After a rather disappointing 'transitional' season upon our return to the SPFL Premiership, it was obvious to all that substantial changes had to be made inside the dressing room at Rangers. First of all, the management team which secured our promotion were removed given their less than flexible approach to, not only our inconsistent form, but in terms of improving the quality of the playing squad. Pedro Caixinha was then brought in: himself hardly a household name but apparently impressing the board with his pragmatism and modern outlook.
The timing of his appointment was at first curious and it's fair to say his results in his short tenure less than impressive at times. However, with a weak, poorly proportioned squad inherited from the previous incumbent it seemed obvious enough the new man was appraising all players with one eye clearly on the upcoming season. Further inconsistency remained evident so it's no surprise Caixinha has moved quickly to address the weaknesses throughout the team. With particular attention placed upon its spine.
Now, Mark Warburton's spell in charge wasn't without it's positives. His team played some lovely football at times and had an attacking outlook which most Rangers fans enjoyed. However, despite the influence of assistant manager Davie Weir, our defence was almost always susceptible to conceding cheap goals. Further, our midfield was powderpuff and usually bypassed far too easily by counter-attacking sides. Worse, our possession had become ponderous and predictable with any goals drying up. Yes, the Englishman had attempted to address these failings via the signings of Clint Hill, Joey Barton, Jordan Rossiter, Niko Kranjcar and Joe Garner but, Hill aside, the rest struggled - either via injury or a manager who didn't seem to know how best to utilise their strengths. Warburton's January window was even less inspiring with two very similar midfield players brought in on loan and a goalkeeper, all of whom ill-quipped to answer every question of our struggling team.
By February of 2017, Warburton's Rangers team was going nowhere and it seemed he himself knew his time was up despite confusion over his supposed resignation and subsequent move to Nottingham Forest. Graeme Murty took over as caretaker and, despite one or two reasonable results, the shipping of goals continued as Rangers struggled to control games. The appointment of Caixinha the following month also failed to offer an obvious 'bounce' and although the eventual positive of third position and a place in the Europa League was secured, even the most optimistic of supporters could see wholesale changes were needed to the playing squad.
To their credit, the board have reacted quickly to the manager's requests. At the time of writing five new players have already been confirmed with at least three more expected ahead of the Europa League qualifying round draw next Monday. Not only has Caixinha made changes to his central defence, the midfield has been strengthened and two new strikers brought in to address our impotency in attack. Ergo, it's safe to say the under-performing and weak spine of the team will change markedly for the new campaign.
First of all, in Bruno Alves the manager has chosen to replace the experience of Clint Hill with an international defender of the highest pedigree. Yes, Alves may be 35 but his age need not be an impediment to improving our aerial and physical presence at the back. Less is known of his compatriot Fabio Cardoso but he appears to have the potential to improve on the weaknesses Wilson, Kiernan and Senderos all too often showed last season. Add in David Bates and Aiden Wilson then we have genuine competition for places in central defence.
Moving forward in the team and, despite issues up front and at the back last term, arguably our biggest issue was in midfield with a lightweight unit incapable of contributing goals or protecting their defence. The likes of Toral, Hyndman, Holt, Halliday and Windass all struggled to deliver consistently whilst injury removed the services of Jordan Rossiter and Niko Kranjcar just as they started to influence games. As such, the new manager has moved quickly to address this soft underbelly in a key part of the side. Aberdeen captain Ryan Jack has already been confirmed and he'll be the defensive lynch-pin around which the midfield is built. The acquisition of Dálcio from Benfica is equally interesting and he should offer a creative versatility between the defensive and offensive lines. Mexican Carlos Peña should also be confirmed this week and he'll be the box-to-box player we hope Windass can develop into. Add in a fully fit Rossiter and Kranjcar then we should have a much better balance in the engine-room.
Clearly these improvements would all be pointless if we can't score goals and that was a huge issue for the team last season. Despite the positive creative efforts of players like McKay and Miller, quite simply our goals for column wasn't good enough. Not only did Celtic score twice as often as us but Aberdeen also scored an extra 18 goals so it was no surprise we trailed well behind both in the league table. Again, the likes of Waghorn, Garner and Dodoo had the odd bright patch but all things considered they were unreliable and it's no surprise Caixinha has sought to sign Eduardo Herrara and Alfredo Morelos (again both subject to work permit approval this week). It looks as if Garner will be the first to make way for the new players and it remains to be seen if Waghorn is retained or if the manager may fancy Ryan Hardie and Dodoo instead as back ups.
In a creative sense, right winger Daniel Candeias has been brought in to improve the squad. The afore-mentioned McKay and Miller did have good seasons but others such as Michael O'Halloran and Harry Forrester struggled to get into the side on a regular basis. With rumours of both being moved on then it's no surprise to see us linked with Jamie Walker from Hearts - though it may be the case he's only pursued if McKay can't be persuaded to sign a new long term contract. The likes of Lee Wallace, James Tavernier, Lee Hodson and Myles Beerman provide deeper cover in the wider areas but new full backs have also been linked so further changes could be explored there in the medium term.
All in all with five new players confirmed and three more expected this week, clearly we're seeing big changes - not just squad wise but with direct reference to our starting XI. I also doubt the manager's work in the transfer market is done yet and would expect more in and out before the window closes in August. Given our powderpuff performances over the last 12-18 months that has to be good news but with so many changes, can the new players hit the ground running and can Pedro Caixinha also show his doubters that he has the quality Mark Warburton did not? With that pressure in mind, I'd expect to see us change tactically next season and suggest a much more pragmatic look to our strategy. Whilst that not necessarily mean the orthodox 4-4-2 some fans prefer, I do see us being more direct, more physical and to move the ball quicker.
41,000 season tickets have already been sold and with only two weeks to our first match of season 2017/18, the excitement is again building. The fans have delivered once more and, along with new sponsorship, enabled the board to back the manager financially. And with a more obvious spine to the team, we may finally have a backbone capable of offering a more credible challenge to Celtic. We now need the players and manager to do their job ahead of a huge season for the club.
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