With the impending arrival of Pedro Caixinha, Graeme Murty’s last stand as Rangers “first-team” manager may be his greatest achievement in his coaching career – or it could turn into his worst nightmare.
If he is to go to the bear pit of Celtic Park and get a result he must come up with something special. Rangers’ away form has been alarming. The prospect of facing a rampant Celtic side at Parkhead will have given Murty sleepless nights this week.
How does he do it, then? How does he take this team that have struggled so badly on their travels and come up with a performance against their greatest rivals that crushes Celtic’s dream of being The Invincibles, or at least get out without another hiding.
After a narrower defeat in the last league encounter at Ibrox the general feeling was that Rangers fared much better than that 5-1 defeat in September. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Although Rangers had a couple of chances to get something from the game, Celtic always looked likely to hurt them and come out winners in the end.
Rangers changing the system that day to three at the back didn’t address the defensive frailties they have. Neither did they deny Celtic the space in midfield in which they build attacks to destroy teams.
If Murty is looking for inspiration then he only needs to look at what St Mirren did last Sunday. Jack Ross came up with a game plan that worked a treat for almost 60 minutes. Celtic didn’t have many answers to it.
In the end indiscipline, small mistakes and, of course, the quality of the opposition when presented with a chance effectively killed St Mirren’s chances of a giantkilling act at Celtic Park. However, it made me think whether a better team, with respect to St Mirren, could use the same template with better players, last the distance and get a result.
St Mirren left Dedryck Boyata on the ball and dropped off into a solid shape. Leaving Boyata, specifically, free on the ball suggested they didn’t believe he was capable of doing anything meaningful with it.
This meant they enjoyed a “man over” in areas of the pitch that matter when playing Celtic. The midfield had no gaps, the back four didn’t have to break ranks and Celtic’s holding midfielder now had a striker sitting on top of him, stopping him from building attacks.
It was left to a centre-back to start them. This allowed St Mirren to keep their shape intact and not surrender the heart of the pitch. Celtic thrive on their opposition losing discipline and breaking ranks to put pressure on the ball. That’s when they find gaps and space to go and exploit. If you can deny them that then you go a long way to stopping Celtic.
Although Boyata was given carte blanche to do as he wished with the ball, more often than not he was forced to make a risky pass and ultimately squandered possession back to the visitors.
St Mirren, initially, didn’t break ranks. They asked the question of Boyata. Could he do anything worthwhile if they stuck to the tactics so astutely put together by their manager? Celtic players are great at finding spaces when opposition try to press – that’s what all the great teams do. But on Sunday St Mirren didn’t give them any space for 60 minutes.
I believe Rangers should employ a similar game plan and when in possession be brave and quick with their counter attacks.
Unfortunately they are without the services of Joe Garner after a stupid, needless booking against Dundee. He is probably the one player with natural physicality and aerial prowess to exploit what I believe is the only weakness Celtic have – defending crosses.
Yet again on Sunday it was shown that if you put good quality balls into Celtic’s box, and you have someone good enough to attack them, in St Mirren’s case John Sutton, you stand a chance of getting joy and goals against them.
If it’s to be Kenny Miller or Martyn Waghorn, one of them must be prepared to get in where it hurts when Rangers are in good crossing positions.
St Mirren lasted until 60 minutes implementing a tactically brilliant game plan. If Rangers can concentrate and carry it out for the 90 minutes then who knows? Graeme Murty might well have a good night’s sleep come Sunday evening.
l Celtic v Rangers is live on Sky Sports 1 from 11:30am tomorrow.