Rangers currently sit sixth in the Ladbrokes Premiership but have reached the Europa League group stages under Steven Gerrard. Joel Sked analyses the good and bad of his Ibrox rein so far.
Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Livingston left Rangers sitting sixth in the Ladbrokes Premiership. It is the first time in 25 years both the Ibrox side and rivals Celtic are outside the top four after seven fixtures.
Celtic’s issues this campaign have been explored previously. But what of Rangers?
Steven Gerrard’s arrival at Ibrox brought with it excitement, anticipation, intrigue and a box office appeal. A genuine A-list star in the footballing world had pitched up in Govan, in Scottish football.
The club had been lacking in leadership, on the pitch, in the boardroom and, perhaps most importantly of all, in the dugout.
Speaking about what was required in an interview with the Daily Mail, director of football Mark Allen said: “The reality is that three words stuck out: leader, winner, character. These are characteristics a Rangers manager has to have.”
With Gerrard they have someone who fits the bill. A personality who the support can look up to and trust, someone who will not be a soft touch.
Within two competitive games he had essentially surpassed Caixinha’s tenure as Rangers ensured no Europa League first qualifying round embarrassment by overcoming Shkupi. The performances in Europe continued to improve with the team impressing away from home. There was an organisation and a robust nature which had been missing.
The achievement to reach the Europa League group stages from the first qualifying round should not be underestimated. No Scottish team has got close to that particular feat with Rangers joining a select group of teams to have done so around Europe.
It owed a lot to Gerrard getting his message across on the training ground effectively and efficiently and being tactically switched on.
One of his more impressive managerial displays came domestically when Rangers went down to ten men against Aberdeen on his league debut. He made the brave decision to play with no striker, yet Rangers continued to pose more of an attacking threat than the home side.
The former Liverpool star is said to cherish defensive stability and clean sheets, influenced by Rafa Benitez, and it was an area which clearly required improvement.
Last season Rangers conceded, on average, 1.32 goals per game in the league - the worst record in the top seven and double the amount of Celtic. That has dropped to an average of 1 goal a game in the league, while in Europe they have conceded just five times in nine games.
Recruitment has been another success story in the summer, with Gerrard and Allen aware of what was needed to improve the squad and succeed in Scottish football, without any arrogance.
“When you looked at the league and you looked at our squad,” Allen said, “my interpretation was that we needed to be bigger, stronger, faster. We had to be more athletic to compete.”
The arrivals have been night and day compared to those that were brought in by Caixinha. Allan McGregor, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic, Borna Barisic, Scott Arfield, Ryan Kent, Lassana Coulibaly and Kyle Lafferty have all been improvements.
They have proved themselves capable at performing at Ibrox. Last season they had the fifth worst home record, losing seven games. That trepidation visiting teams had at Ibrox had not just disappeared but appeared to transfer to the home side.
Seven wins and a draw so far in all competitions suggest a corner has been turned, although domestically they still wait a sterner test.
Eighteen matches. Nine wins.
Despite the clear improvements that have been made in different areas, it is hard to escape that fact that Gerrard league record is the same as Caixinha’s at this stage last season, while his win percentage is lower than that of the Portuguese and Graeme Murty.
The most troubling factor is the away form, albeit they have faced tough encounters. In four league trips the team are yet to win, conceding late goals against Aberdeen and Motherwell before toothless displays at Celtic and Livingston.
Gerrard should receive praise for the way he reacted to going a man down against Aberdeen. Therefore it is only right that the set up against both Celtic and Livingston should be questioned.
In the first Old Firm meeting Celtic were treated with too much respect and the 1-0 defeat flattered Rangers who struggled to transition from their low block to trouble their rivals. Against Livingston they dominated possession but could easily have lost by three or four goals.
There was a lethargy and predictability to their play once Livingston had made a switch of their own to counteract the advances of the Rangers full-backs.
In the trip to Motherwell there was the 3-5-2 system which was introduced for the first time and has not been seen since.
It is something which has concerned fans, Gerrard’s proclivity to not only switch formations but individuals as well as for away trips.
Taking the trip to Livingston as an example, Joe Worrall was preferred to Katic, who has built up a good partnership with Goldson. Yet, teams should know that they are going to have to face a constant aerial threat. Katic is 12th in the league for aerial duel success rate, winning 64.71 per cent, behind Goldson on 67.39 per cent. Worrall’s success rate against Livi was 55.56 per cent.
Meanwhile, Kent and Glenn Middleton were brought off the bench when they could have been more usef from the start.
Middleton has a bulldozing ability and Kent is capable of evading players with in tight areas with his trickery and dribbling. These qualities would have been useful to break through Livi’s press and open them up.
It is understandable that Gerrard is tinkering with the team currently competing in three competitions. Although he may be playing it too safe in terms of keeping the team fresh. Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa said recently: “When a team wins regularly, no-one is tired.”
There is a case for Gerrard to play his strongest team, even if that means playing the same team Thursday-Sunday when involved in Europe. More risk should be taken away from home and for Rangers to take on the role of protagonists and force the game more.
As David Edgar from the Heart & Hand Rangers podcast said after the match: “The league is the priority.”
Rangers fans sense an opportunity to win the league this season and want to see most attention being paid to it.
There is no question Gerrard has improved Rangers and made them a more formidable side than last season. The progress in Europe is a particularly impressive achievement and there is far more to be positive about.
There have been teething problems, which were always expected, but they have been accentuated after the European progress ramped up expectation.
Gerrard has shown himself to be a switched on tactical thinker - although there is room for improvement - while his personality, dealings with the media and general presence means he has the full support of the support. Allied to the fact he has produced a number of positive results.
The Ibrox boss had demonstrated that he understands the nuances of Scottish football when it comes to recruitment, although the poor away form in the league, which dates back to February, is concerning.
All in all, despite the lowly league position Gerrard has made a good, solid start to his management career in Scotland. Foundations have been put in place and fans should feel confident that he is the right man to take Rangers onto the next level.