As all Bears continue to bring in the new year with more than a hint of optimism off the wave of post-Old Firm victory, we do find ourselves reflecting on how a solitary 90 minutes of football at Ibrox has changed absolutely everything with regards the title race, the league, and the level of this Rangers squad.
Rarely can we recall where one match appears to have seismically altered the shape of the title race this early in the season, in the sense that while Celtic continue, rightly, to be favourites, Rangers’ outstanding display both performance-wise and tactically on Saturday shows that Steven Gerrard’s men won’t let Brendan Rodgers have it all his own way.
But just what was it about this match exactly which nailed it so perfectly for the home side?
As we know, December had been a mixed bag, and indeed, Gerrard’s overall Rangers record is thoroughly average with a 50% win rate – with dismal results last month against Aberdeen and Hibs among others, it had hardly been great preparation going into the Old Firm derby, and few had much expectation of a win, despite Celtic’s own underwhelming form.
And yet, something had changed – from the first whistle, while Celtic flirted with some neat play early on, one weak drive goalward was all they could muster in the final third, and it was evident Rangers wanted it more, fought harder, drove harder, and increasingly dominated the match from around 15 minutes onwards.
It is true what James Tavernier said, if the players couldn’t get up for this one, there was no point them coming in for work at all, but it goes further than that.
Tactically this match was dead on – Jack, Arfield and McCrorie absolutely crushed Celtic’s midfield, never giving them an inch to breath, and that, on top of excellent defensive displays from Joe Worrall, James Tavernier and Andy Halliday (with a decent shift from Connor Goldson too) stifled any hope the visitors had of getting anything from the game.
But this points to more than just player performances – yes, Broony is still trying to find his way out of Arfield’s back pocket, but it was the system which nailed Rodgers – quite simply he was as much beaten all ends up by Steven Gerrard as his players were by Rangers’ counterparts.
High compression, never giving Celtic’s defence any room to play the pass out, stifling midfield and cutting off Lustig and McGregor (the latter being their best player, incidentally) from making any major damage – Steven Gerrard came stunningly of age in this one, setting his team out not only pressing high and constantly, but knowing when to break, when to sit back, and when to game manage.
We’ve been critical of Gerrard’s (numerous) mistakes as Rangers manager – after all, a 50% win record suggested room for improvement.
But if this tactical display from himself was an indicator of his chances of future success as a Rangers manager, he has truly learned, just as we hoped, and while he will still make errors in the future, we now know the potential is there for sure.
Steven Gerrard has done something no Rangers manager has succeeded in doing since March 2012 – beating Celtic in 90 minutes.
This IS how we measure our Rangers managers. And now it’s up to him to take this forward and use it for the rest of the domestic campaign.
It won’t be plain sailing, far from it, but the groundwork is there now, and without any doubt this Rangers team is the closest we’ve had to the real level since 2012’s exodus.
It’s getting there.