In the space of eight days, their 12-point lead over Celtic at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League has dwindled to four and, in the way that every aspect of the two clubs’ fortunes is viewed as an element of the Old Firm rivalry, this change in circumstances is considered as a predicament for Rangers.
Dropping points in consecutive league matches, while your title challengers are winning games, causes questions to stockpile. What is wrong with the team? What can be done? What should the manager be doing differently?
“It goes with the territory,” says Kenny McDowall, the Rangers assistant manager. “It gives you guys [in the media] something to jump on, and taking that is part of it.”
Supporters tend to be more irascible, but Ally McCoist was not singled out when Rangers were knocked out of the Europa League and Champions League qualifiers, or by Falkirk in the Scottish Communities League Cup. Conceding ground to Celtic in the league will be more unsettling for the Ibrox support.
Twice now, McCoist has addressed the way his team has dropped points by talking about a lack or tempo, of urgency, of spirit even.
The displays in the draw against St Johnstone at home and the defeat by Kilmarnock away last Sunday, were flat and expressionless; this was Rangers reduced to an over-reliance on their most accomplished individuals, at least in an attacking sense: Steven Davis and Nikica Jelavic.
Yet all season Rangers have performed decisively mostly only during phases of games, with their victory over Celtic at Ibrox last September being the one occasion when the side was emphatically impressive.
The run of consistency in league results was based on the strength of Rangers’ defence -- in Europe’s leading countries, only Barcelona have conceded as few goals as the Ibrox side -- and being persistent enough to overcome teams through sheer force of will.
The absence of Steven Naismith through injury, the flatness that has accompanied players on their return from international duty, and an inevitable run into occasions when greater authority and purpose would be required, has combined to leave Rangers’ management team coping with the first stringent examination of their tenure.
“It’s not like we’ve not been beaten before,” says McDowall. “When you get beaten, you’ve got to hit back quickly at a place like this. You can’t dwell too much on a defeat; there’s always a game round the corner here. We tell [the players] it needs to be better. It’s all about the mind, we need to start games much better. I don’t think it’s confidence, because how can you not be confident when you’re sitting at the top of the league? But we keep the same routine. If we’re winning in that routine, then all of a sudden we’re getting beaten in that routine, something’s not gone right on that day. That happens.”
Yet the dropped points cannot be viewed in isolation. In the same way that Rangers have often played too slow or deliberate a game to cut through opponents but still won, McCoist needs to address the listlessness of recent weeks. Pitching Sone Aluko straight into the starting line-up told of his concern at the lack of pace in the team while Gregg Wylde was suspended. Without Naismith, though, there seems a dislocation between Jelavic and the midfield.
Rangers need to find a way to switch phases, to turn possession of the ball in midfield into attack but also to change the pace of their play and to inject sudden bursts of ambition into their game.
Davis has become a little subdued and with Rangers having five wide players -- Wylde, Aluko, Matt McKay, Alejandro Bedoya and Juan Ortiz -- there might be worth in switching formation to a central midfield three, allowing Davis more time and freedom to impose himself on games.
It is the psychological effect of the lead over Celtic that is significant. McDowall, whose appearance before the media yesterday to preview tonight’s friendly against Hamburg was pre-arranged before the defeat at Rugby Park, is adamant that complacency was not an issue with the players.
The extent of the lead over Celtic was false, since the Parkhead side always had one game in hand, which they won against Dunfermline Athletic, but Rangers still dropped five points across two games.
Many of these Rangers players have experienced similar runs of poor form during the past three seasons, and have always responded.
McCoist and his coaching staff can rely on that time-served conviction, but he must also identify either a new source of urgency and attacking instincts -- to replace the qualities that Naismith brought to the side -- but also find the means to liberate Jelavic and Davis, or at least generate more from his fringe players, such as McKay, Bedoya, John Fleck, Kane Hemmings, Ortiz and Lee McCulloch.
“It’s vital you don’t panic,” McDowall says. “You don’t become a bad team overnight. We’ve told [the players] it’s not good enough. A defeat’s not acceptable here, a draw’s not acceptable here. But they know, because they’re good players and clever players. We’ll give them the gee up that they need, but they’ll want to put it right themselves because they want to win the title. You’re looking for [the fringe players] to stake a claim. It wasn’t a good performance [against Kilmarnock], so there are no complaints when the regulars come back and get their place, like [Sasa] Papac, [Carlos] Bocanegra.”
Management tends to be about resourcefulness and improvisation, but also shrewd decision-making and composure. McCoist will now find those qualities being tested.