From our disappointing draw with Hearts yesterday, the game itself didn’t have a lot to talk about. Chances were somewhat rare, and spurned when created, whilst there was no real controversy or difficult decisions for the referee.
The real talking points concern the performance of our team and manager. The players were unable to produce the sort of energy they have shown in previous games in any sustained period. The formation and tactics of Hearts meant that our midfielders couldn’t get in behind, and were often coming deep to get on the ball. Easy passes were played too often, with our centre halves seeing the ball more often than anyone else. Too many players played conservatively. It was the first game under Caixinha where you felt we were more nervous about losing than looking to win. Even during the poorer performances and results last season, we never played with any sort of defensive or cautious mindset.
The criticism of our manager has been given more fuel by yesterday, and that’s understandable. The disappointment of the result and performance lead to that. It’s absolutely fair to say that in our bigger matches, the results haven’t been good enough overall. I’ve had numerous discussions and debates, and do believe I don’t get as emotionally invested as some (not a criticism of anyone but myself. There’s an aspect to being a supporter which I just don’t have, and I’m more than aware I’m missing out there), so most of those debates will see me accused of being deliberately contrary or the likes. It’s not a criticism I feel is fair, but I can at least see why it’s said.
I was willing to write off the games Caixinha was in charge last season, and said so at the time. The result against Progres was horrendous, and there was certainly some bad luck there. Friendlies, good or bad, aren’t really worth discussing in terms of how a manager is performing. We’ve now had a win, defeat and draw in our first three league games, and I feel yesterday was the only one of those where Caixinha could be argued to be why we didn’t win. The formation we played meant that our central midfield had to sit deep to try and allow the wide players to get forward. That meant Dorrans was ineffectual in the game. Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, there was a real argument for playing another midfielder and freeing up a runner from deep in the middle, with Dorrans our best option there at the moment. Kenny Miller, the player currently asked to be the link between midfield and attack, was playing with his back to goal more often than not, and that was exactly what Hearts wanted to see. It meant that both Morelos and Miller were facing their own goal too often, rather than just one of them. A starting position from deeper for a player free to attack centrally may have let a player run at their defence rather than away from it.
This was the first match where the lack of match fitness from Pena was an issue, because he wasn’t able to be considered an option to try and change things from the bench. After Kranjcar and Hardie came on, he was the only other substitute with attacking ability. There’s been a lot of rumours and conjecture about his off-field behaviour, but little by way of evidence. Caixinha hasn’t elaborated on why he isn’t involved, so those rumours are being given more credence. Pena was the biggest single outlay of the summer. Whilst I believe a transfer window is more about the overall strategy than individual signings when applying judgement, his lack of involvement so far is concerning to many.
Yesterday felt like a must-win already, and now the next three games fall into that category due to the draw. We have a number of players in the squad, but it’s hard to imagine many changes can be made to the starting XI. Hopefully, they won’t need that just now, and we’ll be able to play with the energy and tempo we’ve shown in spells of the previous matches, because that’s the only way we’ll win games. Our outlay on players has felt like a huge amount due to recent years of financial difficulty, but we’re still a good distance away from previous Rangers squads. Even those squads who didn’t have good seasons would have numerous international players and at least a couple of match winners. We’ve came from the weakest squad we’ve ever had in the top flight last season and required huge changes in one transfer window. What we’ve learned yesterday is that there’s still a lot of work to be done, which is a disappointment but maybe should have been expected.
The next few games are going to give us a real indication of how the season will go. Ross County away, Dundee at Ibrox and Partick Thistle away are all games we should be winning, and now have to win to get our season started. I understand that these teams can have decent performances, especially at their own grounds, but given our squad we should be favourites. Any more dropped points there would point to some real problems and not much by way of progress from last season.