After a third defeat in seven Scottish Premiership games this season, Rangers swiftly dismissed manager Michael Beale. To outsiders, sacking a manager this early into a season while his team are in third place and only seven points off the top would seem a tad harsh. But this is the Scottish top-flight, where only two sides dominate. You either win, or you lose. Beale and Rangers were losing.
Either Rangers (18) or Celtic (20) have won the Scottish top-flight league title in each of the previous 38 seasons. Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen were the last team other than the Old Firm duo to win the competition, and that was in 1985.
In 2020-21, Rangers ended a nine-season period of dominance in Scottish league football by Celtic. It was their first top-flight title since 2010-11 and followed a dark period for the club, in which it was made insolvent and reformed, only to have to rise up the Scottish league pyramid yet again. The 2012-13 season saw them placed in the Third Division, before three promotions in four seasons enabled them to take their place in the Premiership once again in 2016-17. It took another four seasons before the exceptional, undefeated title success in 2020-21, where they won 102 of a possible 114 points under Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard lasted three and a half months into the following campaign before being tempted to the Premier League by Aston Villa. Whereas Celtic seemingly made the right choice in bringing Ange Postecoglou in as coach following their failure to win the title in 2021, Rangers picked Giovanni van Bronckhorst to replace Gerrard. Although the Dutchman guided the club to the UEFA Europa League final, where they were beaten on penalties by Eintracht Frankfurt, he only lasted three days beyond his one-year anniversary after a lacklustre start to the following season and a significant points deficit to Celtic, which followed a debut campaign in which he let a six-point lead slip. And we’re now back at that point with the sacking of Beale, less than a year later.
Beale came back to the club as head coach after being on the first-team coaching staff under Gerrard in his successful period in Glasgow. He looked like a strong candidate following an excellent start to life as Queens Park Rangers manager in the English Championship, but his departure from the London club left a sour taste.
After reportedly turning down the chance to move to Wolves less than three months into his role as QPR boss – and them being top of the league at the time – he came out to state to QPR fans that “Integrity is a real big thing for me and loyalty. You don’t give it to receive it back, but if those are the things you live by then at times when you are put in a position you have to be strong by them.” A month later, with QPR’s results taking a slight downturn, Beale jumped ship to Rangers.
On paper, Beale did a decent job at Rangers based on his overall results. His 72.1%-win ratio is the second highest of any Rangers manager ever, only surpassed by Ally McCoist between 2011 and 2014, and even then, this includes seasons where Rangers dominated the lower leagues. But that pales into insignificance when you can’t win the games that matter.
From Beale’s first Scottish Premiership game in charge of Rangers on 15 December last year to the final matchday of his tenure, they only won six points fewer than Celtic across 30 matches. The main problem here is that ‘only’ doesn’t carry in this argument. As a manager of an Old Firm side, you can’t win fewer points than your rival. The expectation is that you’ll be the best and outperform the other.
Rangers’ fans would have come into 2023-24 with confidence. After Beale came in last season, they won more points than Celtic over 23 games (59 vs. 57), with their 3-0 win over Celtic on 13 May being their biggest in 11 meetings. Celtic could afford to drop these points, though, as they’d already wrapped up the 2022-23 title with a victory over Hearts a week earlier.
That was to be Beale’s only win over Celtic in six attempts and had essentially been a dead rubber. When it mattered, his Rangers side couldn’t get the better of their rivals. The Viaplay Cup final loss in February and April’s Scottish Cup semi-final exit meant that Rangers ended 2022-23 without any silverware. This record got worse when they lost 1-0 at home to Celtic in the league on 3 September despite playing their rivals at a seemingly great time – they’d just been defeated by Kilmarnock in the League Cup and drawn 0-0 at home to St Johnstone across the two previous weekends, with Brendan Rodgers already feeling some pressure.
Rangers have gone from being the dominant side in Scotland – they won seven more points (277) than Celtic (270) from one game fewer across the whole of Steven Gerrard’s tenure – to one that has once again been overtaken by their Glasgow neighbours. Since Gerrard’s departure, and over Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Beale’s reigns at the club, Rangers have won 163 points from 70 games – that’s 22 fewer than Celtic across the same period.
The disappointment didn’t only come domestically, either. They snuck past Servette by the odd goal over two legs before coming up against Eredivisie side PSV in the play-off round to get into the UEFA Champions League group stages. After a dramatic 2-2 draw at Ibrox in the first leg, they capitulated in the Netherlands a week later, losing 5-1 – the same opposition they beat 1-0 in Eindhoven after drawing 2-2 in the exact same round last year, to make the group stage.
