“It will be more difficult after today,” was Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s assessment of Rangers’ title hopes after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Celtic.

From a position of strength prior to the winter break, Rangers have allowed a six-point advantage to slip, leaving the Ibrox faithful scratching their heads as to the reasons behind such a drop-off in form.

With this in mind, The Rangers Review takes an analytical and statistical look at the reasons why Rangers' league campaign has unravelled.

Allan McGregor’s drop-off

January 29th proved a decisive day in the title race. As Rangers conceded an injury-time equaliser to drop two points at Ross County, Celtic struck an injury-time winner of their own against Dundee United to narrow the gap to just two points at the top.

Three days later, Celtic would defeat the Ibrox side at Parkhead to move to the summit of the table.

In reflection, the nature of the result in Dingwall typified Rangers’ season. Buoyed by an impressive debut from Amad Diallo, the Gers posted an xG figure of 3.03 – their third-highest away tally in the Scottish Premiership this season – and yet two inexplicable errors from Allan McGregor meant Rangers had to settle for a point.

READ MORE: The 10 minute, five save Allan McGregor spell that defines him as Rangers' difference-maker

The Rangers No.1 provided the backbone to the side’s title success last season, producing key interventions at critical moments – the 1-0 win over Celtic on January 2 immediately springs to mind. However, those defining moments have veered in the opposite direction this season.

Rangers have naturally given up a higher volume of chances this season (12.8 xGA) compared to last season’s seemingly impregnable defensive effort (8.6 xGA). In both campaigns, the former Scotland cap has conceded relative to his underlying numbers, but the spread of the shots he has conceded from this season makes for interesting reading.

McGregor has become increasingly vulnerable to long-range efforts, with Reo Hatate’s second goal in the 3-0 defeat to Celtic underlining his waning powers and ability to change direction quickly.

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The decline in his ability to stop shots of similar quality to Hatate’s this season is reflected below. When he has faced shots with an xG value between 0.1 and 0.2 this term, he has been able to save just over half of them.

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Although McGregor was facing shots of a similar quality at a lower rate last season, he was still able to produce saves at a rate of 80%.

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Indeed, McGregor has proven unable to pull off the game-defining saves that have defined his career and, while Rangers have given up more higher quality chances this season, it is reflected in the fact he has conceded every shot he's faced with an xG value of 0.4 or higher this term.

READ MORE: How Rangers' possession gamble overcame Celtic's February pressing template

Overreliance on Alfredo Morelos

As Rangers ambled through the opening months of their title defence this season, a common sight was one of a dejected Alfredo Morelos, as if playing for Rangers had become a chore to the Colombian.

In fact, the forward had netted just four times across Gerrard’s last 15 games in charge. The former Gers boss had scaled Morelos’ goalscoring influence on the team back after the 2019/20 campaign, owing to the Colombian’s disciplinary and fitness issues.

Morelos was asked to occupy the penalty box less and contribute more when Rangers built through the lines, as demonstrated by the decrease in his penalty box touches between 2019/20 and 2020/21.

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When van Bronckhorst rolled into town, however, the Dutchman immediately restored Morelos to his previous, authoritative role in attack. Eight goals in his first ten appearances followed under the new coaching regime.

By the end of December, no player in the Scottish Premiership had a higher % of their team’s xG than Morelos.

The issue, however, is that the Colombian is an inherently streaky goalscorer. Although Gerrard’s decision to alleviate the goalscoring burden on the Colombian was borne seemingly out of the frustration towards his poor disciplinary record, it was equally done to avoid the peaks and troughs which characterised Rangers’ seasons with Morelos leading the charge.

Whereas the Colombian was averaging 0.8 goals per game in his first ten starts under van Bronckhorst, he levelled off and netted just once in his last five games before injury curtailed his campaign after the 2-1 win at Dundee.

Below highlights his diminishing xG output prior to his injury in March.

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van Bronckhorst’s dependency on the Colombian also made him reluctant to unleash Kemar Roofe before his hand was forced and the chances of catching Celtic were slim.

Managerial transition

When van Bronckhorst watched on from the stands at Hampden as Rangers shipped three against Hibernian in the League Cup semi-final, he saw a bunch of players, in his eyes, whose skillset was completely at odds with the approach.

Upon his arrival, the Dutchman immediately simplified the role of Morelos, introduced the lesser-heard notion at Ibrox in recent years of wide wingers, and placed more emphasis on direct ball progression from those through the spine of the team.

The pass map from Rangers’ 3-0 win over Dundee in December neatly summarised the early days under van Bronckhorst. There was more responsibility on the central defenders to play 'around' the No.6 as Glen Kamara’s high positioning highlights, while Borna Barisic – previously a buccaneering full-back under Gerrard – was asked to play a reserved, tucked in role to compensate and aid build-up.

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Rangers got through to the winter break with momentum, but a drab 1-1 draw with Aberdeen at Pittodrie in January was a stark reminder that the players were struggling to fully grasp van Bronckhorst’s demands.

Draws with Dundee United and Motherwell – from 2-0 up at Ibrox – highlighted Rangers’ lack of conviction in both penalty boxes, and it took until Rangers fell six points behind Celtic with a 2-1 defeat at home for van Bronckhorst to re-introduce a few Gerrardisms.

The 4-0 victory over St Mirren in Paisley featured the return of Steven Davis to midfield, while Tavernier and Barisic were tasked with holding the width rather than wide players in the forward line.

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Recent performances suggest the players are finally beginning to understand van Bronckhorst’s demands. Whereas under Gerrard there was an emphasis on defending space, van Bronckhorst’s man-orientated approach has allowed Rangers to sustain a more aggressive press.

Still, it was too little, too late in the context of the league campaign, where the two defining fixtures had already passed.

Old Firm defeats

It is perhaps too simplistic to reduce the 12-point swing after the winter break to two Old Firm clashes but, as Rangers face up to a six-point gap heading into the remaining three fixtures, their failure to take anything from the February and April Old Firm clashes looks particularly damaging.

The 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park in February was brought about by van Bronckhorst’s man-orientated defensive set-up, hitherto alien to the players, which was brutally exploited by Celtic’s dynamic wide rotations.

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The aggressive game plan offered an insight into van Bronckhorst’s ambitions, yet the team selection in key areas lacked the required athleticism to carry out the Dutchman’s instructions.

Rangers’ defensive approach certainly improved in the 2-1 defeat to Celtic at Ibrox in April, but they lacked the required resilience in a pair of defensive situations to fall behind at the interval.

They would then fall back into old habits when, as Celtic retreated into a deep defensive block, they resorted to aimless crosses.

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The 42 crosses Rangers delivered that afternoon was their highest total since the 6-1 win at Motherwell under Gerrard in October. It underlined van Bronckhorst’s inability to replace the qualities of Morelos until that point as he struggled to find creative solutions through the middle in the absence of a physical focal point.

Subsequent victories – and performances – against Ange Postecoglou’s side have shown that Rangers have the right ingredients to impose their style in these Old Firm encounters. The Gers will contest the Scottish Cup final later this month as a result of an impressive semi-final showing against their bitter rivals, but, in the context of their Scottish Premiership title defence, the two defeats proved costly.

Set against a Celtic side who remain unbeaten in the league since September, Rangers’ imperfections have been magnified.

van Bronckhorst has been slow to identify the relative strengths and weaknesses of his players, while his selection decisions have failed to build a sustainable way of winning.

Recent weeks have proved hugely encouraging for the Dutchman’s future prospects but, with several big hitters set to depart at the end of the season, van Bronckhorst’s tenure could be defined by the decisions he makes in the summer transfer window.