I don’t know about you, but when we have the first of three international breaks in three months at the early stage of the season, I often find its a great point to reflect on what we have done so far in a season. By this point, you know what your European outlook is like for the next 4 months (if there even is one), you know what your squad is going to consist of until Jackie Bird tells us it’s a new year and, if you’re lucky, you have had a couple of big ties to give you an idea of what level your team is set to perform at this season. So I wanted to think about these aspects and ponder where we have excelled, where we have dipped and what is surprising us so far.
After the game at Rugby Park in May (incidentally, Steve Clarke, “Bye Bye” to the idea that you are actually improving the Scotland squad) the talk immediately started as to where we needed to improve. The absolute must was getting Ryan Kent to return for another season at Ibrox, the likelihood being on loan, but when it became clear Liverpool only wanted to sell him, and the asking price was north of £8 million, that looked out of the question.
But we already knew we were bringing in Jordan Jones, and the arrival of Sheyi Ojo on loan from Liverpool plus recruiting Greg Stewart and Jake Hastie to boost our wide options, as well as a much more naturally positioned Scott Arfield, gave us a plethora of options.
The middle of the park looked fairly set by this stage, Ryan Jack, Steven Davis and Glen Kamara looked like a trio who were comfortable playing with each other. To have a returning Greg Docherty try and usurp one of those players seemed promising, but bringing in the highly coveted Joe Aribo from Charlton for a fraction of his worth really gave us a midfield solidity that made us all think “we will be fine in the middle.”
Losing Joe Worrall from our central defence did not dishearten too many Rangers fans I don’t think, but we knew that we needed to add bodied to that role. George Edmundson eventually arrived from Oldham and looks a promising player, a defender with both strength and a cultured right foot to spray the ball around. But spending £3.5 million to bring in Swedish international defender Filip Helander looked very bold but again it made you feel that the options at our disposal are much stronger now, that will be fine. And it also turned Nikola Katic into a frankly outstanding central back, making him practically impossible to drop.
Speaking of Croatian defenders, was Borna Barisic going to stick around? After that Kilmarnock game I think we all thought he wouldn’t, but clearly the coaching staff believed he was still a valuable asset. Besides, the one option that many supporters felt would be a natural replacement, Greg Taylor, looked quite pricy for the asking fee of £1 million. Would be mad to think a team would spend three times as much on him, wouldn’t it?
What felt absolutely crucial to our chances for 2019/20 was keeping hold of right back, and captain, James Tavernier and star striker Alfredo Morelos. And if we couldn’t, then find suitable replacements. The problem with that when it comes to Tav is there really isn’t any other player around who offers us what he does, certainly not for the money we would have to play with, so his departure seemed highly unlikely. Morelos, on the other hand, always had the sense that he would depart for a new more lucrative challenge. This did not bother us as we have Jermain Defoe, who will easily score plenty for us this season.
Yet, in the end, both of those talismanic players stayed put, despite plenty of interest. Later arrivals of Andy King and Brandon Barker, the latter a replacement for Daniel Candeias, put the squad in good shape already. But then September 2nd happened.
Ryan Kent was back on. Initial talk of Belgium was put to bed, it was clear that his heart was in Govan. And our hearts skipped many a beat when reputable sources such as the Daily Update confirmed that this was very much on. And late into the night, despite distraction of strange Instagram accounts and departures of fringe players like Jason Holt and Joe Dodoo, it was finally announced. £7.5 million pounds committed to a player who we could not wait to see tear opponents apart again.
When was the last time we spent over £11 million pounds on improving our squad? Was it even as far back as 2007/08? Possibly even further than that!? This, despite not brining in a lot of money for departing players, makes you feel that if nothing else the board have done their job and committed themselves to the belief that this can be our season, and we should have a squad that will step up to those expectations.
Steven Gerrard likes a 433. That pretty much always been the system he has gone with, with any deviation of that quickly thought better of after bad results. I don’t think anyone expects that to change much, even though many think a back three is now feasible due to our strength in depth at the back. I like the 433 we play, I like that our midfield have different strengths and they have the freedom to utilise them. I like that can balance responsibilities on different flanks depending on who plays. In other words, Tavernier pushes on but Flanagan will sit back and allow more players to attack further up. Or, Tavernier pushes on and Barisic will do the same, but our wingers will help out defensively to compensate for more committed overlapping full backs. And no matter who is playing up top out of Morelos and Defoe, they are going to make defences very scared, and they are going to be working so hard to try and be the main striker up top. The ideas are clear as day, we can all see them, but think back to previous managers in recent times, they didn’t seem to see what we saw, they didn’t go with the obvious choices. Gerrard, Beale, Culshaw et all are seeing it.
