In what is a YouTube classic, Walter Smith makes his discontent at a line of questioning from BBC Scotland’s Chick Young perfectly clear. It is the mid 1990s and Smith, after yet another harrowing European evening for a team untouchable in Scotland, is asked in pretty mild terms whether his high-profile signings from abroad have lived up to expectations. The manager and reporter actually get on very well normally but the obliteration of Young by Smith makes plain his frustration with the result.
Postmortems attached to Rangers in Europe are neither new nor particularly appealing. It is just that the one necessary now has changed in form. Whether at the behest of Steven Gerrard or Rangers as a club, the manager conducts no regular media briefings outside commercial and contractual obligations. The whys and wherefores of that are for another time but, besides this being a dire look for a manager of such high profile and a club that prides itself on class and status, it presents him with a problem.
There may well be underlying reasons for Rangers’ dismal start to the season – it would seen sensible to believe there are – but Gerrard has no forum to properly articulate them, attributable or otherwise, to bemused supporters. Despite what that YouTube clip may suggest, Smith was a master at delivering media messages that favourably shaped coverage of his team in good times and bad. Gerrard’s detachment may well appeal to those who want Rangers on a permanent war footing with the world, but it is counterproductive.
Even in a city in which football-related exaggeration is practically an art form, it is perfectly fair to say Rangers’ Champions League exit at the hands of Malmö was an embarrassment. The Swedish club played the second half in front of a packed Ibrox with 10 men, Alfredo Morelos having levelled the tie on aggregate in the 18th minute. Jon Dahl Tomasson worked magic at half-time as Rangers wilted. Gerrard used the words “fear” and “panic” to describe his players’ approach.
There is a curious theory on the rise that contrasts Rangers’ behind-closed-doors stroll to the Premiership title last season with their travails so far this season, and suggests the presence of supporters is causing them difficulties. Three losses in a row fuels this narrative. It isn’t yet particularly valid; 4,600 Dundee United fans should not legitimately prompt fear and alarm. At Ibrox on Tuesday, even when the tide was turning, those in the stands audibly backed Rangers rather than screaming in collective anxiety.
Gerrard’s problems look more fundamental. What the former Liverpool captain has to prove is that last season’s title was not the exception to the rule for a team easily second-best to Celtic in the two previous seasons. An outstanding campaign by their goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, and the paucity of domestic opposition, masked defensive deficiencies that came to the fore against Malmö.
Rangers’ full-backs are superb as attacking options; they are shaky when put under serious pressure. The centre-backs, whoever he picks, are prone to errors. These problems are far from breaking news. Neither is the refusal or inability to switch from pretty standard tactical approaches, much as that is irrelevant when defensive calamities such as those that occurred against Malmö transpire. The absence of Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara hinders Gerrard in respect of shielding his backline, but that provides even more reason for a shape rethink.
It reflects on Ross Wilson, the sporting director, as much if not more than on Gerrard, that from a position of strength Rangers have not made many signings that affect their starting XI. Ryan Kent joined, initially on loan, in 2018. Other key players – McGregor, Steven Davis, Connor Goldson, James Tavernier, Borna Barisic and Morelos – have been in situ since, at the latest, 2019.
There is much to be said for stability but Rangers have recently largely signed players who lurk on the fringes. The notion the existing players are of blue-chip variety is undermined by the lack of top-level interest in their services. Kent, consistently linked with Leeds, is woefully out of sorts.
John Lundstram, who arrived from Sheffield United with considerable hype this summer, was consigned to the bench for Malmö’s visit after some dismal displays. It is almost as if he moved to Rangers from a team who collected 23 points in last season’s Premier League. Fashion Sakala, signed from Oostende, did at least appear in the latter stages and looked lively.
The all-consuming celebrations after Rangers reclaimed the league flag were understandable. The club had waited a decade. Nonetheless, there was a hidden danger this focus on blocking Celtic’s 10-in-a-row quest – and Celtic suffered from the same skewed vision as they pursued it – blocked development. It was abundantly clear Rangers were going to win the league early in 2021, at which point attention should have been on readiness for a Champions League qualifying campaign. Serious stuff, if you will. Instead, they have arrived at games that could have given Rangers a massive financial boost looking unprepared, in terms of both personnel and physicality.
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Speculation now surrounds whether the lack of Champions League bounty will nudge Rangers towards player departures, which one glance at their accounts suggests would be wise. Yet it may also be that in a football sense this team are in need of far more rejuvenation than many appreciated. Gerrard has little time to find solutions, even if he has no scope to expand on what, from his perspective, his headaches actually relate to.