After the best part of five months and what feels like an eternity, Rangers are finally back in SPFL action tomorrow lunch-time. And, off the back of a fairly impressive friendly programme, fans are excited to see what Steven Gerrard in his third season as Rangers manager can deliver during this campaign. Can we offer a sustained title challenge? Can we take an extra step in the domestic cups? Will we be able to maintain our progress in European competition?
None of these questions are easy to answer.
For the last two seasons any challenge offered to Celtic has faltered after the winter break whilst we've been unable to secure a domestic cup for almost ten years - despite leading in one against Hibs and outclassing Celtic in another last year. Fortunately, our performances in Europe has perhaps been a more accurate barometer of progress with good work against several decent continental outfits across the last two seasons. Indeed, we're still not officially out of last years Europa League just yet!
With all this in mind, it's interesting to note that this summer squad changes have, so far at least, been kept to an absolute minimum for Gerrard's third season. The global pandemic may have ensured a stagnated transfer market but is this also a sign that our manager feels his squad is capable of delivering trophies? With only Ianis Hagi arriving as a genuine first XI player then, as it stands, we certainly have to hope that's the manager's thinking. Yes, Jon McLaughlin, Calvin Bassey and Leon Balogun have also strengthened the squad but with Niko Katic injured for the longer term and the likes of Andy Halliday and Jon Flanagan not having their contracts renewed, that means a more streamlined look to our squad with a nod to youth in certain areas, particularly at right back in the exciting Nathan Patterson.
Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the Alfredo Morelos situation. At the time of writing it appears a renewed bid has been made from France for his services and it's nearing the (inevitable?) stage where the Colombian will move on sooner rather than later. In fact, it's not a guarantee he'll play in tomorrow's opener given his uncertain situation and one only need look at our opponents to see how an injury can affect the possible sale of your biggest asset. Aberdeen will be missing both their first choice strikers and, with Defoe again injured for us, it's been a big surprise and disappointment that we've not brought in another striker ahead of the game. Irrespective of Morelos' status, we need another centre forward and it's an undoubted gamble not to have back-up at this stage. It has been suggested that Gerrard doesn't want squad players (such as Kamberi) but genuine quality so if a suitable fee is agreed for Morelos, the manager may think the gamble of waiting will pay off with two new strikers capable of competing for the role brought in on the bulk of any transfer proceeds. As it stands though, I don't think the manager will hesitate to play the Colombian tomorrow, even if we've seen other attackers such as Barker, Stewart, Murphy and Hagi all work well together across the front-line in pre-season.
Indeed, if we look again at the starting XI for those friendly games, the manager seemed fairly consistent in his favoured side and coincidentally that is the same sort of XI we seen in our last league game in March. At that time James Tavernier and Ryan Jack were struggling with injury but those two players aside, the team that started against Ross County is effectively the one that took us through pre-season undefeated and likely to be the one that will open our season tomorrow.
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Our defence is fairly easy to predict. A couple of summer niggles and a positive start to Jon McLaughlin's Rangers career aside, Allan McGregor remains our first choice 'keeper and a key player when it comes to a winning mentality. In front of him, our back four should also be a consistent one as the season progresses with only the left centre back uncertain for now. George Edmundson should retain his place until Filip Helander is fully fit once more but the big Swede showed enough pre-Christmas last season to be Connor Goldson's preferred partner. At full back James Tavernier and Borna Barisic remain two important players, particularly in a creative sense, but both will need to demonstrate the mental strength required to ensure they can lift trophies as Rangers players.
Moving into midfield and the deeper part of our system especially, we have four players battling for three positions. Steven Davis, Ryan Jack, Glen Kamara and Joe Aribo are all fine players but the manager has often found it tricky to find the right blend in some domestic matches. That amalgam of defensive wherewithal along with the ability to move the ball quickly and vertically remains one of our biggest challenges in the stuffy arenas and artificial pitches of the Scottish Premiership. This perhaps explains why Ross Wilson and the manager are happy to pay the best part of £3million for Bongani Zungu who may well arrive imminently. Davis will miss tomorrow's game with a niggle but should be available for the midweek trip to Germany.
We also have several options further forward. Signing Ianis Hagi on a permanent deal should be a good move in terms of creativity and a goal threat whilst the form of Kent and Brandon Barker across pre-season also bodes well for the real thing. Achieving consistency from these players, as well as enough game-time for the rest of our forward options will be the key to unlocking this squad's full potential. Hitherto fringe players such as Barker, Stewart, Jones and Murphy really need to be playing regularly to show their best form but this is difficult with others ahead of them in the reckoning. Scott Arfield is another who can play in the advanced or defensive roles and we'll be hoping for a better season from him as well. We've already discussed how short we are for strikers but we are where we are for now so let's hope Morelos can get back on the goal trail quickly until such a time he does leave. However, the responsibility of scoring goals should not be placed on just one player.
All things considered, we clearly still have a good squad of players with an agreeable mix of experience and potential with undoubted quality across the manager's preferred 4-3-3 system. However, a cursory look at last season's results show we weren't clinical enough in certain situations and it's no secret we struggle to break down teams utilising low/medium blocks and concede cheap goals when we lose our own positional discipline when pushing for goals. The management team will have to prove they can overcome that if we're to win trophies and Pittodrie will prove a good initial test of that tomorrow.
In conclusion, this is a big year for Steven Gerrard. In terms of his position as Rangers manager, he's in a unique situation with the Covid virus offering difficulties no other has had previously in the post-WWII era. Yet, he's now been in the job for two years so he's no longer the inexperienced youth coach that arrived from Liverpool. Therefore, as he did as a player, he now needs to show he's learned from every minute of being in charge; from the lows to the highs, and bring success back to Rangers, just as he's seen happen at his former club. Conversely, for our part as fans, we have to remain patient. I have no doubt in my mind that Steven Gerrard is the right man for this job and whilst it may have taken a bit longer than I have hoped for him to win trophies, I firmly believe he will this coming season.
In that respect, leagues aren't won on the first day of any new campaign but we have to get off on the front foot and there cannot be any excuses as we move further into the competition. Once more unto the breach, dear friends...
Possible team (4-3-3):
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