Season one of Steven Gerrard’s managerial career provided that rarest of things at Rangers - a season free of shenanigans. Progression to the Europa League group stages was followed by Rangers’ first league win over Celtic since entering the Premiership in 2016 and while it wasn’t enough to prevent Celtic’s treble treble, it was enough to keep Gerrard in the job. Just what can we expect from this season?
Transfer Business Overview
Much of this summer has been devoted to trying to sort out the future of Ryan Kent. The Liverpool loanee from last season impressed in Glasgow and it has been no secret that Rangers would like to have him back. As the summer has progressed, that has looked less likely and Rangers have already brought in wingers in Jordan Jones and Jake Hastie. Both have appeared in Europe but the largest impression so far has been made by a new signing in the centre in Joe Aribo.
Aribo has provided two goals from the centre of midfield in his three games so far, impressing fans with his skill and willingness to drive forward and get at defenders. Quite aside from how he has impressed so far, he is the sort of player who gets fans up from their seats as his mind is always set to attack. Sheyi Ojo comes from Liverpool on loan with a similar attitude and, so far, similar results to Aribo. Having seen Ryan Kent impress so much last year, both are clearly looking to pick up where he left off. Greg Stewart has also come in to add to the club’s attacking options - Steven Gerrard will hope that it is the Stewart of his Kilmarnock form and not his Aberdeen form that he has bought.
The defence has been bolstered by George Edmundson, who has featured in the Europa League games so far, and Swedish international Filip Helander. Helander has plenty of Serie A experience at Verona and at Bologna and has swapped life under one legendary midfielder in Sinisa Mihajlovic for another in Steven Gerrard. At 26, he is just entering the peak years of his career and Rangers will certainly look to benefit from the stability he will provide.
Outgoings have been limited with the highest-profile departure being that of Daniel Candeias to Genclerbiligi but rumours still swirl around the futures of James Tavernier, Borna Barisic and Alfredo Morelos. Outgoings are certain with the club looking to ship out Graham Dorrans and Eros Grezda amongst others but future incoming business will be limited by two elements - how far Rangers go in the Europa League and whether or not the club receive bids for their premier talents of Tavernier and Morelos who could feasibly go for in excess of £5m.
Early Season Form
Three games into their Europa League campaign and three fairly convincing wins. While the results have been ideal, it’s hard to judge just how useful a yardstick games against opposition from Gibraltar and Luxembourg are to measure what will happen to Rangers when their domestic season begins. What will likely have been most pleasing for Rangers is that their new signings have bedded into the side quickly in these games given that the results themselves have gone more or less as they would have been expected.
Player to Watch: Glen Kamara
Plenty will herald the likes of Morelos or Tavernier, who contribute so much in an attacking sense, but it’s Glen Kamara who underpinned so much of what Rangers did well in the second half of last season. The Finnish international brought Rangers that most important of midfield traits - balance. When on the ball, he slows the play down and picks the right pass all the time. This was exemplified in the last Glasgow derby of the season where Kamara was able to calm play down and give the side stability. He doesn’t add the assists or goals that other players around him do, but he is the conduit to allowing them to contribute so much - managing the game around him and dictating the tempo of games through good awareness of where his team-mates are and his ability to draw opposition midfielders out to chase him, then making the most of the space they leave.
One for the Future: Jake Hastie
Hastie seemed a bit of an impulse buy for Rangers, brought in on the back of scoring some truly fantastic goals for Motherwell. However, he impressed on loan at Alloa last season and when freed up to play in Motherwell’s attacking line up, he impressed with his willingness to take on opposition players and his willingness to shoot when given a half-chance. Having already made his debut in the Europa League and with the sale of Daniel Candeias freeing up a wing slot, Hastie has the opportunity to push for opportunities to be involved in the line up on a regular basis. Should he take his chance at Rangers as he did at Motherwell, those opportunities won’t be long in coming.
However good one thinks Rangers might be, economics will always be against them and it’s always going to be difficult to make an argument for Rangers to finish higher than Celtic (and, therefore, win the league) when Celtic could happily throw £20m at their squad in January to extinguish any hint of a title race at that point. Progress is going to always be based on what results they can get against Celtic and how close the gap is between the two sides. Certainly, last season suggested things are getting narrower at the top with two wins over Celtic but they came against two of the most lethargic Celtic performances you will ever see.
But what Steven Gerrard has done over the past year is take Rangers to where they expected to be - consistently better than the ten sides smaller than them in the Premiership. It’s not been a work of genius, merely an act of competence. The fixture list has started kindly for them as their first games against most of the teams who will be in the European spots at the end of the season will be at Ibrox - Hibs travel in game week 2, Celtic in game week 4 and Aberdeen in game week 7. The payback for that is a December schedule that will mean trips to Pittodrie, Fir Park, Easter Road and Celtic Park before one even mentions the potential for a Europa League game to be thrown into that mix.
The squad remains lacking in the depth to be able to deal with that sort of schedule and rotate quality into the squad. An ageing Steven Davis and Andy Halliday aren’t players good enough for a team with aspirations of winning the league to have to rely upon. There are still doubts over the side defensively in the left-back position, where fans are not sold over Borna Barisic, and in the centre where Gerrard tinkered a little too much for partnerships and solidity to truly blossom. Rangers should get closer to the magic 85 points level they need to reach to actually hold serious aspirations of winning the league but they remain still firmly second best.