But, for arguments sake, what Plan B’s and C’s might work? I mentioned it before, but the 3 at the back does have an initial appeal to it. A point that has been made in the past is a very valid one. Katic and Helander like to defend in the same way. They want to attack the ball, and it would be very common to hear the Ibrox crowd shout “ONE OF YOU!” if they partnered each other. Put them either side and have Goldson in the middle, well then you have more balance. Tavernier would love playing as a wing back/wide midfielder, as I suspect would Barisic. The problem is, what do you do in the middle? Two or three players in the centre? If it’s three, you go with what is currently being used. If two, who misses out? The likely answer is you dispose of the “Davis role” and just go with one player who will come back to collect but more in a Ryan Jack style, and a “number 10” a la Aribo. The decision here is mutually exclusive with what you do up top. One striker and two wingers? Or two strikers and no wingers? To be honest, we have invested in far too many wide attackers to not play any of them, and I don’t think enough of them can play as a striker or false 9 to even consider that, so that means a front three which means a midfield two. And I just can’t see Gerrard seeing that as a viable option under normal circumstances.
So, to answer my own question, I think an alternative to Plan A is not going to involve a change of shape, rather a change of who plays where. Take the midfield as an example. Jack, Davis, Aribo v King, Kamara, Aribo. One of them is much more attacking than the other. So why not play the second variation against a team we should be beating comfortably and save players like Jack and Davis for the tough mid week encounter? That’s likely going to be the decisions that the management team will make this term.
Our problem last season was dropping needless points far too often. A return to Rugby Park to start our league campaign was a good measure of what differences we would likely see. It all very nearly went pear shaped until Connor Goldson got his head onto a cross. Fans were mocked their over exuberance, oh we will get to this in more depth don’t worry, but too often Rangers teams in recent memory would not have the guts to demand the three points like we did that day. That was huge. What was better was the way we dismantled Hibs at Ibrox, boy was that a show of the difference between improvement and regression, and the hunger to just keep scoring and keep humiliating the opposition was what we wanted to see for so long.
Doing the simple task needed to get past East Fife was a doddle in the end, and St Mirren fell to a moment of quality from Barisic. We went into the first Old Firm game of the season thinking that we would merely need to show what we produced against Hibs and that would do the necessary. Problem was, we changed too much. Whether that was down to fatigue from midweek or our manager trying to be too clever, I’m not sure we will ever know the real answer to that, but we looked a shadow of our true selves that day, and our opponents took advantage of that.
That is five games to look at. Can we park Hibs and East Fife for a moment? Kilmarnock was not a great performance, St Mirren was only settled by the afore mentioned free kick and was otherwise turgid, and the Old Firm was what it was. I think we can also park the Old Firm to be honest, but the other two games show a trend that has carried forward from last season.
Away games are still tough for us to really show what we can do. You see it every time, we are by far the more talented team but there is something about these kind of teams that makes it so hard to break them down on their turf. What is it they are doing? Is it 11 men behind the ball? Is it the incentive to not lose to us in both a financial sense and also a “I just hate them so much I’m going to play so far above my normal ability just to spite them” sense? It’s probably a combination of all those things, and it has always been that way and always will be. But what is different this time compared to the last three seasons is we got 6 points from 6 in those two ties. Before, it could easily have been 2.
Last term, Europe was such a joy to be a part of as we did not get the chance to experience European nights past August in so long. The feeling around the support this time consisted of two different ways of thinking. It was either “get to the third round and anything from there is a bonus, especially if we can get a big tie” or “failure to make the group stages again is a failure.”
Now, I was of the mind that the second opinion was incredibly harsh, four rounds to make it into the group stages is a tough ask. But it would absolutely have been a failure had we not made it to the third round.
