Settled and sleek champions (and, frankly, elect in that role for the current campaign) Celtic and their trailing rivals in a Rangers regrouping under new manager Michael Beale represent two wholly different propositions. Something that the Englishman has openly acknowledged. Before Monday’s 2-2 draw he talked of his counterpart Ange Postecoglou’s playing in a style he “liked”, but that was distinct from his approach. Odd, then, that in pinpointing where each exhibited flaws that would seem to require attention, the focus can fall on both their midfields.
Celtic’s central area failed to function with the fluency that has come to be expected. In the early stages, the rotations involving Reo Hatate - in the main - Matt O’Riley and the deeper-lying Callum McGregor allowed Celtic to move their opponents around and work the ball into dangerous areas. However, as Rangers - without producing any such patterned play - stepped on their visitors, McGregor was shut down, and O’Riley and Hatate broke down. That was more pronounced in the case of Denmark under-21 international. O’Riley has struggled to find his rhythm since the resumption of the season post-World Cup. His tendency to drift out of games was once a charge levelled at David Turnbull, suspended for Celtic’s last two encounters. There may be something else at work in O’Riley’s recent struggles. In the two months before the break, he was exceptional deputising for the injured McGregor. Recalibrating his game again to play more on the front foot may be creating uncertainties for him. Certainly, in failing to provide much of a threat - he hasn’t scored this season - could lead to one for him.
Celtic’s inability to summon the required tenacity and dynamism when confronted with the intensity Rangers found to establish a 2-1 advantage in the derby is an issue for which Postecoglou may already have acquired the answer. In this respect, Rangers have huge ground to make-up on the club they must topple.
Postecoglou isn’t a coach interested in plonking an enforcer at the base of his midfield triangle. Latest, yet-to-be-seen, signing Tomoki Iwata is not that. But the 25-year-old earned the honour of Japan’s player of the year with title winning club Yokahama F Marinos through exhibiting a combativeness as the club’s defensive midfield pivot that would suggest he is different from the busload of midfielders currently on Celtic’s books. Indeed, Yokohama manager Kevin Muscat’s description of the player is not one that would be applied to any among that body. "People will identify his remarkable physical presence in the form of strength, speed and endurance, and his versatility as his biggest strengths,” he said. “He is an unbelievable athlete. And he is reliable, unfazed and disciplined. His biggest attributes are desire and mentality.”
Rangers couldn’t be said to possess any such types, but then in the midfield domain they seem light on all manner of dimensions. Running from creativity to nimbleness. The Ibrox club, hardly flush with cash, could have growth in defensive and attacking areas with all personnel fit and available - the sidelined Tom Lawrence, Antonio Colak, Ianis Hagi and Ridvan Yilmaz all appearing to have the potential to improve them. The same doesn’t feel as if it is true of their core, which would seem to require major surgery.
Beale has love-bombed Glen Kamara, Ryan Jack and Steven Davis, but also acknowledged their unclear futures. Jack and Davis, in common with Scott Arfield, are out of contract in the summer. These over-30s have surely known their best days at Ibrox - especially so with out-for-the-rest-of-season injured playmaker Davis. It is likely to be necessary to move players on in order to free up wages for arrivals. Replacing them with better is not straightforward for Beale in this window, but he has openly recognised midfield is where his attentions must be focussed.
"In midfield there is a little bit of uncertainty, it's fair to say. If you write the midfielders down at Rangers at the minute you have a couple of loan players in James Sands and Malik Tillman,” he said. “Then you have two or three that are out of contract at the end of the season and the decision on their futures hasn't been decided yet in terms of Steven [Davis], Scott [Arfield] and Ryan [Jack] as well. Glen [Kamara] seems to get linked with a new club every day as well. I think midfield is an area we'd look to strengthen going forward.”
It seems a stretch to think Rangers would fork out the £5m required to sign Tillman on a temporary basis from Bayern Munich. Even more so with the £4m fee placed on retaining Sands from New York City. As a result, potentially Rangers could be on the hunt for at least three midfield captures - Beale adamant he will only bring in players to go straight into his first team. That prospect may seem daunting - especially when a goalkeeper is surely also a must for his shopping list as Allan McGregor prepares to hit 41 - but it also offers the opportunity for the comprehensive renewal few would argue is a given for Rangers to bridge the gap with Celtic.
Postecoglou integrated nine new first choices, effectively, in moulding a team to snare the title in his debut season. Almost a team’s worth of players departed Celtic to allow for that turnover. The problem for Beale is that a raft of these came in the form of major sales that have financed the £42m transfer spend under the Australian. The Rangers manager must somehow be able to perform similarily extensive reconstruction without such material wealth.