Dave King’s admission this week that Rangers remain miles behind rivals Celtic, though should still be in a more comfortable position in second place, merely confirmed what most sensible Scottish football supporters had known all along.
Even in the wake of a 5-1 thumping in the first Old Firm match of the season, manager Mark Warburton dismissed suggestions of a gulf in class, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
He wasn’t fooling anyone and, since then, even though Rangers have improved, especially at the back, they have still failed to establish themselves as top-two club in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
The problem appears to be at the other end now. Rangers have conceded just five times in nine league matches since that Celtic Park defeat, but have only scored more than a goal in three of those matches, including today.
Alan Archibald has had relative success with a back three in recent week though chose to revert to a back four for the visit of Warburton’s side, asking wingers David Amoo and Christie Elliot to double up on the Rangers wide men. Rangers were thus restricted and forced to play through congested central areas.
The knock-on effect was that big-money signing Joe Garner struggled to get involved. From the little we have seen, he appears to thrive on physical battles and getting on the end of crosses. A targetman does not suit the Rangers style of patient build-up, and when there are no balls from wide areas to attack, Garner becomes obsolete.
Rangers’ success in this system has involved the likes of Martyn Waghorn and Kenny Miller dropping deep and wide to link with the midfield. With Garner more likely to hang around the box, it seems a curious decision to pay such a sum for a player that doesn’t fit into your one and only system.
Moreover, it appears that for all their attacking talent in midfield, they lack a tricky, dynamic attacker. Someone of the ilk of James Maddison.
Jason Holt is clever at finding space and is neat and tidy in possession. Michael O’Halloran, Harry Forrester and Josh Windass are all quick and direct through can struggle when up against packed defenses denying them space to run into. Niko Kranjcar is one of the most technically gifted footballers in the country, though what he has in skill he lacks in dynamism and can be a liability defensively.
Barrie McKay is perhaps the player who was expected to unlock tight defences but he has so far failed to live up to the high expectations he set with his performances last season. He took to the field at half-time versus Thistle, though his impact was limited.
It means that Rangers’ play has become predictable. Opposing managers know how they’ll set up, it’s just a matter of personnel, and most are happy to take their chances at allowing them possession outside the final third.
Thistle eventually forced Rangers into playing balls over the top, and even though they created one or two chances through this, most of them didn’t reach their intended target.
Despite Rangers’ frustrations, they left Firhill with the three points. For the second consecutive week, Warburton’s men were bailed out by an injury time goal. And it was Garner’s replacement, Joe Dodoo, that swung the game in Rangers’ favour after Kris Doolan had given Thistle the lead.
Dodoo, who can also play out wide, immediately provided more movement in the Rangers attack and linked up with Miller for both of his two goals. The fact that Dodoo can play both positions makes him, on paper at least, far more suited to Warburton’s system than Garner.
Time will tell whether these late goals are papering over the cracks, though they are reminiscent of that never-say-die attitude prevalent when Rangers were at their peak of their powers.
What is becoming clear is that Garner is struggling to fashion an effective role for himself in Warburton’s 4-1-2-3 system.