How Steven Gerrard's Rangers turned tables on Celtic
As Bobby Madden blew the final whistle at Ibrox last weekend, the reaction of Steven Gerrard and his Rangers players was, initially at least, understated and virtually expressionless. Yet after being outplayed by Celtic for long periods, they could bask in the satisfaction of moving 19 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
Contrast that to the exuberance from a year ago, when Gerrard yelled into a TV camera in delight after a 2-1 victory at Celtic Park, Rangers’ first in Glasgow’s East End for a decade. Those celebrations and optimism proved to be a false dawn in the weeks that followed, as Rangers’ form collapsed after their winter break in Dubai, while Celtic hit the accelerator on their way to a ninth successive title.
Twelve months on, the world of the Old Firm has turned full circle. On the pitch and off it, Rangers appear unassailable; their defence is impregnable and their strategic manoeuvres for the future of the club seem calculated and clear, as they hunt down a first major trophy since 2011.
Celtic, by contrast, are operating in a world of chaos. This week’s dispute with the Scottish Government about their winter training camp in Dubai comes hard on the heels of the alienation of a segment of their own fan base, while an unreliable back line continues to give Neil Lennon headaches.
The rise of Gerrard’s team, coupled with the implosion across the city, means that with over half of the league campaign complete, it is virtually inconceivable to visualise anything other than a Rangers title triumph in the spring. It’s an extraordinary turnaround from 12 months ago, but several factors have conspired to create this scenario.
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The statistics from Rangers’ season thus far make for spectacular reading. The club have 28 wins, four draws, and one defeat in all competitions, with the only setback being a surprise League Cup quarter-final upset at the hands of St Mirren. An unbeaten Europa League campaign, topping a group that included Benfica, adds gloss to the numbers, but Rangers’ primary focus has always been to win the Scottish Premiership.
The league record is staggering – 20 wins and two draws from 22 games, with 57 goals scored and just five conceded. Since drawing 2-2 at Hibernian on September 20, Rangers have strung together 14 consecutive league wins, letting in just three goals in that period. It is a run of form that rivals, and perhaps could eventually top, that of Celtic’s fabled “Invincibles” of 2016-2017.
In Brendan Rodgers’ first season, Celtic went through the entire domestic campaign without losing a game as they secured an unprecedented, unbeaten domestic treble. In the league they won 34 out of 38 games, setting a record of 106 points, scoring 106 goals and conceding 25. If Rangers’ current statistics continue, they would at least match that points tally, while scoring more goals and conceding less.
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A case for the defence
Rangers are only three points better off than they were at this stage last season, but this squad appear to be a far more disciplined, resolute and mentally tough group than in the past. Defensively, they have been incredibly frugal. Centre-back Connor Goldson, an ever-present this season, has scored almost as many goals – three – as he’s let in – five – while captain James Tavernier’s spectacular renaissance has taken him to the top of the goalscoring charts entering the new year.
A run of six clean sheets at the start of the season broke a 114-year old Scottish top-flight record, and little has changed since – Rangers are currently on a run of five successive shutouts, and strung seven together through the autumn.
The bedrock of this success has been a consistency of selection in defence. Goldson, Tavernier and left-back Borna Barisic have played in every game this season, while Leon Balogun and Filip Helander have provided healthy competition for the second centre-back slot. McGregor has a capable deputy in Jon McLaughlin, who has only conceded two goals in the 11 games he’s played.
Further forward, the goals have been spread around the squad, with the previous reliance on Alfredo Morelos no longer required. Nine Rangers players have at least four goals to their name already; last season only eight players reached that number during the entire (curtailed) season. The sense that Gerrard’s team have become a better all-round unit is inescapable.
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Celtic’s frailties exposed
Lennon remains standing as Celtic manager, despite an extremely rocky couple of months when his future appeared to be in serious doubt, but the damage done in that time might be irreparable to his team’s title chances. Indeed, since the start of the campaign, the champions have been bedevilled by problems.
