“I know I’ve got a job on and to be fair to the boys they know they’ve got a job on to get back to the standards that we’ve had previously.”
Michael Beale was aware of the size of the task that lay ahead of him when he decided to make the move back to Rangers a little over a month ago.
Dismal form ahead of the World Cup break that had fans booing the team off the pitch, a nine-point gap at the top of the table and uncertainty surrounding the futures of key players did not paint a picture of harmony in Govan.
Rangers are a club that needs a figurehead, especially when faced with adversity on and off the pitch, and there are plenty of challenges confronting Beale now.
On paper, it would appear as though little has changed. Despite picking up maximum points from Beale’s first four games in charge, Rangers remain nine points behind Celtic and the futures of Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos are still up in the air.
On January 2, live on Sky Sports, Celtic visit Ibrox for the biggest test of Beale’s short managerial career so far.
So, as he prepares for the Old Firm fixture that could define Rangers’ already fading title ambitions for the season, what has Beale managed to change over the past four weeks?
Creating an identity
Sky Sports pundit Kris Boyd said the biggest issue facing Beale upon his arrival was fixing Rangers’ style of play.
“Before we get to matters off the field, the first thing Michael Beale needs to look at is Rangers’ style of play on it,” Boyd said. “During the final weeks of Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s reign, the fans made it clear they were not happy with what they were seeing.
“Players were booed off at half-time and full-time, results were not going their way and some players looked dejected. When you look back to Beale’s time at Rangers under Steven Gerrard, there was a system the supporters could identify with and enjoyed watching.
“I think you’ll see a similar style return with the full-backs pushing on, runners in midfield getting beyond the front line and the striker dropping deep to link up that play.”
It is difficult to arrive at any real conclusions in terms of long-term changes on the park after four games but Rangers do appear to have more structure, balance and recognisable patterns of play again.
Beale has been limited in his selection choices so far due to a fairly colossal injury list and this undoubtedly played a part in Van Bronckhorst’s dismissal.
There is no way Beale envisaged starting John Lundstram and James Sands at centre-back in his first match as Rangers manager but that was the hand he was dealt. As injuries ease and first-choice players return – possibly with one or two additions in January – it should be easier for him to stamp his style on the team.
For now, however, the return of Glen Kamara at the base of a midfield two with Ryan Jack for his opening few games will not have come as a surprise to many. Beale spoke glowingly about the Finland international who has struggled for form and a consistent position in the team over the past 12 months. When both James Tavernier and Borna Barisic are fully fit and up to speed, in the latter’s case after winning a bronze medal at the World Cup with Croatia, it could bring out the best in Kamara again – shuffling out left to cover the full-back’s forward runs.
Alfredo Morelos has returned up front, despite carrying an injury, in the absence of Antonio Colak. Beale has spoken about playing with two strikers so it will be fascinating to see if he envisages these two No 9’s playing together or if he is referring to Kemar Roofe returning from injury to play off of the central striker.
However, Morelos was forced off against Motherwell on Wednesday with a knock, adding to Rangers’ injury worries. Beale attributed that to “tightness” and will be desperate for the Colombian to be ready to face Celtic on Monday.
Beale spoke in his unveiling of wanting to see his side play on the “front foot”, something Rangers fans have felt was lacking under his Dutch predecessor.
“I think the first thing is that it’s got to be exciting to play in on a daily basis, it’s got to be about this group now – this group is slightly different to when I was previously here,” he said at the time. “We’ve got to take the ball and we’ve got to go and attack, I’d like to see us run forward a little bit more off the ball and play a little bit closer together.”
That has certainly been the case, with Ryan Kent returning to his preferred role as an inverted winger, given more freedom on the pitch as opposed to hugging the touchline as he had been doing previously.
Malik Tillman and Fashion Sakala have been used in what had become a problem area on the right-hand side of the front three for Rangers, but the need for an out-and-out right winger may have disappeared with Beale’s desire to see that player work in closer proximity to the central striker.
Morelos offers something different to Colak and would appear to suit Beale’s style of play a lot more. Even after four games, it is clear to see that the manager wants his central striker to drop deep to influence the play further from the box with his right-sided forward and advanced midfielder expected to run beyond.
