What Dundee United defeat told us about Rangers' troubles prior to crunch Malmo qualifier
Coming off the back of an undefeated league season and three successive campaigns of impressive performances in European football, Steven Gerrard’s side were expected to march themselves into the Champions League group stages and push home the advantage they seized from arch-rivals Celtic in a dramatic 2020/21 season. Instead, defeat in the first leg of the Champions League qualifying tie against Malmo, as well as losing a 40-game unbeaten Premiership run away to Dundee United this past weekend, has many wondering whether early-season struggles may cost the Ibrox club their return to the big time.
There appear to be some issues with the starting XI and changes are required before Malmo arrive on Tuesday.
John Lundstram was seen as a coup for Rangers this summer. The 27-year-old had just played two consecutive seasons for Sheffield United in the English Premier League. Not only did he have the pedigree, his box-to-box, high-energy, strong-running style was said to be exactly what Rangers needed in the centre, and they were able to sign him on a free.
At present, he appears to be playing within himself if those descriptions are accurate. Against Dundee United he often took the safer option, both with possession and without. A sequence at the end of the first half summed up his display (picture one). Receiving a pass from Connor Goldson, the ex-Oxford United man had the option of going direct to captain James Tavernier on the touchline, or clip inside to Ryan Kent, who had floated into space between the lines. Instead he played it back from where it came. When the ball was worked back to Goldson, the centre-back ignored Lundstram’s pleas for a second chance and went long to Tavernier himself. The right-back kept possession high up the park, but when he was doubled up he was forced to go back to Lundstram. Again, instead of looking to play forward, he checked back and knocked it to Glen Kamara.
He was withdrawn from the match shortly after United’s winner – for which he was partially at fault for failing to properly track Jamie Robson’s run (not for the first time) – with Scott Wright taking his place. The change in Rangers down that side was immediate. Wright was far more willing to attack the space and suddenly the champions were stretching United down that flank (picture two), which also enabled Tavernier to attack with more gusto. It wasn’t enough to get them back into the match, though for the final 20 minutes they functioned better without the new addition.
To put a lot of the blame on the summer signing would, however, be rather unfair. Because though his tentativeness at times helped United stifle Rangers, on the other flank the pre-match favourites got little joy throughout the 90 minutes. That’s because Borna Barisic, Kamara and Kent all had either poor or quiet games, rendering one half of the field ineffective.
These three both link with each other seamlessly and are some of the team’s most valuable performers. Failing to get pass marks from any of them will see Rangers struggle, regardless of opponent. But is it all connected?
Barisic and Kamara both appeared at this summer’s Euros and therefore didn’t have the ideal build-up heading into this campaign. The same goes for Morelos, who was making his first appearance of the campaign due to his participation at this summer’s Copa America.
Kent, meanwhile, could still be getting up to speed after having a chunk of his pre-season curtailed by injury.
This isn’t something Rangers particularly had to deal with in the run up to last season or, indeed, the two campaigns prior. Players were in early for the punishing Europa League qualifying rounds, where they were able to shake off some of that early rust and hit the ground running before domestic football started. Not having to return to playing in mid-July is obviously preferred, but it may just have shaken Gerrard’s men out of their rhythm.
The loss of Ianis Hagi and Kemar Roofe to injury, not to mention new signing Fashion Sakala, also left the manager without some reliable options in attack to kick-start an insipid display.
Increasing tempo for Malmo
These are reasons why Rangers struggled so badly at Tannadice on Monday and lost consecutive games for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but they’re not excuses. Even with a few issues, this squad should still have more than enough to overwhelm their hosts and get a result. They didn’t because they were outworked and outfought by United, who played with a higher tempo both on and off the ball. The hosts were bolstered by a boisterous Tannadice crowd and utilised this added burst of energy to win a variety of loose balls and second balls, while the high press often smothered the away defence’s attempts to build patiently.
Malmo cannot be allowed to do the same on Tuesday. Defeat would be far from ideal given the need for the club to bring in the £30 million-plus prize pot that comes with reaching the group stages, but a loss in which the players fail to show the required urgency would be almost unforgivable.
The whole team must respond in a manner which befits the occasion, but they’ll also need some of their key men to stand up. The left-sided trio must shake off any rust, Tavernier and Barisic need to be more accurate with their crossing, and Morelos must make the service he gets count. It’s time for somebody to rise to the occasion and make themselves a hero.
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