Staff Writer Seb Brooks analyses the resurgence of Rangers, and the reasons for the incredible success of Gerrard's men.
When the final whistle blew at Celtic Park on 7 March last year, Celtic fans were in a triumphant mood. A Leigh Griffiths hat-trick had helped them to dispatch St Mirren 5-0 and they had extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership to 16 points. With eight games of the season to go, despite Rangers having two games in hand at the time, they knew that a ninth successive title was all but secured. However, they were unaware that this would be the final match of the season. Rangers would close the gap to 13 points with a narrow victory at Ross County the next day, before the pandemic began to have a big impact on football. With Scottish clubs eventually deciding that the season could not be completed, Celtic were crowned champions on points per game on 18 May. Nine-in-a-row had been achieved, but the one that really mattered to the club was still just on the horizon – the much-sought-after ten.
However, the prospect of them winning a tenth successive title now looks very faint with Celtic at the time of writing a remarkable twenty-three points behind Rangers this season. In my view, this can be put down to three main reasons: the pandemic, Rangers stepping up, and Celtic faltering. As hinted at in my opening paragraph, the pandemic came at the best possible time for Rangers. Firstly, it meant that Celtic could not win the league as emphatically as they would have liked to. I am of the opinion that Celtic would have extended that thirteen-point lead if the season was played to its conclusion, and that would have been a great confidence booster going into this current campaign. It would also have opened up the possibility that Steven Gerrard may have had to be replaced, creating instability at Rangers. With the season subsequently decided on points-per-game, although it was still a bitter pill for Rangers to swallow, with their fiercest rivals winning nine consecutive titles, it was not as bad as it could have been. Secondly, and more critically, it gave time for Rangers to regroup. The squad could be assessed, additional signings could be recruited to fit Gerrard’s style of play, and all their attention could be focused to stopping ten-in-a-row. These two factors have undoubtedly played a big part in why Rangers and Celtic currently sit where they are in the table.
Rangers have played their hand well in the following months. In any case, everyone associated with the club knows what it means to stop ten-in-a-row for Celtic. Between 1965-74 under Jock Stein, Celtic won nine titles in a row, which was then matched by Rangers between 1988-97. This historical background means that to be beaten to ten would be extremely hard to take for Rangers. Driven by the need to stop this milestone, during the summer transfer window and the season itself they have made solid decisions and demonstrated tactical intelligence. From the window, many of the signings have fitted in well: Hagi, Balogun, Roofe, Itten and Zungu. Balogun in particular has formed a great partnership in the centre of defence with Connor Goldson. The back four has only conceded seven goals in twenty-five league games this season, which is testament to its strength. Roofe has also contributed with ten league goals until his recent injury, providing support to Morelos up top. Hagi, who was originally brought in on loan last season, has also chipped in, and it was the right decision to sign him on a permanent deal, while both Itten and Zungu have been valuable super-subs, and have given much-needed squad depth.
Gerrard, who has been at Rangers since May 2018, has been able to build the team in his image. The signings from this summer window were the final pieces of the puzzle. His tenure initially involved building a starting eleven to compete with Celtic, and then adding squad depth. Take a look at the eighteen Rangers players for the game when Celtic sealed seven-in-a-row in the Old Firm at Celtic Park on 29 April 2018 and it tells of a remarkable transformation. Only two remain from that day: Tavernier and Morelos. In the space of three years, Gerrard has completely overhauled his squad, and has had great support from the Rangers board in accomplishing this. They now have a squad capable of competing with their nearest rivals as a result. Allan McGregor is a great goalkeeper; captain James Tavernier leads a backline which continues to keep clean sheets; the midfield has great depth in Ryan Jack, Steven Davies, Scott Arfield, Joe Aribo and Glen Kamara; and up front they also possess a plethora of options in Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos, Kemar Roofe, and super-sub Jermain Defoe.
