, as we struggle more and more to break down teams, that’s perhaps more of an issue than the concession of the odd goal. The reason being that we’ve gone from playing at a high tempo in the early season to taking too long on the ball now. Yes, we still have fleeting glimpses of the fast football that ensured some impressive results throughout August and September but it’s fair to say in recent weeks, those glimpses are becoming rarer. This is mainly down to opposition sides sitting deep with two banks of four which causes us to come across the pitch more than being able to get down each wing and in behind teams.
In turn, this restricts the threat of our full backs while the likes of McKay and Oduwa also have minimal space to operate in. This means we have to recycle possession more which slows down our play – nullifying the pace of our quicker players and making it difficult to create chances as we labour on the ball. It’s no coincidence that a more central player like Holt has become a vital component in our attacking play.
Clearly all this means when we do create chances we have to take them and unfortunately this is where we’ve also toiled in recent weeks. Yes we had a fine 4-0 win against Alloa at Ibrox a fortnight ago but aside from that, games have been much tighter affairs throughout the last eight weeks or so. We can also point to some bad luck: we’ve hit the woodwork time after time in many games while opposition ‘keepers have made some fantastic saves but, by and large, the finishing has been questionable and certainly worthy of criticism.
Obviously our main striker Martyn Waghorn has had a fine début season so far so it’s difficult to criticise him too much but, when he does have an ineffectual game, the lack of an alternative is a worry. Kenny Miller was recently given a new contract and high praise from Warburton but he’s not scored since August and there’s not many fans that are confident in his finishing ability. Our other options are Nicky Clark and Ryan Hardie and neither player seems able to get into the team to warrant genuine appraisal. Is this a lack of faith from the coaching staff and, if so, what happens if Waghorn does pick up an injury?
Generally speaking our squad is of reasonable quality and at 23 players (including the continually injured Bell and Templeton) has the kind of numbers Warburton prefers to ensure genuine competition for places. That’s fine but of the ‘deputy’ players we do have, most remain unproven. Yes, guys like Wilson, Law, Shiels, Aird and Clark have all featured fairly regularly in recent years (for Rangers and Hearts) but none have truly proven themselves reliable. Add in youngsters like Kelly, Thompson and Hardie then there are some valid doubts over squad depth and experience. Ergo, it’s no wonder the manager has spoken of adding to it in January. The problem is that January is still almost six weeks away and after we play a resurgent Hibs at Ibrox; not to mention tough games away to Raith and Falkirk.
In saying that, it’s only fair to highlight the progress the existing squad have been making this season. We’re only six months into the Mark Warburton era and we’ve only dropped points in two league games. By anyone’s standards that deserves credit and an unlucky defeat against Hibs and a careless draw away to Livingston shouldn’t detract from the forward strides we’ve made this campaign. However, such goodwill will only go so far if the team drops any more points. With that in mind, the manager also has to be careful in how he addresses the issues that have cropped up lately. It’s all well and good to say he’s not worried about other teams challenging and, yes, most fans are enjoying the open, attacking football he bases his vision on but, sometimes, Plan A will only work for so long and, occasionally you do have to take the opposition into account when looking to win games. Ultimately there’s a fine line between confidence and complacency.
All things considered, it might appear asinine to be overly critical of a team top of the table and managed so well in a general sense. However, as much as some criticism has been over the top since Saturday, it would be equally foolish not to acknowledge the flaws that have appeared of late. As such the tough winter schedule ahead of us will be a true test of not only the players and manager’s mettle but also the regime in the boardroom who will undoubtedly need to release the funds they’ve previously promised to ensure a Championship title come next spring. Warburton will play it down of course but, make no mistake, the pressure is on. He and his players must absorb this and welcome the chase with open arms.
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