Numbers game at Rangers reaches pivotal stage as club recalibrates after Champions League exit

For Rangers, the numbers make for unpleasant reading both on and off the pitch as they digest their painful elimination from the Champions League.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard must address the defensive issues which have undermined his team in the opening weeks of the season. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard must address the defensive issues which have undermined his team in the opening weeks of the season. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

For manager Steven Gerrard, it’s the goals against column which is his biggest concern after his team conceded two more in inept fashion against Malmo at Ibrox on Tuesday night.

For chairman Douglas Park and his fellow directors, it’s the adjustment in financial projections from the club’s participation in European football this season which will be uppermost in their thoughts.

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Both sets of figures will require smart recalibration in the coming weeks and months if Rangers’ underwhelming start to the new season isn’t to develop into something far more damaging for the Scottish champions.

Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos is likely to be the subject of fresh speculation before the transfer window closes at the end of August. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Worrying statistic

For Gerrard and his coaching staff, addressing those defensive issues must be their priority. All of a sudden, a rearguard which set all manner of clean sheet records last season looks uncertain and vulnerable.

The opening day shut-out against Livingston at Ibrox had suggested business as usual for Gerrard’s back four. But the three games since then, the 2-1 defeats in both legs of the Champions League third qualifying round tie against Malmo coming either side of losing 1-0 at Dundee United in Premiership, have seen a very different narrative unfold.

To put it in context, it took Rangers until their 19th game in all competitions of the 2020-21 campaign before they had conceded five goals.

Rangers commercial director James Bisgrove (left) and sporting director Ross Wilson (right) must assess the impact of failure to reach the group stage of the Champions League.

Connor Goldson, ever-present at the heart of that miserly defence, has yet to find the same level of authority he brought to a team which romped its way to the Premiership title and reached the last 16 of the Europa League.

Alongside him on Tuesday, Leon Balogun was uncertain throughout. The Nigerian international’s poor positioning and failure to react quickly enough was a factor in both of Antonio Colak’s goals early in the second half which sealed progression to the play-off round for a 10-man Malmo side.

As Rangers now switch their focus to the Europa League, where they face a play-off round tie against the winners of Thursday’s match between Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan or Armenian champions Alashkert, they must look to arrest what is becoming a worrying trend on their own patch in Europe.

Gerrard’s squad have now conceded two goals in each of their last five European games at Ibrox – against Benfica (2-2), Standard Liege (3-2), Royal Antwerp (5-2), Slavia Prague (0-2) and now Malmo.

That’s in sharp contrast to the run they enjoyed of eight clean sheets in the 10 home fixtures in Europe prior to that, a reliability upon which Gerrard’s impressive Europa League reliability in his first three seasons at the club was built.

Financial gulf

If Rangers are to sustain the levels of progression achieved under his tenure, then the ambition should be to try and get beyond the last 16 of the Europa League this season.

In financial terms, of course, the gap between the Champions League and Europa League remains significant. Rangers would have received a guaranteed participation fee of €15.64 million if they had reached the group stage of the Champions League this season and could have expected to rake in over €30 million in total when matchday revenues, market share TV money and performance bonuses were factored in.

If they make it to the Europa League group stage again, this season’s guaranteed participation fee is €3.63 million. If Rangers were to top their group, as they did in 2020-21, and make it at least as far as the last 16 again, they can boost that figure considerably.

Their most recent set of accounts showed in the 2019-20 campaign, £20.7 million of their £59 million total revenue for the year came from their involvement in the Europa League.

Rangers are already assured of European football of some kind at least until December – if they lose their Europa League play-off, they will drop into the group stage of the inaugural Europa Conference League.

As Uefa at least makes some effort to share the bounty more widely, the prize money on offer there is not hugely inferior to the Europa League with a guaranteed participation fee of €2.94 million.

But neither the Europa League or Conference League will have the kind of transformational effect on Rangers’ financial position that the Champions League could have done.

It means the prospect of selling at least one of the prize assets from Gerrard’s squad will certainly now be a consideration for the Ibrox board before the transfer window closes at the end of this month.

Rangers managing director Stewart Robertson has made it clear that an improved player trading model has to be introduced if the club, who posted a loss of £17.46 million last year, is to successfully move to a position where it no longer relies on the largesse and ongoing loans from its major shareholders and investors.

Just as Celtic have plugged the gap of failure to reach the Champions League group stage in recent years by securing major transfer fees for players, so Rangers must ultimately be able to cash in on those members of their squad whose value has been enhanced over the past few seasons.

Alfredo Morelos, whose 24th European goal for the club on Tuesday sparked such hope among the support before their evening turned sour, remains the most likely to attract bids over the course of the next three weeks.

The onus is now on sporting director Ross Wilson to help balance the books without seriously weakening the resources at Gerrard’s disposal. The numbers game at Rangers has reached a pivotal stage.

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