Before we get ahead of ourselves, this is very early in the season but this is a Rangers team unrecognisable to other sides recently. Mentally the switch has been sensational, the tactical astuteness of such a young squad and manager helped by the ever impressive Michael Beale has been so pleasing in the sense of going away to the likes of Osijek and Maribor with a different game plan and executing it. Add in the impressive work from the fitness and medical staff, then a more rounded football operation is bearing fruit for Rangers so far.
Last season we were a defensive shambles conceding 50 goals in 38 games – the 7th 'best' defensive record in the league - but we also scored the most goals in the Premiership, resulting in some mad games such as 5-5 with Hibs on the last day but also causing some embarrassing results to our greatest rivals and that has to stop which is why the board landed such an icon of world football.
Gerrard identified our defence as our main issue early and recruited to strengthen that area as the first priority with Allan McGregor signing on a free from Hull. I never felt this was a position that was a priority but by god is he an upgrade and that’s no slight on Wes. Next Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic were signed for £3m and £1.5m respectively and currently look like our best centre backs in a decade.
That trio of McGregor, Goldson and Katic are very solid. Goldson already looks like a ready made English Premier League defender with a great range of passing, is comfortable on the ball whilst physically and positionally he’s almost always where he has to be. Katic is only 21 but there is excellent potential there: he has more pace than Goldson, is again physical enough to get the better of most opposition, usually neat on the ball and like Goldson can come out from the back with the ball and pass through the lines.
The signing of Jon Flanagan caused some controversy but on a purely footballing basis he has adapted very well whilst Borna Barisic has been signed on the back of scouting plus an outstanding performance against us in Croatia and decent display at Ibrox in a £1.5m deal so looks set to make that left back position his own. He is someone that is equally competent going forward as he is defensively, has a great delivery and is also on the fringes of the Croatia national set up.
From last season our defensive line up would often be – Foderingham, Tavernier, Martin, Bates, John. This now reads McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Barisic. This upgrade is ridiculous in such a short space of time, in nine competitive games this season our defence has been breached on just four occasions with five clean sheets and we have not been behind for a single second so far.
Despite playing both league matches with ten men for a combined 140 minutes from 180 available we have picked up four points and that should have been six with xG from StatsBomb giving us 2.18 vs Aberdeen 0.61, it’s the fact of how comfortable we were in both games at a man down that’s pleasing so I’m excited to see how we fare with 11v11.
I won’t be discussing every single signing but want to highlight Scott Arfield and Lassana Coulibally. Firstly Arfield is an intelligent signing from the club and Mark Allen. Recruiting an EPL quality midfielder on a free is a no brainer given he is tactically aware to be able to shift to the left like away against Maribor to help Halliday who was targeted. But he also has a specific job in that middle three to connect middle to front and we’ve seen glimpses of what he can do in driving us forward often in a counter. Not forgetting hee’s a Ranger so will give no surrender for the cause.
Lassana Coulibaly has been described as a destroyer and whilst he loves a challenge, he’s technically very decent and can link well with the wide men but can be brilliant for us when we absorb pressure and then he can drive us forward. For me, we could be making better choices in these counters to really punish sides but there is a really solid starting base.
Gerrard has also shown really positive man-management skills: he often discusses the team over individuals and that is by far the way we will reach our expectations. His management of Alfredo Morelos has been interesting, derided by some of the support in the Shkupi away leg, he has bounced back to lead the line with distinction, scoring important goals, bullying defences and bringing others in to the game with his great upper body strength. Number four of Maribor, Suler, will have nightmares of his battles with our Alfredo who now has six goals and two assists in nine appearances.
Following a derisory bid from Bordeaux of around £3.75m in the last few days, Gerrard was strong in his backing of our star forward and had this to say:
‘We have no ambitions to sell, he’s an important player. Teams can’t think they can knock on our door and pinch our best players for derisory bids, it’s not going to happen. I want him to stay I want him to sign a new deal on improved terms. If they want the player they need to show some respect, come blow us out the water with a massive bid, if not don’t pick the phone up.’
Both Osijek and Maribor have shown us little respect and far too much arrogance but I like that Gerrard hasn’t risen to the bait but instead waits for us to do the talking on the pitch before then having a go back. We won’t win things here by being nice and I think there is just the right amount of belief in the squad.
There is a certain professionalism from all involved that is pleasing and to negotiate past three tricky qualifying rounds and put both Osijek and Mairbor to the sword is another impressive feat, Maribor are ranked 59 co-efficient places above AEK Athens for example. A play-off with FC Ufa of Russia is next and the only thing that stands in our way of EL group stages. If they can sort out their visa issues in time it's also another financial boost but it’s important that we claw back our co-efficient and reputation.
I, like many other supporters, feel Gerrard, despite his icon status is easy to relate to; he’s a proper football man and doesn’t try to complicate things to sound more intelligent, a feat that David Brent across the city surely can’t say the same. Simply put, Gerrard is honest to the support, if he isn’t happy he will let the players know and can tweak things not working in game. For example, he commented post match against Maribor at Ibrox, he wasn’t happy with our shape with individuals breaking out to press for example then fixed it second half. It’s some jump from Graeme ‘I’m just the guy who stands on the touchline’ Murty.
There has been an incredible mentality switch even at this early stage, this squad is full of leaders and winners who won’t accept second best and will fight for everything to defend our goal. The aggressive press we deploy is pleasing to see but it’s also how you stop Celtic who despite a mini crisis, are still a good footballing side if you give them space and time on the ball. Hearts have their card marked and it’s a mixture of mind games and players getting stuck in and in their face, they hate it and we have the perfect set up to hurt them in a fortnight's time.
Parkhead on the 2nd of September is the major test for this side and will be a very good barometer as to where we currently are. It’s been difficult to gauge with two red cards in two league games so far but make no mistake we will push them very close as a minimum with our ambition to win title 55 this season. If we can bring in another three players I’ll be happy – a striker, centre back and midfielder, the gap that apparently needed between £50-70 million spent has closed at a rate Celtic never seen coming.
It feels like we have our Rangers back and finally a side the support can be proud of. Let’s go!
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