Rangers began the Steven Gerrard-era with a 2-0 victory over Maceodonians Shkupi in the Europa League qualifiers. Joel Sked gives his take on Gerrard’s competitive debut as Ibrox boss.
As the Ibrox crowd grew increasingly anxious and the clock ticked towards the full-time whistle, fans could have been forgiven for encountering a sense of deja vu.
Twelve months previously, a first-half Kenny Miller strike was all Rangers had to show for their Europa League first-round qualifier against Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn. It was the club’s first European tie since 2011. We all know how the second-leg ended. (For those that need reminding, then Gers boss Pedro Caixinha found himself among some shrubbery arguing with fans.)
With Rangers leading Shkupi 1-0 in injury time, Jamie Murphy was adjudged to have been felled in the penalty area. Numerous replays couldn’t quite confirm whether it was a foul, but that mattered little to Gerrard, his players and the Ibrox faithful. New club captain James Tavernier fired the ball past Suat Zendeli, prompting a release of energy, much of which was likely nervous and sheer relief.
The 2-0 lead puts Rangers in a commanding position going into the second-leg and the searing heat of Skopje - the early forecast predicts the game could be played in 30 degree heat - but it wasn’t enough to fill Gerrard with joy. Early signs suggest Gerrard won’t be too dissimilar to Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke in his media dealings. He comes across stern, very serious, but measured and will only expect the best, both from his players and journalists asking questions. He certainly won’t be intimidated by the Rangers press pack, if anything it will be the other way about.
Many managers in his position could have waxed lyrical about their players, about getting a strong start, about the win being the important thing. Gerrard didn’t get carried away in the slightest, instead any praise was tempered. “I’m slightly disappointed we didn’t win it more comfortably,” he said.
It all started with a raucous reception for the Englishman from the sell-out crowd. An early warning was delivered when Blagoja Ljamchevski clipped the bar with a lovely effort but the mood was notched up to party mode when Murphy zipped in the first competitive goal of the Gerrard-era.
It came via a swift counter-attack. It would be foolish of Gerrard not to continue taking advantage of the team’s ability to transition very quickly. They have strong runners across the pitch and a willingness to get forward. Prior to the game he said he “wanted the team to get bigger... stronger more physical, fitter”. That could make Rangers a more frightening proposition for domestic rivals when they charge forward.
What the ex-Liverpool midfielder needs to overhaul is the defensive transition, when Rangers lose the ball and are out of possession. The space to the sides of the centre-backs has been a weakness since the Mark Warburton days. That was seen in Ljamchevski’s chance when Basilio had the freedom of the left flank.
It was therefore noteworthy that with Lee Wallace left out the Europa League squad Declan John could only find a place on the bench. Instead, right-footed Jon Flangan was stationed at left-back meaning the team had no left-footed players in the team.
It is not an unfamiliar role to the one-time England internationalist and it means he is not as likely to stretch the game and overlap, rather tuck in and provide greater balance defensively. However, with Murphy adept at cutting in on his right it does leave Rangers slightly lopsided in the final third.
Even more so when you consider the situation on the right, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of Gerrard’s competitive debut. The James Tavernier/Josh Windass/Daniel Candeias axis is an intriguing experiment. The Portuguese winger was a revelation on the right last season as he consistently delivered tantalising crosses, and was crowned the assist-king. Yet he found himself in an unusual central role, as he did in the friendly thumping of Bury.
However, if anyone wasn’t paying too much attention to the game, they could have been forgiven for thinking he was still playing wide. That was down to the movement of the triangle. Windass would look to dart in off the flank to provide close support to Alfredo Morelos. In turn Candeias moved right and Tavernier looked to overlap or support.
While this triumvirate produced openings and supplied numerous dangerous crosses into the box the equilibrium in the centre of the park was off, especially as Scott Arfield, suddenly realising he was free from the Burnley shackles, was keen on breaking forward and supporting attacks.
Gerrard mentioned prior to the game that he wanted to take the match to the Macedonians but Rangers rarely looked like over-running their opponents for a sustained period of time. Shkupi, who were playing their first ever European game after a fourth place finish, were competent enough in possession. Defensively, however, they at times resembled a tour group overwhelmed by a busy city attraction as their guide is propped up against a wall with heart palpations.
But Rangers simply couldn’t take advantage of chances presented to themselves throughout the match. Windass could easily have had a hat-trick, while Morelos has not improved his heading in the off-season.
Candeias was sacrificed not long after half-time as Gerrard sought to gain back control in the midfield after a promising spell for the visitors. Any tempo or fluidity had disappeared as fans found their disgruntled voices. A backward pass from Flanagan brought with it a reaction more in keeping with commuters who had just been notified their train had been cancelled.
Gerrard won’t be cowed by such reactions from the crowd, he’s lived his whole professional career with intense pressure. What he needs to instil within the squad is a stronger mentality. It sounded as if Windass was cheered off as he was replaced by Glenn Middleton, while Morelos became more tempestuous as the game went on, picking up a needless booking while frustrating the crowd.
The Colombian perhaps should have deserved a penalty for a shirt-tug but his theatrics as he threw himself to the ground was mentioned by Gerrard who simply won’t put up with any sort of attitude. He will have no concerns about demoting key players to the bench and using youth.
Forward Zak Rudden impressed in the win over Bury, but it is Glenn Middleton who is really exciting fans. The 18-year-old came off the bench for a starring cameo in the second half, full of youthful exuberance. He was positive and industrious, it proved infectious to the crowd. He’d appear to run into a cul-de-sac but then using his strength and pace appear out the other side with the ball as if he had discovered teleportation.
The Gerrard-era didn’t begin with a dominating performance which had fans floating out of Ibrox as they poured a sizeable chunk of their weekly wage into their bookies account ready to back their team to win the league. But it was a start, one in which perhaps dampened any excessive expectations.
Positives and negatives were there in equal measure. It will be a long road to where the club want to go under Gerrard but so far they have avoided any bushes.