Steven Gerrard is just nine games into his managerial career, but those nine games have…
Has Steven Gerrard already helped Rangers close the gap on Celtic? We’ll get a much clearer idea come Sunday as the two Glasgow rivals clash for the first time this campaign. The mood in the two camps could not be more different. Rangers have been buoyed by the arrival of Gerrard and what can fairly be described as an excellent summer of recruitment. Meanwhile, Celtic lost in Champions League qualifying, look shaky in defence and an uninspiring transfer window looks set to end with them losing talismanic striker Moussa Dembele.
Since Rangers re-joined the top flight there’s scarcely been a time where they could believe they have a genuine shot of beating Celtic. The last came at Ibrox earlier in the year when the Govan club were in a fine run of form under Graeme Murty. An early Josh Windass goal suggested the tide was turning, but a whirlwind game saw Celtic run out 3-2 winners despite playing much of the second half with ten men.
At one point these clashes between two bitter rivals were unpredictable. Form wouldn’t matter and you’d struggle to make a prediction. However, for the last few seasons, it’s felt like a foregone conclusion that the men in green and white hoops would emerge the victors.
Will it be any different this time around? There’s undoubtedly room for renewed optimism for the Ibrox faithful. That said, we’re still in the very early days of Steven Gerrard’s tenure in Glasgow’s Southside.
It feels like there’s an air of stability around Ibrox which has been absent in recent years. Rangers have had a good transfer window with Gerrard strengthening numerous key areas of the squad. After the worst European result in the club’s history against Progres Niederkorn, the Anfield legend has also restored some pride in Europe. Rangers have looked convincing both home and away in Europa League qualification. They’ve not always been flashy, but they’ve been wholly professional and done the job that’s required of them.
Although they’ve started the season well, it’s not been perfect by any means. The Ibrox club have had a rather stuttery start domestically. They were perhaps unlucky against Aberdeen; losing a goal in the last minute after playing a significant portion of the game with ten men.
Similarly, they lost another last-minute equaliser to Motherwell last weekend. This wasn’t unlucky, but rather the first time Gerrard has made some tactical mistakes. He switched from playing a back four, which has been extremely effective, to a back three. Rangers didn’t look as effective and ended up playing too deep in the second half.
However, all in all, Rangers head into this Sunday’s game feeling more positive than they have done in years. They have a significantly better squad and at the very least seem much more organised than last season. This team have a clear objective and know how their manager wants them to play. Therefore the Ibrox faithful can take a lot of confidence heading into the weekend.
It could be easy to get carried away if you’re a Rangers fan. There’s a buzz around the club and the squad is in good shape and has a nice balance to it. Marry that with the problems their East End rivals are currently experiencing and you begin to understand why the Light Blues must fancy their chances.
For the first time since they regained their Premiership status Rangers have a midfield, on paper at least, that you truly believe can go to battle with Celtic. In previous encounters, the likes of Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham and Callum McGregor have bullied Rangers in the middle of the park and taken games by the scruff of the neck. For all we know that may happen again, but this time you feel Rangers have reinforcements in the shape of a fit Ryan Jack and Scott Arfield.
Of course, they also have Lassana Coulibaly. He seems like the kind of player who would thrive in this game, but it looks like he’ll miss out due to injury. The middle of the park has been where many of the Light Blues’ problems have emanated from in Old Firm matches. Conversely, it doesn’t feel like Scott Brown and Co. will have it as easy this time around.
Defence is the other main area that Rangers fans can take confidence from. Gerrard has made the backline his priority, bringing in Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic and Jon Flanagan. Consequently, Rangers’ defence looks infinitely better than it has done in years. Granted that may not have been the case last week against Motherwell and James Tavernier still displays some defensive frailties.
Despite the late collapse at Fir Park their defence looks pretty solid. Goldson is a real leader and a class act who looks as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he does in the air. He nicely compliments the young Croat Katic, who is rough around the edges but dominant in the air and physically imposing. Compare this to the likes of Bruno Alves, Russell Martin, David Bates or Fabio Cardoso and you can instantly see how much of an upgrade this current Rangers defence is. Add to that the addition Allan McGregor in goal and you have a strong backline.
In terms of personnel, the other huge plus for Rangers is that Alfredo Morelos is scoring again. The young Colombian is in fine form finding the back of the net and turning in excellent performances. He’ll be hoping to get over his Celtic hoodoo and finally grab a goal against the Parkhead side. In this kind of form he’s got a great opportunity, and if he does find the back on the net on Sunday it will be huge for both player and club.
Simply put, the quality of player Rangers have at their disposal is better than last season. Moreover, it’s closer to the quality that Celtic have in their squad. Last season no Rangers player, minus James Tavernier, would have got in that Celtic side. Now you could make a case for a few of them.
So there’s much reason to feel confident? Yes, true, but there’s just as much reason to feel cautious if you are a Rangers fan.
Celtic may not be having the best time of it, but they’re still heavy favourites going into this match. After all, they haven’t lost to Rangers in the league since 2012. Moreover, despite a slow start the Hoops still know how to dominate domestically and have a stronger squad than Rangers.
Celtic may potentially lose Dembele, but the Rangers defence will still be severely tested on Sunday. The likes of Odsonne Edouard, Leigh Griffiths, Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic all know what it feels like to score in these big games. Brendan Rodgers’ side silenced any talk of a title race or challenge when they defeated Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox last season. Like this upcoming fixture many were asking whether that would be the time Rangers ended Celtic’s unbeaten streak in Glasgow derbies. However, the answer on the pitch was an emphatic no.
Simply put, Rangers need to be careful not to get carried away. Gerrard and his side have impressed so far, but talk of him already closing the gap may be slightly premature. For sure it does appear like he’s improved them, but Sunday’s match will be a good indicator of where this Rangers team are currently at. This is a new side and manager that, despite their early success, still need time to gel. That said, if they do get a result then it really ups the ante.
If Rangers were to lose 2-0, for example, fans can’t throw their toys out of the pram. Of course, the majority of Old Firm fans will always judge their success on how they are faring in comparison to their fiercest rivals. Conversely, for Gerrard the first aim has got to be about actually competing with Celtic on their level.
Rangers can’t go from losing 5-0 to Celtic last season to being annoyed if they don’t get a result at the first time of asking with a new playing squad and manager. Of course, if they dominate the game and miss plenty of chances then it’s a different story. However, if they are outplayed then this team is still in its infancy. As much as many fans might not want to hear it, the situation must be approached in baby steps.
Rangers need to establish themselves as the second best team in Scotland. Furthermore, they then need to show they can challenge for a domestic cup and thirdly they do at some point this season need a victory over their arch-rivals. If that doesn’t come on Sunday it doesn’t mean the gap hasn’t closed or Celtic will run away with the league. It just means Gerrard has more work to do, which is fine, he’s barely in the door.
This has been a pretty noncommittal article, but it’s where Rangers find themselves. They do have significant reason to be optimistic. They’re unbeaten under Gerrard, look much more solid at the back, have battlers in the middle of the park and Morelos is back to best. On the other hand, it’s still very early in the season and Celtic will be the best team that Gerrard’s side have faced this campaign.
Rangers can go to Parkhead and expect to compete and should be confident that they can match Celtic. However, Celtic are still strong favourites and it will take an excellent performance from both team and manager for Rangers to leave Parkhead with a result.