After Saturday’s 5-1 pumping from Celtic, I did what I usually do after Rangers take a heavy (or particularly embarrassing) defeat. Shut Twitter, logged out of Facebook and avoided my usual Rangers forums like the plague. The immediate aftermath of a result like Saturday is quite often comical knee-jerk responses, hysterical over-reaction to players’ performances and (my own personal favourite) half-pished punters tweeting tactical advice to the management team and players.
Taking a look at some of the tweets through Saturday afternoon and into Sunday it’s clear that fans are still massively behind Mark Warburton but it’s also becoming painfully obvious that his, now famous, quote stating “Plan B is doing Plan A better” just isn’t going to cut it. Plan A is great when it works. Last season was some of the best football I’ve seen Rangers play on a consistent basis for a long, long time. When they are on form Rangers are a threat to any team. But when Plan A isn’t working it’s bloody horrible.
The Betfred Cup results, and the timing of the games, masked some poor performances and most supporters thought that once they players had got up to fitness and the new signings had bedded into the side that Warburton’s side would start playing something like last season. So far, other than a few short spells, it’s not happened. Rangers have looked pedestrian, uninterested and unfit as they’ve stumbled to two wins in the opening five league fixtures. With Ross County at Ibrox then a trip to Pittodrie coming up, Warburton’s men need to take maximum points in both games to keep any hopes of a title challenge on track.
Defensively, Rangers’ weaknesses were cruelly exposed by Celtic time and again. The inability to defend corner kicks is inexcusable from a side harbouring ambitions to play in the Champions League. Time and time again teams have scored from set-pieces as the Rangers defence goes to sleep and virtually gift wraps them a goal. Lee Wallace has also been off the boil in recent weeks and looks in need of a rest already. There have been suggestions that the captain is struggling with a niggly injury and if that’s the case it’s much better for all parties if he gets it dealt with now and can be fit for later in the season than trying to brave it through now and missing the crucial games later in the year. Lee Hodson is a more than capable deputy and the Northern Irish international has impressed in his limited appearances for the club so far.
The quartet of Rob Kiernan, Philippe Senderos, Clint Hill and Danny Wilson have all shown they can’t be trusted to keep weans out a close BUT Warburton seems to like Wilson and Kiernan as a pairing and there was nothing from Senderos in the Old Firm game that suggests he’s a first pick. Kiernan, in particular, can go from making a fantastic challenge one minute to playing a defence splitting pass to the oppositions’ centre forward the next. Fixing this needs to be a priority in the January window.
The midfield is unrecognisable to what it was last year. Barton and Kranjcar, while both top quality players, have barely kicked their own arse so far. Both were behind the curve a bit in terms of fitness but should now be almost there. Kranjcar has shown little glimpses of what he is capable of but they are few and far between and his performance at Celtic Park was little short of embarrassing. His 45-minute cameo is only second to Fernando Ricksen’s Celtic Park debut this century in it’s woefulness. The ex-Spurs, Portsmouth and NY Cosmos midfielder needs to really step up his game if he isn’t to find himself quickly bombed out the matchday squad completely. Barton has talked a good game, tweeted an even better one but is yet to have any real impact in an actual game. Second best to everything against Celtic, Barton done himself no favours and was even publicly mocked by Scott Brown. When Scott Brown has bragging rights over you then you know you’ve made a mess of something. Barton’s desire to play long, raking passes sees attacks continually break down and is a departure from the style which found such success last year. If he was brought to Ibrox to help Jordan Rossiter along then I don’t think it’ll be too long before the student usurps the teacher.
Josh Windass was one of the few positives against Celtic. His constant energy put pressure on the Celtic midfield but the lack of support he received from his team-mates meant Celtic had an easy out-ball every time. He’s pretty much a ‘roided-up Jason Holt, and if Holt’s performances are anything to go by that can only be a good thing. Speaking of Holt, the diminuitive midfielder has been sorely missed in the Rangers midfield. His constant movement beyond the striker created a massive number of goalscoring opportunities last season, and with Rangers lack of goals this season, would be a welcome return again this season.
Harry Forrester and Michael O’Halloran must wonder what they have to do to get a regular start, or in the case of O’Halloran a start. Forrester has stepped up countless times in his short spell with the club and gives the side an extra attacking dimension. O’Halloran has impressed when used from the bench and his direct style should mesh well with Joe Garner. With Martyn Waghorn also fit there is plenty of competition for the front three and with Barrie McKay also in the mix there are plenty of options for Warburton to mix things up. Despite Rangers struggles at the back, they are creating a good number of chances in every game. A clinical striker is desperately needed and hopefully the profligacy in front of goal can be resolved sooner rather than later.
Despite having, on paper at least, such a strong squad Rangers just haven’t been able to dominate games at all this season. The midfield’s lack of pressing, the strikers’ lack of composure in front of goal and the defence’s lack of defending has seen the first goal in almost every game so far go against Rangers. This is schoolboy stuff. Defending set-pieces, not conceding early goals, both central defenders not going for the same ball, passing the ball to guys in the same colour of jersey. As I said, schoolboy stuff.
The changes that need made don’t need much work. A little more flexibility in Rangers’ shape; picking players that suit the shape instead of picking them on their reputation; and most importantly more attention needs to be paid to defending set-pieces.
With only five league games played there’s still a long way to go but if Rangers don’t get to grips with them quickly Warburton will need more than a magic hat to save him.