The dropping of five points in three games already has onlookers wondering if Rangers are making themselves vulnerable by sticking with Mark Warburton’s aesthetically pleasing, patient, attacking style.
At first glance it seems a huge overreaction. After all, the Ibrox side remain top of the table on goal difference, with a game in hand, and recently had people discussing whether it was possible they could win every single league game this season. Until Saturday’s frustrating draw at Livingston they had only dropped points at Easter Road, which is far and away the toughest trip for them in the division.
But there is no doubt that a shift has taken place since the first two months of the season. In Rangers’ first ten games, in all competitions, they only failed to defeat an opponent by two goals or more on one occasion. They have done it only three times in the ten matches since.
Should such a trend continue then theories behind the return to earth will come thick and fast. The pitches are getting cut up, which impacts on Rangers’ passing game. Opponents have figured out how to play the championship favourites, adjusting their tactics accordingly. Or maybe teams see a weakness. Perhaps a lack of fight and willingness to scrap for every loose ball.
Livingston certainly gave Warburton’s side problems with the latter. The home side played with a determination, while the visitors lacked urgency. There were chances for Rangers to win the game, but even though they enjoyed the vast majority of possession – 70 per cent according to their manager – it wasn’t reflected in the number of clear-cut openings in front of goal.
Jason Holt put them in front in the 22nd minute, running onto a loose ball and shooting low into the net after Ben Gordon had deflected a Barrie McKay cross. McKay himself would then go as close as any other Rangers player on the day, hitting the base of the post with a curling effort from 20 yards. They dominated the first half after the goal, but failed to create anything else clear-cut and should have seen their advantage erased when Jordan White headed at the goalkeeper from close range, a miss Myles Hippolyte would make up for with a curling finish from 20 yards into the bottom corner.
Rangers piled on the pressure during the last half-hour, but other than a McKay chance and a Kenny Miller shot that was saved, Livingston largely held firm with ten men behind the ball. This is the approach that most teams will take when playing against Warburton’s side, but the manager is insistent there is no need to change their football philosophy one iota.
“If you look at our opponents today, guys who are 6ft 2in, 6ft 3in, there’s a lot of physicality. It would do us no use to start slinging balls into the box,” stressed Warburton. “We made some poor decisions with putting the wrong ball into the box and making the centre-halves look good. We have to be smart, we have to be patient and show quality in the key area.
“Respectfully, teams are getting eight, nine, ten men behind the ball. We’ve spoken about this before. In training we do exercises where it’s nine versus four, ten versus six, and it’s really hard to break them down. It’s hard because they are compact, solid and resilient. Today it was ten versus nine, and that’s hard to break down. Whether it’s a bit of quality, a loose header, a ball dropping our way, today it didn’t come for us.”
The manager’s sentiments were echoed by the goalscorer. It’s not a case of Rangers needing a plan B, but to execute plan A in the manner they were back in the summer months.
“Nothing’s changed. We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and try to win every game,” said Holt. “The stuff that we’re doing, we just need to try and do better.”