It has been an frustrating six months for Rangers fans.

At the start of June, a poor season 2022/23 had just ended. With Gio sacked this time last year and, despite some decent performances under his replacement Michael Beale, no trophies were won and another league title was lost to Celtic.

Nevertheless, there was still some optimism at that point. Dead rubber or not, a comfortable 3-0 win at Ibrox in the final Old Firm match of the campaign offered some confidence that Beale had got to grips with these games with no previous derby wins prior to that.  Further, his new diamond formation looked the part, being defensively sound but with an improved threat in attack. Could the summer transfer window allow him to bring in better players and enhance the options available to him?

Fast forward to the start of pre-season and the squad was much changed in good time for 2023/24. Previous key, but also undeniably under-performing, players in Morelos, Kent and Kamara were (or were about to be) moved on. Meanwhile, a variety of others were brought in and, on the face of it, the acquisitions looked suitable: Butland, Lammers, Dowell, Sima and Sterling arrived quickly and, by the time the season kicked off in August, Dessers Danilo, Cifuentes had also been added. The best part of £15m had been spent and, despite some reservations about a lack of wide options, most fans were happy with the majority of our business.

Unfortunately, things quickly went wrong for Beale.

An opening day league defeat to Kilmarnock showed a new team struggling to gel and despite a reasonable rest of the month, it culminated with a 5-1 humbling to PSV knocking us out the Champions League before what many fans felt was an unacceptable loss at home to Celtic in our first match of September. Already we were falling behind in the league and performances were hardly attractive. Another partial recovery followed with home wins against Real Betis, Motherwell and Livingston in three different competitions but a dreadful defeat to Aberdeen at Ibrox resulted in the departure of Beale less than a year after his appointment.

The Rangers board moved quickly to replace him after the caretaker coaching team led us to an unexpected Europa League loss in Cyprus. Belgian Philippe Clement came in and both results and performances immediately improved.  Although supporters still had their doubts about various players – old and new alike – six wins in an undefeated spell before the November international break showed an obvious improvement. The new manager quickly identified our lack of width as an issue and also offered a slightly more conservative look to the team: not defensive per se but the full backs weren’t as high and we were prepared to go more direct when required.  The feel-good factor was back amongst the support as Scotland also secured qualification to Euro 2024 with no club football. 

The next challenge for the new manager was a clear one. Post international break we had 12 games in just over a month to navigate. These included tricky trips to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Parkhead but also the opportunity to win the League Cup in mid-December and close the gap to a Celtic team that were just starting to look somewhat unconvincing themselves. For his part, Clement was confident: players were arriving back from injury and he had the best part of a fortnight on the training ground to implement more of his own ideas since taking the job.  There was also talk of a new Sporting Director to finally replace Ross Wilson who’d left earlier in the year.

At the time of writing though, our start to this vital block of games couldn’t have gone much worse with just two draws against Aberdeen and Aris Limassol respectively and both from going behind to extremely cheap goals. Now, at this point we could talk about the positives in that we fought back to avoid defeat. That’s fair enough and I do believe most of the players worked hard enough in these games to deserve not dropping points. However, the obvious issues in both games can’t be ignored.

​​​​​​​And, first and foremost, the manager has to take his fair share of the blame. 

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For the Aberdeen game the team selection was largely fine and I don’t think may fans took issue with the starting line-up. Injuries to Raskin and Jack meant a start for Cifuentes whilst getting both Lawrence and Cantwell into the same team could surely only increase our creative and goal threat? Furthermore, Clement spoke pre-match about the threat Aberdeen carried on the counter and from set-pieces; surely that message was a clear one to the players. Not so it seemed as Aberdeen took an early lead from a the simplest of moves; just a few minutes after a similar attack had given us a clear warning. After that, to their credit, the team did recover to a degree. We dominated possession and should have equalised well before a late penalty secured a point. Indeed, we should have won the game as Sam Lammers headed straight at the Dons keeper in injury time. Two dropped points it was though and, after Celtic had only drawn at home the previous day, that really was difficult to swallow for Rangers fans. Doubts were forming again about the mental capacity of this Rangers side.

Onto Thursday night and the team had an immediate opportunity to restore credibility. On paper we had our easiest game in our Europa League group: even if Aris Limassol had beaten us in October, Beale had just left, the team was in disarray and surely lightening wouldn’t strike twice? Importantly, this time we knew more about their twin threat of pace on the transition and the ability to be clinical with chances created. They were also less than impressive in a defensive sense and could be exploited from wider areas. Despite necessary changes in central defence, surely this time we’d guard against the quick counter and avoid conceding the kind of avoidable goals we seen in Cyprus?

