The secrets behind Rangers defensive record underpinning surge to top
Played 16, won 14, drawn two, lost none. Scored 41, conceded four, 13 clean sheets.
However you choose to break down the statistics, it has unquestionably been an impressive start to the season from Rangers both domestically and in Europe.
Their 2-0 win over Livingston at Ibrox on Sunday, in fact, saw them eclipse the 15-match unbeaten run at the beginning of a campaign compiled by Walter Smith’s side in Rangers’ last trophy-winning season of 2010-11.
But while that turned out to be a triumphant year for the club, with the Premier League title and League Cup both claimed, Rangers supporters shouldn’t be reading too much into the runes of their team’s current form just yet.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Because history also informs that it’s how you finish a season, rather than how you start it, which really matters. For example, Steven Gerrard’s team are now on the club’s longest unbeaten streak from the opening of a campaign for 38 years.
But that sequence of 20 games without defeat back in 1982-83 proved a false dawn for Rangers, then under John Greig’s management, as they ultimately finished the campaign well off the pace in the league and without any silverware.
If Gerrard is to avoid a third consecutive trophy-free year in the job, he knows the high standards currently being set by his players have to be maintained with a greater level of reliability and consistency than in the previous two seasons.
The signs are certainly there, however, that Rangers are now better equipped and more mentally focused to be able to go the distance this time around.
The point of the spear
Of all of those eye-catching numbers they have put together so far, by far the most significant of them is the tally of 13 clean sheets - ten of them in the Premiership and three in the Europa League.
Inevitably, most of the praise for those shut-out figures has gone to goalkeepers Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin - who have kept six and seven of them respectively - and the defenders directly in front of them.
James Tavernier and Connor Goldson, the only two players to have started every match so far for Rangers this season, have been the most influential figures in that back four with the consistency of their performances and their leadership qualities.
But as Rangers assistant-manager Gary McAllister is keen to point out, there is much more to the miserly nature of the team’s ability to neutralise the attacking weapons of their opponents.
In Rangers’ possession based style of play, their preferred 4-3-3 formation demands that they defend from what military tacticians would describe as the ‘point of the spear’ - a role usually filled by Alfredo Morelos.
The Colombian striker, set to return to the side for Thursday’s Europa League tie against Lech Poznan at Ibrox after being rested at the weekend, has failed to score in his last six appearances. But McAllister echoes the sentiments recently expressed by Gerrard that Morelos should not be judged simply on his goal tally.
“When you look at the number of clean sheets we have had this season, that’s a big positive,” said McAllister.
“When you see that sort of stat, you tend to look at the back four and the goalkeeper. But I would look further up the pitch, I think, when you watch the front three just now, particularly Alfredo. He’s doing a lot of unselfish stuff for the team.
“It starts from there. We have been very good defensively because of our organisation in front of the ball. Players make it difficult for opponents to play through us. So we will try to keep that going.”
Where improvement can come
Rangers have already achieved landmark moments with their defensive solidity this season. In keeping clean sheets in each of their first seven Premiership matches, they not only surpassed previous club records set by the likes of the famous Iron Curtain defence of the 1940s and 1950s but also beat the all-time Scottish record for successive shut-outs at the start of a top flight campaign set by Willie Maley’s Celtic side all of 114 years ago.
They were breached for the first time by Drey Wright of Hibs in the 2-2 draw at Easter Road on September 20, Christian Doidge also on target for the hosts that day. A George Edmundson own goal slightly blotted a 5-1 win at Motherwell a week later, while the only other player to find a way past the Rangers defence was Galatasaray’s Brazilian defender Marcao with what proved only a late consolation as Gerrard’s men beat the Turkish side 2-1 in their Europa League play-off at Ibrox at the start of October.
It is those four goals which they have conceded which concentrate the minds of the Rangers players as they bid to maintain their exceptional defensive form, according to left-back Borna Barisic.
The Croatian international, also set to return to the side against Lech Poznan, admitted in an interview with the Rangers matchday programme at the weekend that they feel they can get even better.
“I’m delighted, especially because I am part of the defensive line, but I think even in this situation we can improve,” said Barisic.
“We have conceded three goals (in the league) and we have analysed them, so we know how we conceded them.
“So yes, I think we can improve in this area and in football it’s always about improving something.
“But from my perspective we have played very well defensively and I am happy because we broke some records. It’s a nice feeling.
“It’s not only about the back four and goalkeeper, it’s about the whole team and I think the whole team works to defend.”
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