'Rangers must find belief as boss search starts'
When Giovanni van Bronckhorst took over from Steven Gerrard as Rangers manager a year ago, the remarkable run to the Europa League final served as visually stunning wallpaper laid over the cracks of their domestic form.
Once Van Bronckhorst lost the comfort blanket of European success he was in trouble. There was no pleasing distraction anymore.
For the now former manager, this was a slow and excruciating demise. A shockingly bad performance in victory against Motherwell in mid-October, booed off in the League Cup against Dundee three days later, a panic-ridden draw with Livingston soon after, then a loss to St Johnstone and more dropped points against St Mirren.
All the while the gap at the top widened. Celtic haven't exactly been cosmically brilliant, but they've been dogged, they've won games every which way. They've won tight ones, they've come up with late winners. Rangers have been soft.
Their supposed go-to men have failed them. Alfredo Morelos has been a parody of himself, a striker who is incapable of getting himself fit - or interested. Ryan Kent has thrown shapes, but nothing more.
On the other side of the park they may as well build a revolving door such is the changing personnel. James Tavernier and Borna Barisic have had little influence. The team is seriously short on energy in the midfield and composure at the back. The first-choice goalkeeper is 40-years-old.
This is a squad in need of a significant reboot. The Rangers side that lost 3-0 to Napoli in the Champions League was the oldest starting XI in the competition in two seasons. The team that lost 7-1 at home to Liverpool was the second oldest.
There are so many questions about Rangers' recruitment - sporting director Ross Wilson should be gulping hard about his own future - but the buck will always stop with the manager.
Van Bronckhorst never wore his heart on his sleeve, so his demeanour largely stayed the same throughout all of this. Rangers fans might have expected passion and visible displays of their manager having the stomach for the fight, but what they got was the unchanging Gio, incredibly polite, unfailingly pleasant. Rangers needed a galvanising figure, but it was obvious they didn't have one.
From weeks ago it was a matter of when, not if, the news would come that he'd gone. His team remained insipid. Many an Old Firm manager has suffered deeply embarrassing losses in Champions League football, as he has done this season, and survived to tell the tale. Brendan Rodgers is the classic example.
Statistically, Rangers became the worst performing team in the history of the Champions League, but all of that embarrassment would have faded away had they stormed back into league football and taken teams to the cleaners. Their confidence was unquestionably battered by what happened to them in Europe, but the lack of the kind of resilience they showed last season has been stark.
It's when they lost the ability to pick the low-hanging fruit of the Premiership that they were done for. Nobody could make a logical case for Van Bronckhorst staying in post any longer. Nine points behind Celtic so early in the season? There's no coming back from that.
Injuries blighted him for sure. He's been without Ianis Hagi since January, Filip Helander since April, John Souttar since July, Tom Lawrence since August and Connor Goldson since the middle of last month, but no violins should be played for him on that front. Rangers' resources still vastly outweighed the many teams they have struggled against.
Rangers have lost belief, not just points
Rangers lost many things this season, not just games but belief. On their journey to the Europa League final they had character oozing out of them.
A team that went 120 minutes in victory against Braga on a Thursday night then went 120 minutes in victory against Celtic on a Sunday. The side that went 120 minutes plus penalties against Eintracht Frankfurt in the denouement in Seville picked themselves off the floor after a heart-breaking loss and two days later won the Scottish Cup final after, of course, 120 minutes.
They had Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo in their ranks back then, two big performers who were subsequently sold for profit. That was a continuation of a player trading model that began with the sale of Nathan Patterson to Everton for £12m.
As a business, Rangers are in the best place they've been for many years. They're well on their way to self-sufficiency after a decade of living off soft loans from supportive directors. Their operating losses over the previous decade came in at around £100m, but transfer fees and European prize money have put the club on a sound footing.
That's off the field. On the field, there are problems. The average age of what is considered to be Rangers' strongest starting line-up is ridiculously high - and it's a side that's populated by players who look past it.
That's not all Van Bronckhorst's fault, but it's a job for his successor. Whoever that may be would be entitled to look at the incomings in recent seasons and question the thinking.
That new manager has some players he needs rid of and many others he needs to find; younger, hungrier and a whole lot better than the collection who are wearing ill-fitting jerseys right now.
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