While that 2022-23 group stage qualification undoubtedly made a positive difference to their bank balance, the results on the pitch suggested they needn’t have bothered. Their six games all ended in defeat, with a goal difference of -20 – the second worst UCL group stage performance of all time, only beaten by BATE Borisov in 2014-15 (lost six with a GD of -22). This was one of the main reasons that van Bronckhorst got the sack and was replaced by Beale, but at least he got them into the Champions League – the first manager to do so since Walter Smith in 2010-11.
Saturday’s defeat at home to Aberdeen was already Rangers’ third of the league season – one fewer than in the whole of last season (four in 38 games) and the same as in van Bronckhorst’s first season in charge, in 2021-22 (three in 38).
Again, from an outsider looking in, it would seem like the crime Beale has been punished with dismissal for is that Rangers just aren’t as good as Celtic so far this season. That’s a crime in a two-horse race, for sure, but so soon into a season? After all, Postecoglou won two points fewer across the opening seven games of his first season at Celtic in 2021-22, and still won the league title by four points. But there are levels, and Postecoglou is reputationally above that of Beale in terms of tactical acumen and definitely above him in experience.
Granted, the transfer ins and outs this summer haven’t helped Beale’s cause. Last season, from his first game as manager on 15 December onwards, two of Rangers’ three top scorers in league football were Fashion Sakala (11 goals) and Alfredo Morelos (eight) – Sakala also assisted a team-high six goals. They both exited this summer, alongside another leading creative player in Beale’s first season, Ryan Kent (third-most open play chances created, with 32). Morelos and Kent, in particular, had seen better days at Rangers and it could be argued that they weren’t among the fan favourites, so their departures felt well-timed. But that’s only the case if they are adequately replaced.
That’s not to say Beale wasn’t backed by the board. He was given money to invest and rebuild with players supposedly of his choosing. Four forwards arrived in the summer, with the hope of the quartet providing the goals to usurp rivals Celtic to the title. Abdallah Sima arrived on loan from Brighton, alongside the permanent transfers of Danilo from Feyenoord, Cyriel Dessers from Cremonese and Sam Lammers from Atalanta. While Sima (five non-penalty goals in 697 minutes) and Danilo (three non-penalty goals in 379 minutes) have arguably done well, it’s not been as easy for Dessers (two non-penalty goals in 819 minutes) and Lammers (one non-penalty goal in 797 minutes) from a combined expected goals (xG) total of 7.3.
Beale couldn’t even use the excuse that he was building a young side ready to contest Celtic again in the near future. Their average starting XI age this season is the third oldest at 27 years and 365 days – a year and a half older than Celtic’s (26 years, 148 days).
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Beale and Rangers have been unfortunate in league action this season, though.
Our expected points model simulates the number of goals scored by each side in each match based on the xG value of every shot taken. It then uses the simulated number of goals to determine the match outcome (win/draw/loss). Each match is simulated 10,000 times. The expected points for each team in each match can then be calculated based on the proportion of simulations they win/draw/lose.
This is of course not an exact science, as expected goals data doesn’t include a lot of factors, such as game state and dangerous periods of possession that don’t lead to shots. Nevertheless, it does support some claims of misfortune on the pitch for Rangers.
If you played all seven of Rangers games so far this season again, with both teams having exactly the same chances, they would have between 15-16 points from those games – the same as Celtic. In reality, Celtic have outperformed their expected points total by 3.3, Rangers have underperformed by 3.5. Bad luck or poor quality at both ends? We’ll let you decide.
Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat to Aberdeen followed the same path. Rangers created good scoring opportunities overall, but conceded three goals through poor defending, lack of concentration or misfortune – not things that show up well in data analysis. The three goals conceded versus Aberdeen indicated nervousness, inability to defend under pressure and poor marking – three aspects that a manager should be able to control.
As it stands, it could be argued that Beale is a head coach that has built a reputation as a top manager without walking the walk. His appointment at Rangers came after only 22 matches in charge of second-tier side QPR, so he arguably lacked anywhere near the experience needed to take on the task of overthrowing Celtic at the top.
That’s not to say he won’t eventually become a great club coach. Brendan Rodgers arrived at Watford in the Championship for his first job, but quickly jumped ship after half a season in Hertfordshire to Reading in a very similar scenario to Beale’s from QPR. He failed miserably at Reading, being sacked after 23 games in charge, before rebuilding his career and becoming one of the best British club managers of the modern era.
The bigger question mark surrounds Rangers and where they go from here. Clawing back a seven-point deficit to Celtic doesn’t feel completely unachievable, considering there are still 29 league games to go in the season. Do Rangers write off this season and bide their time with picking the right coach to lead them over the next half-decade, leaving interim boss Steven Davis in charge to pick up the pieces? It could be a wiser choice than plucking a coach with a paper-thin managerial record and reputation built on word-of-mouth.