Yet again we were let down. Todd Cantwell, ignoring instruction from the manager, skipped inside and lost the ball cheaply. One long ball later our sleeping defenders were exposed once more and behind we went. Cantwell was taken off soon after and the jeers were loud as the half-time whistle went. Fortunately, unlike Pittodrie, we equalised effectively from kick off for the second period but huffed and puffed after that. In fact, for the rest of the game our failings couldn’t be more obvious. From being unable to do the most basic of stuff: players couldn’t control the ball, simple short passes went uncompleted, decision-making was inexplicable and various players abdicated their responsibilities time after time amidst a general unacceptable lack of quality and belief. Even our substitutes couldn’t provide improvement and we timidly surrendered the opportunity to qualify for the next stage of that competition.

Post-match things didn’t improve. The manager admitted taking off Cantwell (one of last season’s few shining lights) was a tactical issue and not down to injury (see the continued huge strapping the player wears during training and games). Clement discussed how he felt the player wasn’t following instruction: fair enough, Cantwell was playing badly and culpable at the opening goal. In that case, why play him there in the first place and why were other under-performing players excused? The Belgian then went on to discuss being happy about qualifying for the Conference League. Again, on its own, securing European football after Christmas is usually a positive but, in the context of last night, it felt ill-considered and glib.

All things considered it has been a bad week so far for Philippe Clement but not a period he can’t recover from. However, he has to demonstrate he has learned from a difficult five days. For example, he has previously spoken about taking the fans with him during games and he was absolutely right to say so. A packed Ibrox isn’t an easy place for any team to visit and a loud, clear backing from the stands does provide a tangible benefit to our play. That was missing last night and, as much as the players must take ownership for their own bad performances, so too must the manager. Selecting Sam Lammers instead of Ross MacAusaland, Tom Lawrence or even Rabbi Matondo was a strange choice when the Dutchman has perhaps been the best (worst?) example of what transpired to be a poor summer transfer window. To then persevere with him whilst scapegoating Cantwell to a small degree confused almost every Rangers fan last night. The former Norwich man has undoubtedly struggled this season and was again poor last night – as well as selfish – but I’m still puzzled as to why he was taken off whilst the likes of Lammers and Cifuentes made it into the second half. The latter’s selection was perhaps forced but, not for the first time, his lazy style and lack of any key input to games shows a player disinterested in improvement or adapting to his new club.

Worse than that though we have other existing players struggling with their contribution. Ben Davies was again poor at centre-half, James Tavernier had an awful game at right back whilst Tom Lawrence still looks less than fully fit and sharp after 15months out. Elsewhere in the side, new father Abdallah Sima has gone off the boil again on the left wing, Danilo struggles to influence games in attack and we still have a variety of players failing to contribute. Be it via injury (Roofe, Jack and Dowell are constantly injured) or just not being involved often enough (Yilmaz, King and Sterling were supposed to be the future), we have a large squad of 28 players with very few actually performing to acceptable levels. The manager simply must change that and I think the last few days has shown again change is necessary on the park.

To that end, Philippe Clement will know all this. He will also know there’s not much he can do until first January’s window but more probably until the summer. He will also be aware that without moving on players his budget may not be to the level required to facilitate the kind of wholesale improvement we need. However, that need not mean he can’t continue to deliver improvement. After all, not all has been lost in the last two games. We’re still well in the title race and more than capable of getting a positive result in Seville. We can also win our first trophy of the campaign in a fortnight’s time at Hampden so there’s much to look forward to and I think that can be forgotten after bad results.

Even so, it can be argued we are back to square one with much of the goodwill the new manager has built up lost this week. To hear the team booed off last night was really disappointing but this was an understandable manifestation of our frustration with a poor start to a vital winter period. I’d like to think the manager will have noted that supporter reaction and be discussing it with his players as you read this. Sunday afternoon is an immediate opportunity to right a few wrongs and it will be fascinating to see how Clement reacts. I doubt we’ll see wholesale changes to the starting XI but will he recognise and fix the kind of flaws that seen Gio and Beale flounder in an increasingly negative tactical mindset or will he relish solving the same problems that affect this team over two years since we last won the title? The pressure is already on…

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