Celtic have repeatedly been impacted by Covid-19, initially after Boli Bolingoli’s illegal trip to Spain in August which resulted in the postponement of a game against Aberdeen. The October international break then saw Odsonne Edouard, Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed contract the virus, while Ryan Christie was forced to isolate after being identified as a close contact. Their loss was keenly felt in the defeat to Rangers at Celtic Park on October 17.
A further setback has been the repeated failures in Europe, firstly to Ferencvaros in Champions League qualifying and latterly in the Europa League, where Celtic won just once as they finished bottom of their group. While European progress was not perhaps Lennon’s primary objective this season, the defensive embarrassments at the hands of Sparta Prague laid bare the issues within his squad, and fuelled the fire of unhappy fans.
Defensive errors have been the primary cause of grief for Lennon this season. That initial defeat to Rangers kick-started an alarming slide in form through the autumn, as Celtic won just two games in 12, shipping 28 goals in the process. It was the club’s worst run of form in more than a decade, and although results improved in December, it has left a gaping chasm between the champions and the league leaders.
It should not be forgotten that in the midst of all this, Celtic picked up another major trophy, and yet another domestic treble. The epic Scottish Cup final win against Hearts on penalty kicks just before Christmas is arguably the highlight of Celtic’s season so far, but the dramatic nature of the victory overshadowed another shoddy defensive performance at Hampden Park.
The signing of goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas has, until now, failed to bear fruit – the Greek was dropped during that winless run and has only recently regained his place. He has much to prove, and is yet to convince any observers that he can be a match winner in the mould of Fraser Forster or, more pertinently, his counterpart across the city Allan McGregor.
Lennon admitted a few weeks ago that he had been unable to settle on a first-choice back line, and the inconsistency in selection has translated into performances. Only Kris Ajer has been a regular pick; Christopher Jullien has suffered with injury, while Shane Duffy, Jeremie Frimpong, Diego Laxalt, Greg Taylor and Nir Bitton have been unable to secure their spots in the team, while Lennon has tinkered with his formation.
The Celtic manager has received public backing on more than one occasion from Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell, and though his position is secure for now, an awful autumn has left his team with a huge mountain to climb.
Mentality – the pressure of “The Ten”
The astounding consistency of Rangers’ performances must be put into context with what is at stake this season. The significance of a team winning 10 titles in a row is a concept that many outside Scotland find hard to grasp, but, rightly or wrongly, inside the Glasgow football bubble this feat has for years been equivalent to discovering the Holy Grail.
The pressure on Rangers to “Stop the Ten” this season is as great as the expectation on Celtic to achieve it. If Lennon’s squad somehow orchestrate a recovery this season, the bragging rights for their supporters would be set for years to come, while the manager will cement instant legendary status. The fact the title appears to be slipping away underlines the scale of fury from a sector of the fan base towards Lennon and more specifically the Celtic board, who have been accused of resting on their laurels.
Being “the team that lost The Ten” will resonate with Celtic’s players for the rest of their careers in Glasgow if they fall short; likewise, Gerrard is acutely aware he will be branded as “the manager who failed to stop The Ten” if he does not deliver the title this season.
His players, burned by two successive years of collapses, are also conscious of the narrative. Squad leaders such as Allan McGregor and Steven Davis, title winners a generation ago and steeped in the history of the club, know exactly what is required, and their influence has rubbed off on the rest of the group; at the most critical juncture, Rangers are delivering.
Caution at Ibrox reigns supreme, because the hardest yards may be still to come. Rangers dropped 13 points in ten league games from January through to March before the season was halted; in 2018-2019, it was 12 points lost in ten games. For whatever reason, Rangers have collapsed after the winter break twice.
This year there is no league shutdown, but hazards remain ahead. Sunday’s trip to Aberdeen is the first of three awkward away fixtures before the end of January, with Motherwell and Hibernian (where they last dropped points) still to come. If Rangers come out of the depths of winter unscathed, they will begin to see their prize ahead.
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