It’s not felt overly often recently that we get to see signs of true tangible progress – after all, with all the false dawns we’ve had these past six years, only the most gullibly optimistic would now ever think everything looks rosy at any given point, until, that is, that fabled, sweet, quintessential moment arrives where it becomes indisputable that the Rangers we expect are back, and truly pushing Celtic for the title.
We’ve had the 10 Weeks of Warburton; that wonderful period between his debut at Easter Road and just before that gubbing by St Johnstone where we actually thought we were Barcelona and truly reckoned we’d take the SPL with Rob Kiernan and Jason Holt.
We’ve had the Pedro Progress, where we ‘actually won at St Johnstone’ and both Carlos Pena and Graham Dorrans played well, deluding us into thinking his squad was any good.
And of course the Murty Mirage, where late January through to early March even had some of us on Ibrox Noise fleetingly believing the nonsense about our youth coach.
So not just a pinch of salt but an entire sackful of Saxa is required to ever swallow anything about corners being turned.
We need, truly, six months of a genuinely believable run before we can start to herald the dawn of a new age, and we’re not going to be subsequently idiotic and lavish anything upon last night’s admittedly very impressive win in Croatia.
But it would be equally amiss not to be pleased with what we did see, and what progress was evident. Taken on its own terms, and nothing more, this was the most organised Rangers display we’ve seen for quite a while. We have even heard ‘tactical masterclass’ from some of our more enthusiastic readers, and where we clearly wouldn’t go as far as that, there’s no question Steven Gerrard did set his men out correctly, and did a good job of snuffing out Osijek’s most dangerous attacks.
The main talking point has without doubt been defence. It’s no longer ‘only Bury’ or ‘mere Shkupi’, but this time a clean sheet was against a side who put two past PSV with no reply, and who finished a solid fourth in Croatia.
Are Osijek Real Madrid? Of course not, but they were a significant upgrade over Shkupi and a friendly against Bury and the toughest side Rangers have faced in competitive football in a long time, and without doubt the defence coped outstandingly with (almost) everything thrown at them.
Yes, Katic gave one or two balls away, and yes, Flanagan nearly gave the assist of the year to them, while Tavernier wildly missed at least two headers and got caught out of position (as usual), but the reliable Connor Goldson has quietly become the critical glue that is holding defence together and as long as he’s around, the rest seem to work well with him, and each other.
Midfield is still misfiring, in truth, and Morelos’ excellent goal aside Rangers’ attack was still a bit static and lacking in edge (especially the struggling Murphy who is still offering only minimal productivity), but as another Ibrox Noise observer points out, Gerrard announced defence as priority when he joined, and to that end Rangers are at the beginning of looking like progress has been made. Is it Hutton, Weir, Cuellar etc? Maybe not quite – there is some way to go before a back four with two international caps between them can be trusted as the solution we’ve sought. But it does appear for now to be a much more robust prospect than others we’ve tried. We’d guess that’s what £5M buys you.
As for the rest, yes, a work in progress. The midfield three last night were more convincing than Ross McCrorie has been, but then they had each other for help, while McCrorie had no one – that said, none of them had particularly spectacular matches individually and it’s evident that while defence is on the right tracks, midfield needs both time and work.
Attack too is rough. Kent showed signs of life, but is still raw, while Murphy is not imposing himself at the moment. Morelos finally sparked to attention after a borderline infinite hibernation, but then the cynics on Ibrox Noise (and we’re meaning you readers) claim it’s because he’s got a certain Nigerian breathing down his neck.
And that’s a good sign – he’s required serious competition, and if it took that to get the fire back in his belly, so be it.
As for Gerrard, he is having to learn fast and learn clinically. When news broke early yesterday that Windass was indeed to be benched, along with McCrorie and Candeias (the former two we saw coming, the latter was a surprise), he showed the ruthlessness he’ll need if he’s to succeed.
While it was arguably Gerrard’s own mistakes which led to Windass and Candeias being so poor (both evidently out of position), and indeed acknowledged by the change in shape by the manager, we have only respect for someone who is capable of doing that – accepting something isn’t working and changing it. Warburton, Pedro and Murty wouldn’t – they all knew better.
And no, before you all claim we’re changing our tune (again) and fawning over Gerrard, we’re not. We just always give credit where it’s due. And for the mistakes we’ve accused him of making previously, he got most things right last night.
He and the squad have a hell of a long way to go, for this was a solitary 90 minutes of the UEL qualifiers where back in the day we were casually in the group stage of such an ‘inferior’ competition. We shan’t praise too heavily, but then, we need progress, clear tangible performance and result-based progress.
We got some last night, and that’s a welcome sight.