“Judge us in May.” Mark Warburton has pleaded for patience from the Rangers’ supporters since the first ball was kicked in anger this season. With a raft of new players signed and a step up in the quality of opposition, his side were always likely to require time to find their feet on their return to Scottish football’s top tier.
Patience however is an elusive commodity in football. It doesn’t take long for the alarm bells to start ringing and nothing makes them ring louder than a humbling defeat to arch rivals.
Since taking charge Warburton has set about changing the style of play at Ibrox to largely great effect. The Englishman managed to implement his ideas from the off, with his side able to learn the ropes and then fine tune the minute details of the expansive 4–3–3 formation he favours against inferior opposition.
Rangers’ played some superb football over the campaign and won promotion in convincing fashion. Yet as they took their foot of the gas towards the back end of the season a spate of recurring themes began to emerge which should have been red flagged in the off-season. Goals conceded from set pieces, full backs caught high and out of position and centre backs performing to various levels of ineptitude became almost weekly affairs.
During the early months of his tenure Warburton was questioned about his philosophy and produced what has now become an infamous soundbite, “Plan B is doing Plan A better”. Despite the aforementioned cracks beginning to appear in the second half of last season the Rangers manager stayed true to his word, opting to sign 11 players of perceived higher quality to do Plan A better.
Admittedly we are only five games in to the new SPFL season but at this early stage Rangers’ summer revamp can be described with a fitting metaphor — the game of Jenga. The club reassembled the blocks, with seemingly inconsequential pieces of the puzzle removed and high-profile signings in the shape of Joey Barton and Niko Kranjcar placed to the top of the pile.
The structure became more significant as a consequence. However, similar to the impact repositioning new pieces high upon shaky foundations has on the wooden tower in the game, every move Warburton made to progress seems to have also ensured Plan A has become an increasingly unstable proposition.
The quick ball circulation that made Rangers formidable for large spells of the 2015/16 campaign and caused Celtic such problems in the cup semi-final has noticeably slowed. As such Rangers’ progress has stalled. With a slow start to the SPFL season exasperated by Celtic flying out of the blocks across Glasgow, flaws in the playing style have become increasingly apparent. A collapse has seemed inevitable of late and it came at the worst possible time, with the maiden Old Firm showdown of the campaign on Saturday afternoon proving the tipping point.
Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous set an energetic Celtic side on the path to ruthlessly expose their great rivals frailties; with the home side going on to open the scoring from a corner before racking up four more goals to emphasise their superiority on the day.
Celtic played to a clear, coherent plan — setting traps across the field that Rangers were only too willing to fall into. They pressed in an organised fashion, affording Rangers’ technically suspect centre half pairing of Rob Kiernan and Phillip Senderos time on the ball to play forward before pressing hard when the ball entered the middle third.
Barton and Kranjcar proved lethargic in such situations, often looking heavy legged and unable to cope with the intensity of the home side. The Croatian in particular looked at times like a man for whom football is a good walk spoiled.
As Rangers chased the game in the second half Celtic were able to leave their attacking trio of James Forest, Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele high up the pitch and they were more than happy to exploit the gaps in dramatic fashion.
Such a damaging result has left Warburton to pick through the rubble, with serious questions now being asked by supporters and the media for the first time in his 13 month stint in the Ibrox hot seat. With trips to Tynecastle and Pittodrie looming Rangers’ campaign already looks to be approaching a defining crossroads in the early Autumn months. Which way the Ibrox side go when they get there is currently anyone’s guess.
No such doubt can be had regarding the manager’s steadfast conviction to his playing style though and Warburton will set about rebuilding the Jenga tower on more convincing foundations, rather than retreat to the tactics board to start afresh. Whether that proves the right move, only time will tell.