They have looked like a team in tune from day one, when they overcame a potentially tough challenge to defeat Aberdeen 1-0 at Pittodrie. They have a clear system and game plan, as Gerrard builds around his 4-3-3 formation. Even with injuries, they now have the necessary squad depth and quality to sustain a solid league campaign. Statistics do tell a story. At time of writing, they are on twenty-two wins from twenty-five games; sixty-five goals scored; only seven conceded; twenty-three points clear of Celtic, even if Celtic do have three games in hand. And prior to a draw at Motherwell last week, they had won fifteen Premiership games in a row. A good illustration of this successful season is that Tavernier, a right-back, has scored seventeen goals up till now. You also often hear that attackers win games, but defenders win championships, and that could not be more accurate in this case. With a stalwart and nigh on impenetrable defence, Rangers then have the firepower to win games that in the last two seasons they would have dropped points in.
Meanwhile, Celtic have looked disjointed throughout this period. Whilst Rangers deserve great credit for the form they have shown this season, Celtic certainly have not helped themselves. They went into this season as overwhelming favourites to claim a record tenth successive crown but it has not gone to plan. Boli Bolingoli broke quarantine rules in only the second week of the season, and this led to games being postponed, and gave Rangers the opportunity to build a gap from the start. Many key players also missed the crucial Old Firm game on 17 October, which Rangers won 2-0, after testing positive. And, most recently, the team went on an unnecessary trip to Dubai for warm weather training. On returning, Christopher Jullien tested positive and this meant that manager Neil Lennon and several key players had to self-isolate. Celtic have subsequently dropped more points at a time when they cannot afford to do so.
Additionally, as mentioned previously, Rangers aced the transfer window, but Celtic made mistakes. Mohamed Elyounoussi has been inconsistent; Vasilis Barkas is yet to be convincing in goal; and Shane Duffy has been error-prone at the back. Manager Neil Lennon has also been under pressure, with many Celtic fans consistently calling for his head. This atmosphere has in turn filtered onto the pitch, as the team has looked out of sorts. They were dumped out of the Champions League qualifiers at only the second round to minnows Ferencvaros from Hungary, and only just scraped Europa League qualification by beating Sarajevo. In their group itself, although it included tough opposition in AC Milan, Lille and Sparta Prague, Celtic did not represent themselves well, winning only one game out of six, and most notably losing 8-2 on aggregate to Sparta Prague home and away. Contrast this with Rangers in Europe, who defeated Turkish giants Galatasaray in Europa League qualifying, and topped a group with Portuguese giants Benfica in it, going undefeated in the process.
Domestically, whilst also falling twenty-three points behind their rivals, Celtic have also exited the Scottish League Cup to Ross County. The team has struggled for rhythm, with different formations being used and players available at different times. It has lacked coherence, in clear contrast to Rangers who have a settled system in place. The talismanic Odsonne Edouard is also yet to find his best form, and his goals have been crucial for Celtic in recent seasons, and winger James Forrest has been badly missed through injury. Six wins in twenty games since October can never be a good statistic for a Celtic team, and they must now recognise that the ten-in-a-row is gone. Perhaps it is best then that Neil Lennon is replaced for the final few months of the season, in order to bring someone in to get to know the squad in looking ahead to next season. Lennon has done well to lead Celtic to an unprecedented ‘Quadruple Treble’, completing it with a dramatic win against Hearts on penalties in the Scottish Cup Final in December, but arguably he has run his course and it is time for a new manager to be given a chance.
In summary, the revival of Rangers in recent months has been down to a number of things. Firstly, the pandemic came at the best possible time, ending the season when Celtic were at their strongest and Rangers at their weakest. Then, Rangers have since used this boost to start the new season well and have continued this momentum throughout. Meanwhile, Celtic’s own momentum from last season has been broken, and they have also made bad decisions and mistakes to exacerbate this situation. Rangers have stepped up, while Celtic have faltered. Celtic have long been the dominant team in Scotland, winning nine titles and four trebles in a row, but now that period of dominance looks to be coming to an end.