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Celtic have enjoyed domestic dominance for the best part of a decade and a stranglehold in the last four seasons in particular rarely seen anywhere in world football. The 10, as they are calling it, was almost a certainty in their minds. However, is this Rangers start to the season unexpected?
If you take a very simplistic view, Rangers have went from 13 points behind Celtic at the end of the curtailed season in 19/20 to currently having a 13 point lead in this season. Yes, we had a game in hand last season and now Celtic have two games in hand on us but it’s still some swing. I will argue that Celtic attacking over-performance along with a Rangers post-New Year meltdown created a false gap.
Up until the winter break last season Rangers had dropped just 7 points (1 loss and 2 draws). This included 16 wins and at that time it looked like being a fiercely contested title race with the 2-1 away Old Firm victory meaning we were two points behind with a game in hand going into the break. Celtic came back from the break in stunning form, racking up eight wins on the bounce and on the night they looked like dropping points, all three points to Livi they managed a last-minute goal to take a point whilst Rangers had managed to lose all three points to Hamilton at home despite having an xG of 4.34 vs Hamilton total of 1.10 xG.
So how did a Rangers side who had dropped just seven points in 19 league games now go on a run of dropping 13 points in an 8 game run? I have some personal thoughts on this but will use some of the data to back up some of these.
Rangers were hugely strong when James Tavernier and Borna Barisic would be on the same pitch (15 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss in the league); we have improved as a team and both players have gone to another level this season but even with Tavernier having a sticky spell he was still important to the way we play with both wing-backs’ main role being to create chances and provide the width.
Tavernier who has been an almost ever-present in his time with the club suffered an issue with his appendix and missed the first four league games after the re-start. We had dropped five points since coming back from Dubai in that period and allowed Celtic to get back in a strong position. The duo started the Hibs 2-1 win but then it was Borna Barisic turn to miss the next three league games where we dropped another five points with the 2-1 loss to Killie away and 2-2 draw with St Johnstone.
I do not believe the complete loss of form was down to one particular element or lack of bottle or mentality alone from the players to deliver silverware, however a culmination of events. We had the lack of continuation with our wing-backs, who are and always have been so vital to us to create going forward. When one of them is missing it meant we had to look to our squad depth. This was a big issue, without Tavernier we had Matt Polster or Jon Flanagan who not only aren’t near the quality, their playing styles are too different and meant the side lost a big edge. On the other side as much as some fans love him, Andy Halliday again can’t do the job we ask of Borna Barisic.
This season we have really improved the squad depth to the stage where we can make six or seven changes and be comfortable on most occasions, the levels don’t often drop. Another factor in the drop off last season was the shot conversion dropping hugely, Jordan Campbell Rangers writer for the Athletic wrote at the time of the shot conversion dropping from highs of 16-18% to below 8% since the Winter break, whilst Celtic’s conversion rate rose from a league-average 12% pre Winter break to a season-high of 22% in the games up to the season being called.
Yes, you can call out defensive individual errors and we had a few which contributed. However, we had conceded the same amount of goals (19) as Celtic by the time the league was called early. Post-winter break Celtic smashed in 34 goals whilst Rangers struggled to a meagre 11 goals in 10 league games. A big part of our strong first half of the season was the form of Alfredo Morelos who had smashed in 28 goals by New Year, he failed to add another league goal in the 7 starts and 1 sub appearance after the Winter break.
Morelos has carried the side at other stages within his Rangers career but that was a factor. Defoe came in and got a couple of goals but then picked up an injury and for much of the downturn in form, we had no recognised forwards on the bench. We introduced Kamberi in a handful of games and he did give us a spark and a more direct option especially v St Johnstone however it just isn’t enough for a strong title challenge.
So we have shot conversion falling off a cliff to well below the league average whilst Celtic more than double theirs and show a ruthless streak that we failed to match, key players missing vitally important games, our main goal threat failing to add a goal in the league in an 8-game period whilst Defoe missed a chunk due to injury. We had very little else in terms of depth. We are far better equipped now to deal with an issue like that this season where we have 2 players of quality for each position and in the forward areas we have added real quality with the signings of Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten.
I’d like to bring xG in to cover the five games that we dropped points in post-winter break to give some more context, this isn’t to say that some of the performances were acceptable, but having some time to look back on this period I can confidently say our performances deserved far better results.
I’m also fully aware that xG will not be able to fully give meaning to everything and until we win a major trophy there will be doubters in terms of mentality to get over the line and this is hugely relevant given our recent shock cup exit v St Mirren. Below is a table of our xG vs opponents in the 5 post Winter break games where we dropped points.
Hearts 2 (1.04)
Rangers 1 (1.74)
Rangers 0 (1.27)
Aberdeen 0 (0.53)
Killie 2 (0.96)
Rangers 1 (1.33)
St Johnstone 2 (1.02)
Rangers 2 (3.01)
Rangers 0 (4.34)
Hamilton 1 (1.10)
Celtic scored 89 goals in 30 league games from an Expected Goals of 75.72 last season; this term, they are once again the biggest over-performers in terms of attack where they have scored 37 times from an xG of 31.30. This is either luck and they will regress towards their original xG or it tells us that they simply have hugely superior finishers. Rangers had big under-performance in terms of scoring from the chances we created with 64 goals scored from an xG of 71.7 and this was caused by a ridiculous post-winter break.
Rangers are the best side in the country by a distance on almost every metric and are currently scoring just ahead of our xG for the league this season scoring 47 goals whilst having an xG of 43.79. Whilst we are performing admirably at the back, we have conceded just 4 times but have an xG against of 8.04. To provide some context, Rangers have an xG per game of 2.58 vs Celtic 2.09 whilst our xG against per game is 0.47 vs Celtic 1.11 (3rd best defence in the league). They do say defence wins you league titles, let’s hope that is the case.
In conclusion, this Rangers side still have to prove they have the bottle to see this strong advantage over the line. A 13 point advantage which could be brought to 7 with games in hand has been established and a superb Europa League journey all adds to a brilliant start to the campaign. It’s impossible to predict the future, however, we know we have much stronger depth – Morelos will drop out the side following his suspension and we have options of Itten, Defoe or moving Roofe in one and then bringing someone of the quality of Aribo or Hagi into the attack which is very pleasing to be in that position.
At full-back we now have Bassey who although has a lot to learn and despite a good start had a difficult night v St Mirren is a player far more mobile and able to perform the role we ask of our full-backs than what we had last season.
Patterson has had more limited minutes but performed admirably vs Poznan and again is in the mould of Tavernier. We are getting goals from everywhere with 13 different scorers in the league, last season we also had a horrible penalty record where we had a 40% conversion rate from 10 penalties, this term Tavernier has hit all 9 and scored 9.
Right now it’s one game at a time but this isn’t the time to attack the squad. We need to dust ourselves off and continue our league winning streak (which can go to 10 wins in a row, the biggest winning league run under Steven Gerrard) whilst supporting them.