Martyn Waghorn’s brace on his return to the Rangers starting line-up comes at a time when everything appears to be clicking into place for the Ibrox side, writes Craig Cairns.
Much of the build-up to Friday night’s match at the Superseal Stadium centred upon, predictably, the playing surface.
Given Mark Warburton’s comments, it was surprising to see the Rangers manager include striker Martyn Waghorn in his starting XI. The former England under-21 international has been easing his way back into contention since his injury a few weeks back, his second period on the sidelines this season.
And it wasn’t so long ago that Warburton called for restrictions on the use of artificial surfaces after Waghorn sustained injury on one.
But start he did, for the first time since October, and he didn’t disappoint the boisterous travelling support.
Waghorn grabbed a brace from his role of cutting in from the right. He had caught the eye after taking to the pitch against Hearts at Ibrox the week before, getting into good positions but desperately lashing at his efforts.
On Friday night he displayed sufficient composure to loop a header over goalkeeper Gary Woods that clipped the bar on the way in, before guiding in Lee Wallace’s cross to seal a super victory.
Waghorn’s return to form comes at a time when everything seems to be coming together for Rangers, with a number of attacking players finding their groove.
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Kenny Miller has perhaps been Rangers’ most consistent performer across the season so far, his energy and link-up is vital to the way his side’s approach; Joe Garner has, in recent displays against the club’s direct competition, shown that he can be the much-debated plan B, offering a target to hit when being pressed by the opposition; Joe Dodoo has shown flashes of what he’s capable of, including a superb volley at Firhill; and Barrie McKay, after a slow start to the season, is finally reproducing the sort of exciting, dynamic displays of last season.
Conversely, James Tavernier, has got nowhere near his performance levels from last season. Though nominally a right-back, he carved a reputation as one of Rangers’ most exciting attackers but a lack of contribution to goals, something he was previously renowned for, and a number of poor defensive displays, culminating in being found wanting twice at the back post at Tynecastle, resulted in being dropped for Lee Hodson.
Tavernier has since been restored to the line-up, in midfield, though his stuttering start to the season can perhaps be explained by Waghorn’s absence.
The duo arrived from Wigan in the summer of 2015 and linked-up to dominate the right flank against almost everyone they faced. Waghorn, would start wide right but cut inside and drop deep, affording space for Tavernier to drive into. And when Waghorn stayed wide, Tavernier was not afraid to attack the centre. They scored 43 goals between them.
Trial and error, along with injuries, has meant that Tavernier has had several different right wingers start in front of him this campaign, all with vastly different styles. Though this shouldn’t admonish him of any culpability, it cannot have helped. If he were to return to his natural position, he would likely feel better with Waghorn ahead of him to link-up with, but, for now, Rangers are in much better shape defensively with the dependable Hodson slotting in there.
After much chopping and changing, some enforced and bordering on the farcical, Tavernier is part of a much more balanced central midfield, able to enjoy an attacking role with less defensive responsibility.
This Rangers side appears to be settling down now, in terms of team selection and consistency of performance, in stark contrast to where they were just a few weeks ago.
After the first round of fixtures, the drama, the in-fighting, the media spats, a continuation of the banter, Rangers had still failed to prove that they are the second best team in the country. Since then they have recorded their first run of three consecutive league wins this season, including two victories over their direct competition and have sorted out their issues at both ends of the pitch,
It comes at a time when Rangers appear to have sorted out their leaky defence at one end and their profligate attack at the other.
The added bonus of Waghorn being back to his best means that, not only are Rangers showing they are capable of finishing second, they are capable of starting to put some daylight between themselves and those directly below them in the Ladbrokes Premiership.