Craig Fowler gives his take as Rangers defeat Motherwell on the opening weekend of the Ladbrokes Premiership season.
Rangers show signs of improvement
It’s only one game, and they didn’t win it with any sort of authority, but this just felt like a match which would have slipped from Rangers’ grasp last season.
Celtic fans will still guffaw, and with fairly good reason. You can’t look at this performance and think “title contenders”, but there are already signs of improvement. Ryan Jack and Graham Dorrans seem to be a step above Jason Holt and Andy Halliday, Josh Windass looks like a completely new player on the left wing, while Bruno Alves and Fabio Cardoso will enable supporters to rest a lot easier than Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan ever did.
Improvement is all the fans are asking for at this moment in time. They don’t need their team to catch Celtic this season, they just need an indication that they’re heading in the right direction. Hell, just finishing above Aberdeen would be a start.
There’s a new fan favourite in town
One can’t help but wonder what Andy Halliday, sitting in a supporters’ club bar in Baku with his Rangers shirt on, felt watching Dorrans grab two goals and get the adulation of the support. For all intents and purposes, this is the man replacing him, not just in the heart of the midfield, but in the hearts of the Rangers support.
Every fanbase wants players who support the club starring for the team. Halliday was such a player when Rangers romped to the Scottish Championship crown, but he couldn’t maintain those standards at a higher level and ultimately the support began to turn on him.
Even though it was only one game, there was enough from Dorrans to suggest he could be the man the supporters were so desperate for Halliday to be: the talismanic figure who cares as much about the club as they do.
Motherwell have some tactical flexibility
Having worked on using a three-man defence a lot through pre-season and the Betfred Cup, it was no surprise to see Motherwell line up in a 3-5-2 to start the game. The danger of using such a shape is the threat of being exposed on the flanks, where opposing wingers and full-backs can double up on the wing-back, creating great crossing opportunities. And that’s exactly what occurred in the first half.
Windass and Lee Wallace continually burned Motherwell down their right hand side. Richard Tait is one of the better attacking full-backs in the league, but he can’t literally be in two places at once, though he did give it his best shot. Pushed up to offer a crossing threat on the wing, Tait often found himself scrambling back to try and halt the Rangers duo, without much success.
Of course, the benefit to using a five-man midfield against a team playing 4-4-2, especially one with two attack-minded wide players, as Rangers were, is that it becomes a lot easier to dominate the middle of the park. Motherwell couldn’t do so in the opening 20 minutes, Rangers were just overwhelmed them with their urgency and work rate, but they soon settled down and began to ask questions of their own.
Robinson could have stuck with the shape and hoped the chaos factor fell in his favour, but every manager likes to be in control, and he changed the system to a 4-4-2 without having to make a sub. The game in the second half was a lot less frantic and open, but Motherwell definitely subdued the visitors in comparison with the energetic opening period.
Ironically, the move which led to the corner that ultimately led to the penalty, saw Windass and Wallace going two-on-one against Tait after a Motherwell counter-attack. It was really the only time all half the pair were able to do so, and it ended up being the difference between the teams.
Despite the disappointing outcome, it bodes well for Motherwell that their preferred XI is set up to allow a change in system without wholesale changes being required. Carl McHugh can play in midfield or defence, Charles Dunne at centre or left back, Craig Tanner can operate anywhere across the attacking third, and Chris Cadden on the flank or through the centre.
Josh Windass may have turned over a new leaf
Where did that come from? After a season of flattering to deceive on the park and frustrating supporters with ill-advised social media posts off it, it’s safe to say this was one of the better performances from the former Accrington Stanley man.
During the first half he gave Motherwell a torrid time down the left-hand side, and had his shot at the end of an incredible solo run hit the back of the net, instead of coming back off the post, we would have already been talking about a goal of the season contender.
Both player and manager have spoken about how he was used last season, which was predominantly at the tip of the midfield three. Windass insists this is not his strongest role, and that he views himself as a wide player. This game certainly suggested that’s the case. With greater room to stretch his legs, his pace and acceleration were utilised further, while he was also given freedom to drift into space in the centre.
Caixinha, though, is clearly intent on not letting Windass get too carried away, choosing to focus on a defensive lapse in his post-match interview rather than the player’s impressive forward play.
Motherwell’s big players didn’t play well
Rangers will be rightly encouraged, but it should be pointed out: none of Motherwell’s big players from last season played well. McHugh had a hard time getting to grips with the pace of the game, which affected his passing, Tait got stuck between two positions too often, and Louis Moult... boy, he had a bad one.
The talismanic striker just didn’t look himself. The early miss from Cadden’s cross was as bad as we’ve ever seen from him, and it may have played on his mind later in the half when he executed a fine one-two with Tanner, only to look for his partner again instead of going for goal.
The proverbial bad day at the office was compounded when he gave away the penalty with a forearm smash on Cardoso, which handed Rangers their match-winner, and he was lucky referee Bobby Madden didn’t issue a second yellow card for his late lunge on Dorrans at the edge of his own penalty area.
The good news is that Moult, Tait and McHugh won’t play like that every week. With a few of the new signings impressing - Tanner, Cedric Kipre and, to a lesser extent, Dunne - Motherwell could have a squad strong enough to stay clear of the immediate threat of relegation throughout the campaign.