Rangers have frailties and their opponents are sensing those weaknesses. Livingston went at them right from the off at Ibrox on Saturday, got the early goal through Joel Nouble and until Morgan Boyes’ red card on 77 minutes, they did not look in any serious danger. Opponents know that without Connor Goldson, Rangers’ defence can be roughed up, and with a lack of sharp creativity in the centre, Rangers can be forced wide and crosses defended.
Livingston manager David Martindale wanted to go for a second goal but Boyes’ dismissal for a bad challenge on Alfredo Morelos, that required VAR to intervene, changed matters. The extra man finally gave Rangers some space to play with as they had not been engineering it themselves. John Lundstram volleyed in the equaliser bang on 90 minutes. There was to be no first win in Govan for Livingston, but they still left with plaudits and plenty of positives to cling on to after a 1-1 draw.
"You are never comfortable here but we were strong defensively,” said Livingston midfielder Andrew Shinnie. “We pride ourselves on not giving many chances to any team we play. Coming here, what have you got to do for your game plan? You’ve got to turn the crowd about, make them anxious and in the first 15/20 minutes just stay strong. You then go through the phases of the game, get to half-time. Obviously getting the goal early helps, it gives you something to hang onto and to fight for.
“I was thinking after the game that I couldn’t remember Shamal [George, Livingston’s keeper] making save after save. There were probably a lot of crosses that he was collecting that were pretty comfortable. But they can score in a heartbeat here. It was a great finish to be fair, into the top corner, which is fair play to them. Would we have taken a point before? Probably, yeah. We’ll be happy with that.”
What is also harming Rangers is the mood of their fans. They are getting restless quickly. Performance levels are poor. The tempo is slow. Creative players are struggling for inspiration. There is little doubt the unrest in the stands is creeping on to the pitch. Shinnie felt the crowd affect the Rangers players.
“I came through the youths here and and was in and around the first team a lot,” said Shinnie. “I remember Ian Durrant used to say that it takes a lot of bravery to play here, especially if you go one-nil down as the fans are restless. If you make a bad pass there are 50,000 breathing down your neck. I think most games probably outwith the European games and Celtic teams will come here and try to be strong, keep it solid and hope the crowd get a bit restless. It can make players go into their shell. You maybe don’t take as many risks, you take the safer option. That’s sort of how we did it. Let them go wide and deal with the balls in.”
Rangers’ next match is away to Napoli in the Champions League – none of their fans will be in attendance, given the ban on away supporters to reciprocate for Italian supporters not being allowed to attend Ibrox on matchday two in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death. But they will be back on Saturday. Aberdeen come to town and there will be pressure and expectation, that’s for sure. The Dons took a point from Govan last season and carry a serious goal-threat. Van Bronckhorst knows things need to improve fast.
“We need to keep working hard,” said the Dutchman. “Obviously we’re not playing the way we can as a team. The players are not performing as they can. If you combine that and lose a goal really early then the confidence goes really low. That affected things throughout the game.
“I said it many times, I understand them [the fans’ boos] and we will work hard to overturn it. It’s understandable that they show their frustration. They want their team to be successful, playing well and get points in Europe. It’s what is expected when you’re a Rangers manager or player. And when that’s not happening you will get criticised. We need to take that as it’s their voice and the fans are so important for every club. We need to make sure we give them the moments to be positive. In the last couple of games we didn’t do that.”
The draw against Livingston was damaging because, coupled with Celtic’s 4-3 win against Hearts, the defending cinch Premiership champions are now four points clear of Rangers. Captain James Tavernier was asked if that gap now carried significance. “We just have to concentrate on ourselves, he said. “We’ll just go game by game in the league and try to get three points in very game. We can’t focus on them, we just have to concentrate on our own performances. And we move on from that.”
Move on Rangers must, but that is easier said than done. With an injury list that shows little sign of improving and a group of players that look sapped of confidence, a date with a rampant Napoli side in their own backyard looks daunting. They return to Ibrox on Saturday, where nothing less than a win over the Dons will do.