Rangers manager Steven Gerrard (Photo by ANDREAS HILLERGREN/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)
There’s a well-worn cliche about long waits and London buses that feels remarkably relevant to Rangers’ current run of back-to-back defeats.
The Gers have largely forgotten what it’s like to lose matches under Steven Gerrard, such was their swashbuckling dominance of the Scottish Premiership last season, but have had to endure a miserable seven days in which they’ve lost three times in quick succession.
Malmo lit the fuse by edging them out in a tight Champions League qualification first leg clash last week - a result followed snappily, and shockingly, by a jaw-clenchingly frustrating upset at the hands of Dundee United at Tannadice on Saturday.
The Swedish outfit then finished what they started on Tuesday evening by rocking up at Ibrox and booting the Gers out of Europe’s elite competition.
The whole thing feels weirdly alien - like one of those dreams where you’re walking round your house, only it isn’t actually your house, even though it looks exactly like your house. All of the same players are there, all of the same attacking intent and champion’s swagger, but the outcome persists in being peculiar and unsettling.
Of course, there is every chance that this is just a blip, an inevitable end to a 41-match unbeaten run in the league that just happens to have come sandwiched between a devilishly tricky Champions League tie. Malmo were beatable, but they’re no slouches either.
The key for Gerrard and his staff is to ensure that the blip remains a blip and nothing more. Woodworm in your side cabinet is one thing, woodworm in the foundations of your house is quite another, and if Celtic’s implausible collapse last season has taught us anything, it’s that even the most ascendant of champions are far from infallible.
With that in mind, the inquest into Rangers’ recent wobble will already be underway, and the findings could make for interesting reading.
The main takeaway is likely to be that the Gers’ usual danger men have struggled to fire in their last three matches.
Against Livingston on the opening day of the season, when Rangers looked every inch the glittering title-winning unit that we saw last term, they registered a shot accuracy of 57.14% - a tally made all the more impressive by the fact that starting striker Fashion Sakala failed to have a single attempt on goal.
Since then, however, that percentage has dropped notably. Against Malmo, Dundee United, and Malmo again, the Gers registered shot accuracy rates of 22.22%, 16.67%, and 21.05% respectively. It doesn’t matter how good a side is, they’re going to struggle to win a game of football if they’re only hitting the target with one in every five shots.
But the problem goes beyond finishing.
Rangers’ pass completion rate against Livi was just below 90%. Over the last seven days it’s dropped to an average of 83.56%. That difference may seem relatively negligible, but all three matches since have been decided by a single goal, and these are the fine margins of wastefulness and misfortune that can make or break a campaign.
At the other end of the pitch, there’s been an equally concerning fall in quality.
In their opening day victory at Ibrox, the Gers won 76.32% of their defensive duels, but in the three game since have failed to win more than 64.1% in any single outing. No matter which way you look at it, that’s a concern, and especially for a side who prided themselves last term on having a backline so airtight that it would have made Tupperware blush.
Just to hammer that point home, Livingston’s xG in the season’s curtain-raiser was just 0.05 - a threat so small it was barely traceable. Malmo and Dundee United both managed an xG of at least 0.47. Again, the difference isn’t huge, but it’s been enough.
It’s worth reiterating that these three matches won’t decide Rangers’ fate this season. We are a long, long way from panic stations just yet. Even the sting of missing out on a Champions League spot will be softened massively by the prospect of an automatic place in next year’s group stage if the Gers can successfully defend their title in the coming months.
But to see such a holistic slump in output will no doubt have piqued Gerrard’s anxiety just a little, and he will know better than anybody that the best time to stop the rot is right now, before anything more serious takes hold.