With players including Roofe, Ianis Hagi and Tom Lawrence all waiting to return from injury, Rangers may not need to spend money on any new additions in that area.
Beale spoke about wanting to “take the handbrake off” when he returned to the club and, despite inconsistent performances over his first four games, it does appear as though Rangers have managed to speed the play up and be more direct in patches.
The intent is there but a settled squad should see words put into action more often.
Beale may have picked up 12 points from 12 in his first four games in charge but it would be fanciful to say he has Rangers playing the way he wants. Basic passing and creativity in the final third went out of the window after 20 minutes against Aberdeen. The introduction of Scott Arfield was the injection of energy needed to combat a lacklustre display but perhaps elements of these shortcomings can be explained by Rangers’ injury list.
While Beale is now starting to get what looks like his first-choice central defensive pairing back in Ben Davies and Connor Goldson there are still issues in the backline. James Tavernier drove himself to Pittodrie after suffering with flu-like symptoms and would not have played had cover been available. The man who would have replaced him, 19-year-old Adam Devine, had been acting as a third choice left back in the absence of Ridvan Yilmaz and Barisic, who did return to action against Motherwell.
Devine impressed in his improvised role but that makeshift backline meant the full-backs were not able to offer the devastating support to the front three in those opening matches after the break. Barisic popped up with two assists against Motherwell, highlighting how effective he can be for the team going forward.
Elsewhere, Beale has revealed that Kamara requires an operation, Lundstram needed an injection to make the bench versus Aberdeen, Morelos had been playing through an injury “when lesser players wouldn’t be able to perform” before having to be removed against Motherwell and now midfielder Steven Davis will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Barisic returned against Motherwell but Colak and Roofe were still absent, and Beale says it may be the next international break in mid-February before he has a fully fit squad again, where he will be able to judge the group that he has to work with.
The manager praised his side after the 3-2 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie before Christmas and insisted questions over the squad’s mentality were wide of the mark given the number of players missing.
“If we allowed everyone who had a niggle or sore throat not to play, we’d struggle to put out a starting XI at the moment. That’s the situation that we’re in,” he said.
“That’s why I’d never question the mentality of the group especially in getting the two results, because some players have played when they wouldn’t have if everyone was available.”
Mentality has often been cited as an issue for this particular group of Rangers players, which is concerning given most have won the title and Scottish Cup over the past 18 months, as well as reached a major European final.
It would be misleading to suggest that Rangers ever lacked the character to mount comebacks or grab late winners under Van Bronckhorst – extra-time victories over Celtic and Hearts in the semi-finals and final of the Scottish Cup last season demonstrated this.
However, this term there seemed to be little confidence from the stands – or the pitch – that deficits to St Johnstone, St Mirren or Livingston could be overcome. After going behind in those three fixtures before the break Rangers only salvaged two points from nine.
It was a different story in Beale’s first two games. Two Arfield goals in the 95th and 97th minutes against Aberdeen at Pittodrie gave Rangers their second 3-2 comeback win in as many games after the same scoreline versus Hibernian upon the resumption of Premiership duty.
Goldson, who started for the first time since October at Pittodrie, hinted that there had been a shift in the way Rangers reacted to going behind under the new boss.
“I am sure the manager will analyse a lot of things and how we can improve – which we need to – but at the same time, we got three points and it makes for a happy changing room”, he told RTV after the win over Aberdeen.
“In the last six to eight weeks when I was watching from the stand, we probably wouldn’t have won those games. I have been watching like the fans, it hasn’t been nice, because when we have conceded goals it has looked like we couldn’t come back into games.
“Hopefully we get a bit of confidence back as a whole group and start picking up three points more often.”
It suggests that a few tweaks in formation and possibly a new voice in the dressing room has resulted in palpable change.
No manager with aspirations of winning titles wants to be chasing an equaliser or winner going into the final minutes of games but Beale will know how vital it is to have members of the squad with the stomach for the late push when all looks lost.
Indeed, Celtic have secured maximum points from games against Aberdeen, St Johnstone and Dundee United this season thanks to goals in the dying stages of games. In contrast, the feeling earlier in this campaign was that Rangers did know when they were beaten.
