Assertive St Johnstone expose Rangers' frailties in League Cup
At Ibrox on Tuesday evening, there had been an expectation that a team would assert itself and provide an indication of the quality of the work being carried out this season.
That's what happened in the Scottish League Cup tie between Rangers and St Johnstone, yet it was Saints that delivered the resounding performance.
Tommy Wright's side ended Rangers' 100% record, and allowed a number of observations to be made.
One match is not a reliable body of evidence to base unambiguous judgements on but interesting points could be raised from the way St Johnstone won 3-1 with such conviction and poise.
The Wright Stuff
Once again, the Saints boss showed there are few better in Scotland at setting out a game plan and organising players to execute it.
That was seen clearly during the 2013-14 season, when St Johnstone met Dundee United five times, winning them all without conceding a goal.
The last occasion was, of course, the Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park, and even the semi-final was a showcase for the manager since he had the awareness and wherewithal to change his side's tactics mid-game against Aberdeen and eventually win the tie 2-1.
Against Rangers, Wright exploited the space that full-backs James Tavernier and Lee Wallace leave behind them as they act, effectively, as auxiliary wingers. He also lined up his defence and midfield in such a way that Rangers were denied space to work in the final third and so restricted their openings.
Rangers play the same way all the time but St Johnstone had the capability to deal with that approach and, indeed, exploit it.
Versatility And Experience Are Valuable
Michael O'Halloran can play centrally or wide, leading the line or deeper.
St Johnstone deploy him in whichever role makes best use of his lightning pace and direct running depending on the shape and style of their opponents. He is developing into a consistently effective and dangerous player.
The Perth side have been less assured in defence in this campaign than previously, in part due to injuries but also due to the necessary break-up of the long-time centre-back pairing of Steven Anderson and Frazer Wright. The latter has left the club, while the former was on the bench at Ibrox as he continues his comeback from injury.
Different combinations have been tried at the back and, against Rangers, it was nous that stood out. Dave MacKay and Tom Scobbie always took up positions to block Rangers trying to play through or cross, while the full-backs and midfielders were diligent in closing down space.
Rangers could not string their attacking combinations together quickly or decisively enough to breach the visitors' defence.
The contrast was clear, since Rangers left themselves far more open because of their attacking style. The centre-backs, Rob Kiernan and Danny Wilson, are often left in isolation at the back but neither is commanding enough even when a long ball is delivered up the middle.
Rangers have lost several goals this season through the centre of their defence and the partnership, as well as the defensive contribution of the midfielders, needs to improve and solidify whilst not facing, most weeks, periods of extended pressure against Championship sides.
Mark Warburton has one shape and game plan - 4-3-3 and attack - which will continue to serve him well this season.
Stepping up a level will require better players if it is to remain effective but there will also come a time when alterations need to be made to overcome problems or deal with opponents who can exploit them.
The squad also currently lacks a strong, tall, mobile and commanding centre-forward and gritty experience in midfield.
One Game Can Only Raise Questions
No assertions can be made about the gap between the Championship and the Premiership based on events at Ibrox. St Johnstone were simply the better side on the night, while individually the Rangers players all have the attributes to play in the top flight.
Even so, it was clear that St Johnstone will continue to be a team that is awkward to beat, well organised and with a searing threat in the cutting edge of O'Halloran and a hardy endeavour, as well as spikiness, from the reliable Steven MacLean.
Rangers are making progress under Warburton and the cup defeat should not cause them to falter in the league.
The Ibrox side would benefit from a bit more experience and sharper defensive instincts but playing at a higher level would also demand and generate a greater sharpness that would make their short, passing approach more effective in and around the penalty area.