The quiet Rangers revolution - Alfredo Morelos, Borna Barisic, Calvin Bassey and Allan McGregor lead the way
Giovanni van Bronckhorst is only six games into his tenure as Rangers manager but has already presented some compelling evidence of his eminent suitability for the role.
The subtle but significant adjustments the Dutch coach has made at the Scottish champions since replacing Steven Gerrard three weeks ago have reinforced their status as odds-on favourites to retain their title this season.
Van Bronckhorst didn’t have a major repair job on his hands when he accepted the challenge of returning to the club where he was such an accomplished and popular player 20 years ago.
But while he inherited a successful and well-balanced first team squad, it also wasn’t quite a case of being able to adopt an attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
It had been clear from the early weeks of the campaign that Rangers were not functioning as efficiently and smoothly on the pitch under Gerrard as they had during their imperious romp to claiming the Premiership crown in 2020-21.
Points were being dropped cheaply – six of them in three drawn games at Ibrox against Motherwell, Hearts and Aberdeen – and an alarming habit of conceding the first goal in matches had turned everything into a bit of a struggle for Gerrard’s team.
While no-one could credibly question the ultimate professionalism of the former England captain, his subsequent departure to Aston Villa and positive impact he has already made at the Premier League club vindicated a perception that he was approaching the end of his shelf life in the Old Firm goldfish bowl and needed a new challenge.
Similarly, while Rangers midfielder Scott Arfield may have been right to suggest last week that he and his team-mates would have eventually recovered their optimum form regardless of a change of manager, there is no doubt a fresh face and voice on the training ground and in the technical area has had a revitalising effect.
Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle perfectly summed up the impact van Bronckhorst has made on a group of players whose previous lack of direction and focus had been sharply illustrated by their performance in the 3-1 defeat against Hibs in the Premier Sports Cup semi-final at Hampden on November 21.
Having watched that game from the stand before formally taking up his appointment 24 hours later, van Bronckhorst was quick to identify the issues he needed to address in order to hit the ground running in the job.
Like Gerrard, he is an adherent of the 4-3-3 system which he used for most of his time in charge of Feyenoord when he guided his boyhood club to their first Eredivisie title in 18 years.
But van Bronckhorst regularly makes minor but telling tweaks within that set-up, not only from game to game but also during games. Over the course of the six games so far, Rangers have adopted a shape closer to 4-2-3-1 and sometimes 4-1-4-1. The constant factor and perhaps most telling change, whatever the shape, is that the full-backs are not as gung-ho in joining the attack as they were under Gerrard, while the wide players tend to hug the flanks more, rather than drifting into more narrow positions.
Van Bronckhorst mixes fluidity with pragmatism to good effect. At Tynecastle, the Hearts defence found it difficult to cope with the constant interchanging of Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos and Fashion Sakala in Rangers’ attacking third.
In midfield, with Glen Kamara the only dedicated ‘sitter’ to provide protection in front of the back four, Joe Aribo and Arfield were allowed similar licence to roam whenever the pattern of the game allowed it.
There are also clear signs that Rangers’ ‘game management’, as the coaching gurus like to call it, will improve under van Bronckhorst. Having forged their early 2-0 lead over Hearts with a couple of simple but ruthlessly effective moves and finishes from Morelos and Aribo, they were happy to slow the game down whenever possible in a bid to deny Hearts any significant momentum.
Allan McGregor’s slow-motion approach to taking every goal kick which came his way may have infuriated the Hearts fans and players and could certainly have been addressed with greater authority by referee Nick Walsh. But it was another indication of the sharpened mindset of the Rangers team under van Bronckhorst as they look to win games by whatever means necessary.
It’s not only as a whole unit that Rangers have upped their game. Some individuals have noticeably improved their performance levels since the managerial change took place.
Borna Barisic, who was among those who looked most out of sorts during the early months of the season, is back to his best at left-back and is developing a good understanding with Calvin Bassey, who may just be making the left-sided central defender position his own.
Aribo was one of those who could have been excused from any criticism of his performances before van Bronckhorst’s arrival but the Nigerian playmaker has reached another level again in the past few weeks, thriving in whatever area of the midfield he is asked to play.
Most crucially, perhaps, Rangers are starting to see the best of Morelos once more. The mercurial striker has scored four goals in the five matches he has started under van Bronckhorst, while also showing a willingness to buy into a team ethic which saw him make several important defensive contributions at Hearts set-pieces on Sunday.
It spoke eloquently of a team who have quickly and willingly bought into van Bronckhorst’s ethos for Rangers as his quiet revolution at Ibrox takes shape.
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