Off the pitch
Beale has been forthcoming in media conferences and when speaking with journalists. He has been honest in his assessment of performances after games and accommodating when dealing with the press ahead of fixtures. He likes to talk about football.
Van Bronckhorst was always slightly cagey with journalists when discussing transfers and injuries, in particular, while being unfailingly polite, but Beale even told those in attendance at his media conference ahead of the win over Ross County the number of changes he planned to make to the starting line-up.
That loquacious style may change in the months ahead as Beale settles back into the unforgiving Glasgow goldfish bowl where every word is scrutinised and afforded meaning, but, for now, Rangers fans are being offered a bit more of an insight into what is happening with the players and staff in training and off the park than they had become accustomed to in recent months.
One detail which offers an insight into Beale’s determination to set his own standards and levels of professionalism emerged in his unveiling when he revealed that Rangers players will return to wearing club suits on match days at home.
It is a tradition many outside of the club in the modern era may find of little consequence but Beale is adamant that some club traditions and practices should be maintained. Rangers greats, such as Ally McCoist and Brian Laudrup did it, with the manager seemingly looking to inspire his current crop.
“I know the traditions and it’s a traditional football club. It’s an institution,” he said. “As we modernise football I think that some of the traditions are really important. The players are hearing this first, they are going back to wearing suits on matchday as well when we are at home.
“I think it’s important we live in the traditions of the football club and this is a club when you come in you fit to those traditions and try to enhance them as you go on.”
Beale’s first Old Firm
So, given the changes implemented by Beale over the past month, what can Rangers fans expect from their side when Celtic visit Ibrox?
Beale was part of the management team under Steven Gerrard that turned the tables on Celtic in Old Firm fixtures, going seven games unbeaten in the derby shortly before their departure for Aston Villa in November 2021.
Since a 1-0 Rangers victory at Ibrox on August 29, 2021, it is Celtic who have regained the upper hand. Ange Postecoglou’s only loss to Van Bronckhorst in the fixture came in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
Beale and Gary McAllister took the last Rangers team to beat Celtic at Ibrox due to Gerrard self-isolating and he is well versed in the game’s intensity.
Indeed, Beale was sent off towards the end of Rangers’ 2-1 win over Celtic at Parkhead in December 2019 after reacting to a Morelos red card and getting involved with the opposition bench.
It would be safe to assume that the Rangers manager will take a calmer approach to proceedings from the dugout at Ibrox on Monday.
Beale must again work to regain control of the fixture from Celtic, much like Gerrard did previously. Van Bronckhorst seemingly struggled to get to grips with Celtic’s quick transitions and insistence on playing the game at a relentless pace, at least in the first half.
He will look to his midfield to try and suffocate any threat from the visitors and have a more narrow forward line to offer more going forward than what we saw from them in these games under Van Bronckhorst.
Injuries and lack of game time for some will again play their part and Beale will be desperate for Morelos to recover from the knock against Motherwell that saw him removed. Elsewhere, Sakala will probably regain his place on the right alongside a roaming Ryan Kent, who used to inspire a great deal of nervousness in Celtic’s backline before his positional switch.
Beale has said he will not hear any questions asked of his side’s mentality but this game should provide us with a better idea of who is with him and where this team is willing to go. While we are not quite back in 2017, this Rangers team once again looks psychologically deflated against Celtic after suffering two heavy and energy-sapping defeats under Van Bronckhorst.
Beale helped to conquer the fixture in the past and it is imperative he does so again. Rangers’ title ambitions may just depend on it.
Confirmed Scottish Premiership fixtures live on Sky Sports
Monday January 2: Rangers vs Celtic, kick-off 12.30pm
Sunday January 8: Motherwell vs Hibernian, kick-off 1.30pm
Sunday January 8: Dundee United vs Rangers, kick-off 4pm
Wednesday January 18: Kilmarnock v Rangers, kick-off 8pm
Sunday January 29: Livingston v Hearts, kick-off 1.30pm
Sunday January 29: Dundee United v Celtic, kick-off 4pm
Sunday February 5: St Johnstone v Celtic, kick-off 12pm
Sunday February 19: Motherwell v Hearts, kick-off 12pm
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