Rangers' 5-1 defeat at Parkhead is not something we'd particularly like to revisit ahead of this weekend's Old Firm clash. Mark Warburton spoke about the need to learn lessons from the game, and as tedious as that line has been getting, we need to ask - has he succeeded? A month, granted, is not a particularly long period of time to change serious problems with an entire team, but there is cause for optimism. Some good work is being done.
If we had to criticise the team's three main flaws from that game and pretty much every other, they would be threefold - the poor defending, the lack of cohesion in the team as a whole, and an inability to turn possession into goals. Here's how we've been getting on with all three.
A tighter defence?
"Good going forward, not so good going the other way" has been a lazy criticism of Rangers' fullbacks and the team as a whole pretty much since Mark Warburton took over. It's lazy because a good deal of this is obviously impossible - if you want to be good at attacking, you have to get forward in numbers, and will be caught out of position. Attacking football is about risks, and that's what Rangers should be about.
Yet there's been no denying that the defence has looked like the weakest part of the team for a long while, and was bizarrely the most neglected area in the transfer window. Rangers' centre-back pairing has been all over the place in terms of selection, and it's still anyone's guess as to who could start against Celtic. Danny Wilson, probably, if he's fit, since he's enjoyed a decent start to the season, but apart from that it's hard to tell.
Yet despite that, things have improved. Rangers didn't keep a clean sheet in a single Premiership game leading up to the 5-1 at Celtic, shipping a solitary goal in each of the four matches before. That cost us quite a few points - and while arguably the bigger problem has been our inability to score more than one on too many occasions ourselves, Rangers have been far better since, keeping a clean sheet in three of the four subsequent games. We might still be firing blanks and wasteful in possession and attack, but our newfound ability to keep things tighter helps make that less of an issue.
A more integrated team?
After the last defeat to Celtic, it was noted that our most convincing performance against a top-flight team that season had been the 2-0 defeat of Motherwell in the League Cup group stage, which was played entirely with last season's team. Joey Barton failed to put in any sort of performances worthy of his pay packet, Joe Garner had a slow start to life in the league, Niko Kranjcar simply wasn't fit enough, Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos got off to disastrous starts and Jordan Rossiter and Josh Windass, while impressive, saw injury halt their progress.
Since then, Barton is obviously out of the team, but the return of Jason Holt and the increasingly excellent performances of the likes of Andy Halliday have helped to restore balance, order and consistency to the team. Kranjcar has also improved drastically, while even Hill has managed to find his feet. We're still a while away from being more than the sum of our parts, but we're a lot closer now than we were a month ago. The worry is how much of that is down to last season's players, but it might just take a while to integrate some of the new guys effectively. Warburton has at least paid heed to that.
A less wasteful attack?
Well...no. Rangers' goals-per-shot levels are pretty abysmal by any standards, and we still don't score anywhere near as many as we should. Sometimes, this has been through a shocking degree of wastefulness (0-0, Ross County), sometimes because of an inability to create a genuine clear-cut chance of high quality (such as in the otherwise good win at Caley) and more usually a combination of the two (that fucking game at Pittodrie.)
The good news is that Rangers are still dominating games and have a decent chance of doing so in neutral territory even against Celtic. The bad news is that we still haven't improved our ability to make the most of that dominance to any reasonable degree. The really ugly news is that this remains our biggest problem, and the one thing holding us back from title contention and being a very good team indeed. It's also something that's incredibly hard to solve or even figure out why it's happening.
On the whole, Rangers have certainly improved. But there is the significant, major problem of our ability to convert chances which still needs to be fixed. A cup semi against Celtic would be a hell of a place to start. If we don't, then there's only so long we can insist on getting the basics right and hope it all falls into place. It will demand a hard, cold and ruthless willingness to face up to the facts at some point. That point is getting ever closer.