AFTER failing to find a way through a stubborn St Johnstone resistance at Ibrox on Saturday, Rangers now require nothing short of a miracle to haul themselves back into the title race. Scott Brown’s late winner at Rugby Park sent Celtic eight points clear at the top of the Premiership in what felt like a definitive moment in this season’s title race.
As has been the case far too often this season, a lacklustre display at Ibrox against Celtic cost Rangers dearly and it’s hard to envisage them gaining eight points over Celtic between now and the end of the season. For a team with title pretentions, too often Rangers slip up at home to teams who they should really be beating.
The blame for Saturday’s dispiriting draw falls ultimately with two men: Steven Gerrard and Mark Allen. It is Gerrard’s job to pick a team that is capable of winning games, and Allen’s to ensure that his manager has the right players at the club to do so. But it must be said that Rangers’ transfer policy has been sketchy at best over the last few seasons, and has actually gone downhill since Gerrard took charge last summer.
Each campaign, a raft of new faces are recruited as Rangers overhaul their squad, convinced that this will be the window where everything changes. So far, alas, it has not. Millions have been rashly squandered as the desperation to stop Celtic’s bid for ten-in-a-row has taken centre stage and the wrong players have been identified and recruited.
Gerrard, however, can have little complaint about the squad of players available to him. The Rangers manager has signed no fewer than 20 players since he arrived in the summer, and success stories are few and far between. If Rangers are to truly close the gap with Celtic, a higher calibre of player must be brought in. Below, we’ve analysed where Rangers have been going wrong in the transfer market and drawn comparisons with equivalent Celtic players to see how much – and where – Rangers need to improve if they are to seriously challenge for the Premiership title.
The most pressing issue currently facing Gerrard is the Ibrox club’s over-reliance on Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian is enjoying a fantastic season and leads the Premiership goalscoring charts, but Rangers look totally out of ideas going forward without him. Scott Arfield is Rangers’ third-top scorer in the league this season with just five goals, only behind Morelos and penalty-taker James Tavernier.
Kyle Lafferty and Jermain Defoe have been brought in to ease the goalscoring burden placed on Morelos’ shoulders. It’s probably a little too early to judge Defoe, but Lafferty has unquestionably flopped. With no other options in attack – and very few goals from midfield – Rangers are always going to struggle without Morelos, if and when he is suspended or injured.
This reliance on one player is a dangerous thing and until more Rangers players start getting on the scoresheet regularly, keeping pace with Celtic will always be incredibly difficult. Rodgers’ side spread the goals around a team, and as such are harder to set up against defensively. If you’re facing Rangers, your best chance of keeping a clean sheet is by simply marking Morelos out of the game. If you’re facing Celtic, there’s around five or six players capable of breaking the deadlock, which in turn makes them harder to defend against.
When we examine the Premiership’s best players at playing the ball into the final third, the result makes for worrying viewing for Rangers fans. The top five players in this regard all play for Celtic and Rangers have just one player in the top ten: new signing Glen Kamara. And even then, the vast majority of Kamara’s stats here are taken from his time at Dundee.
This reveals the real issue at play in the Rangers midifeld. Almost every Celtic defender is better at playing a defence-splitting pass than any Rangers midfielder. Players like Filip Benkovic and Dedryck Boyata are more capable of playing a pass into the final third than the likes of Arfield or Ryan Jack.
If Rangers are struggling to find men in the final third, then they are never going to score as often as they need to if they want to realistically challenge for the title. Creative players with an eye for a pass are sorely needed in a Rangers midfield that at present is made up almost entirely of defensive midfielders. To be fair to Gerrard, the Rangers manager appears to have recognised this with the acquisition of Kamara, but more creativity is needed further up the park.
More wingers will be required too, particularly when Ryan Kent returns to Anfield in the summer. Eros Grezda has proven to be a flop and surely has no long-term future at the club. Dani Candeias, as hardworking as he is, struggles with his final ball and too often Rangers attacks this season have broken down with the Portuguese on the ball. Glenn Middleton looks a decent prospect for the future, but simply isn’t good enough to start week in, week out yet.
Keeping a hold of the ball and using it correctly seems to be the main issue affecting Rangers at the moment, all across the pitch. While players in midfield are struggling to play killer balls, those at the back are having difficulty simply recycling possession. The graph above details the ten outfield players with the greatest passing accuracy in the Premiership. These are defenders for the most part; after all, these players enjoy a lot of possession and are tasked with playing relatively simple passes.
Gerrard should be worried by the lack of Rangers players who make this list. Eight of the top ten passers in the league play for Celtic, and six of them play in defence. All of these players average at least a 90% completion rate, while there are only two players at Rangers who can say the same: Ryan Jack and Gareth McAuley. In fact, this pair are the only Rangers representatives in the top 25.
Connor Goldson, for example, has an 85% success rate when it comes to passes. This sounds encouraging, until you realise that this doesn’t place the centre back in the top 30 best passers of the ball in the Premiership. For a team with title ambitions, this is simply not good enough. Goldson has impressed at times this season but needs a partner at the heart of the Rangers defence to play alongside regularly. McAuley is only a short-term stop-gap, Joe Worrall is away in the summer and Nikola Katic has a habit of being lax in possession. Signing a reliable, composed centre back would be a huge step forward for Gerrard’s side.
A far more thorough approach is required from the Ibrox scouting department if they are ever going to push Celtic all the way in a title race. As it stands, Gerrard’s over-reliance on Morelos – coupled with a lack of creativity in the middle of the park – has resulted in a malaise on the pitch. With Morelos encompassing the majority of Rangers’ attacking threat, blunting the Rangers attack is too easy for the opposition and until further reinforcements are recruited, there is little to suggest that Rangers will adapt between now and the end of the season.
Ultimately, the main issue at Rangers at the moment is in using the ball correctly. Only Celtic enjoy more possession than Gerrard’s side on average, yet all too often the Ibrox club run out of ideas with the ball at their feet. A coherent transfer policy is required that focuses heavily on player technique and creativity and until this happens, any talk of ‘closing the gap’ is simply premature. Until Rangers can find more goals throughout the team, until Gerrard’s side have a greater incision in the final third, until players can use the ball correctly instead of squandering possession, Celtic’s dominance at the top will continue. Improving in these areas is by no means a guarantee of success in and of itself, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction.