Sky Sports News reporter Charles Paterson looks at the mounting problems for Steven Gerrard at Rangers as Celtic run clear in the Scottish Premiership.
Rangers’ startling collapse in recent weeks is a multifaceted issue – the trouble for Steven Gerrard is he has been unable to figure out which problem to resolve first.
Rangers were hot on Celtic’s heels after beating the champions on December 29, and the clubs flew to Dubai for the winter in contrasting moods. Speaking to both managers in the Middle East, it appeared both were content with where their teams were at, and appreciated they were now in a title scrap that could go to the wire.
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Gerrard worked his players hard in Dubai, with double training sessions in the heat and a practice match as he sought to capitalise on the momentum gained from the victory in the Old Firm game. He also suggested he would not be delving deeply into the transfer market, and was more concerned with offloading fringe players from the squad.
By contrast, Neil Lennon admitted he was rethinking the way Celtic approached games tactically against Rangers, after being outclassed twice in a month. Celtic’s switch to 3-5-2 in the weeks since has paid off in spades, with only two points dropped in the league and a smooth progression to the Scottish Cup semi-finals, scoring 35 goals in the process. Their European exit apart, they have been virtually flawless.
As Celtic have marched on, Rangers have stumbled at every turn. The warning signs should have come in their first game after the break; Gerrard admitted being “bored” watching his team labour to a 2-0 win over Stranraer in the Scottish Cup. A week later, Hearts came from behind to win at Tynecastle, and suddenly a gap had begun to open at the top – it has widened weekly since.
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Defensive mistakes have played their part, with Wednesday’s howler from Connor Goldson the latest in a string of calamities. James Tavernier and Nikola Katic have been error-prone alongside Goldson, while Filip Helander’s reputation has been enhanced during his injury absence.
At least five individual mistakes have led to goals conceded in recent weeks, including Tavernier’s error on Saturday against Hearts that dumped Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, ending any realistic prospect of domestic silverware.
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The goals have also dried up – only 16 in their last 12 domestic games. For Alfredo Morelos, they have utterly evaporated; he’s scored just once in that time, after netting 28 before the break. Jermain Defoe’s month-long injury absence has not helped, and Florian Kamberi as a recent arrival, is largely blameless, but the over-dependency on Morelos has come home to roost; Rangers have scored 21 goals less than Celtic since the turn of the year.
Gerrard is clearly running out of patience with a player he has praised, indulged and endured in equal measure over the last two seasons.
The striker’s goals have been priceless, and his disciplinary issues appeared to have been brought under control, but after being sent off for simulation against Celtic he was banned for three games, and didn’t play for a month.
His late return from Colombia recently prompted Gerrard to drop him and fine him, and Morelos has apologised, but this latest episode points to a lack of focus.
Many observers, as well as Rangers supporters, are now convinced the striker wants to, and will, leave Ibrox in the summer if there are suitors. Any interested parties must be watching recent events with a degree of caution; as much as Morelos’ value has grown with every goal he’s scored, he will begin to depreciate as an asset if Gerrard cannot realign him quickly.
Europa League a distraction?
Morelos aside, perhaps the biggest quandary for Gerrard has been the conflicting form in Europe and at home. Rangers have become almost completely unpredictable; they beat Braga twice to advance to the Europa League last 16, a result that Gerrard said was his proudest moment as a manager. Three days after winning in Portugal, they were toothless at Tynecastle, and the manager was unable to look at his team in the immediate aftermath.
How can Rangers lift themselves to beat the form team in Portuguese football twice in a week, and then fall flat on their faces against sides whose budgets they dwarf? Ultimately the mentality of the players must be called into question, and only now are they beginning to realise this issue themselves.
Ryan Kent admitted last week the team relished being underdogs when expectations were less, and Tavernier backed this up in his match programme notes on Wednesday. “Whenever anybody puts pressure on us in Scotland or gets in our face, it seems to affect us too much. We are not good enough domestically at the minute to react to that.”
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It’s hard to imagine former club captains such as John Greig or Richard Gough admitting to such flaws in this way. The blunt facts are that this Rangers squad lacks winners, and it’s now showing on the pitch.
Only Steven Davis and Allan McGregor have experience of winning trophies at Ibrox; while Ryan Jack won the League Cup with Aberdeen in 2014, the rest of the squad have never lasted the distance in a title race. At crucial moments, Rangers have been weak, and Gerrard now must bear the consequences.
It must be remembered that the former Liverpool and England captain is, for all his playing success and stature in the game, an inexperienced manager. Glasgow is a harsh environment for any player or coach, but Gerrard is finding out rapidly that he has little time left to make an impact. In the world of the Old Firm, second place is failure; Gerrard’s managerial growth could be adversely stunted if he can’t orchestrate a closer challenge next season – or a piece of silverware.
Smith: Squad overhaul needed
Rangers’ former striker and Scottish FA chief executive Gordon Smith told me Gerrard needs to bring in plenty of fresh faces in the summer.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that [squad needs overhaul],” he told Sky Sports. “He has to look at his squad and it’s not just about ability in terms of the skill levels because you can see from the games against Celtic and Braga, the skill levels are there with a lot of the players, but you need the people who have the character to play and under the pressure that comes with being a Rangers player.
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