St Joseph’s of Gibraltar were up first, and it was rather poetic that our competitive season would begin right beside THAT petrol station. The tie was over after the first leg, and the second leg simply became an exhibition match after 10 minutes. Task 1 complete.
The second round saw us given the chance to lay some demons to rest. Progres Niederkorn, a name that so many of us never want to hear again. The fact that the second leg would be in Luxembourg, just like last time, gave us all a little bit of a twitch and a murmur of “the hedge”, but this time we would have a 2 goal advantage. And despite playing poorly at the Stade Josey Barthel, we advanced, although the next time we play in Luxembourg I frankly demand we win on the night.
FC Midtjylland were next up, a huge jump up in quality and already there were one or two whispers of “going out now is not a disaster.” It wouldn’t be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect a respectable display. We got that and then some. We were incredible. 4-2 away in Denmark is a very good result for a first leg tie, we only needed the one goal to really make the task beyond the Danes. 3-1 at Ibrox, and 7-3 on aggregate, shows how much respect we showed our opposition. And the respect that the Danish club showed us both over there and after the tie was such a far cry from what we are used to in this country.
But, enough sentiment, our final hurdle before the chance to see a star from the past pick a ball out of a bowl with our name inside it. That hurdle was Legia Warsaw. The first leg was an even contest, anything to take away from such a hostile atmosphere would have been a bonus, but 0-0 still looked on us favourably. And for all the world it looked like 0-0 was how it would stay after 90 minutes in Glasgow. But with smoke settling all around Ibrox, Jordan Jones put in that cross, and Morelos connects to head the ball into the net. I lose my voice, Ibrox rocks for ages, and we have the funds to make a game changing signing. I will never, ever forget that night.
The draw for the group stages saw us paired with FC Porto, Young Boys & Feyenoord. This is a group that would not look out of place in the Champions League. These are clubs that all have pedigree. These are teams that have special players, and there are zero expectations on our shoulders. This still feels like a reward rather than a challenge. However, it is not outwith the realms of possibility that we make it out of this group, it’s almost the perfect formula.
We have talked about many things that have improved so far from last season. Yet one thing that remains the same is the way that our support are viewed from the tinted specs of those who claim to be “impartial” about our club. In a perfect world, the only gripe that Rangers fans would have at this stage would be whether we really needed 4 friendly games at Ibrox in July, all of them on a Sunday as well. I think there are a lot of fans who feel 4 is just slightly too much.
But then Rugby Park happens. Too few turnstiles are open for the number of fans there, and things begin to look serious before quick thinking to open the gate potentially saves lives. How was this reported? “Rangers fans force open the gates, and there couldn’t have been a crush anyway as it was outside.” Laughable. We deserve better than these hacks whose agendas are more transparent than you could ever think was possible. Neutral indeed.
However, a situation that has raised its head yet again is the subject of words that are used in some songs that are sung from the terraces at Ibrox, that go against the regulations of UEFA. They came down hard on us, forcing us to close a section of Ibrox for Legia, as well as our first home game and no away tickets for our trip to Switzerland either. It was all a bit tense amongst fans at first, but the clear majority was of the mind that we cannot sing these songs anymore.
And we haven’t. Anyone who has tried to start a rendition has been quickly told to be quiet (or words to that effect) and the attitude has clearly shifted in this respect. I personally thought that this would take longer to properly transition, but massive credit should be given to our support for our reaction to this, and I can only hope that we stick to this change, we simply cannot run the risk of suffering a stadium closure for a European game.
A Look At Where We Are Going
I’ve talked about many sides to the story of supporting Rangers Football Club so far this season. It has been my hope that this gives you even more excitement for the next game we play on September 14 against Livingston at Ibrox, because we should be optimistic. We are one of the most unique sporting clubs to follow in the world, our history, our demand for success, the difficulties of the past 7 years. Those difficulties have seen us play against some minuscule sides. No fan was going to be excited by the prospect of hosting Stenhousemuir on a Saturday afternoon. And I’m not saying that Livingston are Goliath’s in comparison…OK maybe a little bit but not that much. But we filled the stands then and we will do now. And we have always done so because we know that the glory days are ever closer, one game at a time.
Why am I talking about this? Because, looking at where we are so far, it feels like this could well be our chance. And we have the squad, the staff, the experience, the glamour and the support to back that up. September 14th cannot come soon enough.