Craig Fowler gives his take as Rangers advance to the next round of Europa League qualifying.
Rangers did just enough and no more
Rangers avoided a repeat of last season’s European humiliation, and bar one short period of play in the opening 20 minutes where Shkupi threatened to take control of the match, it never looked like being one either. In that respect you could argue the Gerrard era already represents improvement on what came before, but it’s baby steps instead of giant strides.
Though the visitors had some opportunities, there weren’t many that could be classed as gilt-edged chances. There remained from the first leg a lack of confidence and composure in the final third, while the play was rarely fluent in the build up. It was a case of “job done” but little else.
Gerrard is not dogmatic in his approach
The Rangers boss switched his system from a 4-3-3 last week to a 4-4-1-1 for this trip, with Daniel Candeias back in his familiar role on the right-wing. We don’t know much about Steven Gerrard the manager, but this would at least indicate he’s willing to change things around, either to counteract the opposition or to try and improve the performance of the side.
They also abandoned the high press that the ex-Liverpool star stated would be a regular feature of their play. With the stifling temperatures in Skopje, and a two-goal lead to protect, it made sense to sit back a little more and not open themselves up to the counter.
A striker who’s an aerial threat wouldn’t go amiss
When Rangers look back at the video of this game they should wonder how they didn’t score, or at least create better chances, from James Tavernier’s deliveries. The right-back improved his crossing tremendously last season from the year before, going from below average to one of the best in the Scottish top flight, and he appears to have continued that form into the new campaign.
However, Rangers lack the kind of striker who is best equipped to take advantage of such qualities. Alfredo Morelos gets himself into good positions but can be quite erratic with his head (to put it kindly), while Jamie Murphy looked every bit the player who’s spent the majority of his career on the wing as he attempted to attack cross-balls against Shkupi with no success.
New signing Umar Sadiq would appear to be the answer, standing at 6ft 5in, but the Nigerian, by his own manager’s admission, is not someone who’s particularly strong in the air.
The attack could also use an incisive midfielder
If Rangers were going to score in this match, the wing always looked their best bet. Going through the centre they lacked the cunning to pick the Shkupi lock, especially in the earlier periods before the hosts started throwing caution to the wind and the game became stretched.
While Gerrard’s squad has a plethora of options at centre midfield for the upcoming campaign, there’s a lack of naturally creative players. Against their Macedonian opponents, in both legs, they could have really used someone capable of executing a defence-splitting pass, or knocking over a perfectly-weighted through ball for the strikers to run on to.
Ovie Ejaria provided such a moment when he played through Glenn Middleton for what was arguably the away side’s best opportunity of the match. Though it remains to be seen whether the on-loan Liverpool loanee has that kind of ingenuity in his locker to produce such moments of quality on a regular basis.
If you can improve, you should
From a distance, the signing of Allan McGregor was a curious one. Still a Scottish international, the 36-year-old was always going to demand a starting spot, which immediately made previous No.1 Wes Foderingham surplus to requirements. The Englishman was one of the better goalkeepers in the Scottish top flight, and at 27 represented better long-term promise.
The problem for him was Rangers’ desperate need to improve immediately. And after watching his performance in Skopje, it’s hard to argue against them having done just that at the goalkeeper position.
Foderingham may be good, but he’s not quite as good as McGregor, and the prodigal son showed his worth with a couple of big stops which prevented this encounter from threatening to become another Progres debacle.