“When you watch the game and see a scoreline of 5-5, I think that kind of suggests what’s wrong.”
That was a quote from Rangers’ new assistant manager Gary McAllister reacting to Rangers’ final game of the season vs Hibernian. An exaggerated microcosm of what the 17/18 Rangers team were good and bad at: lots of action at both ends.
The summer recruitment in defensive areas will prove to be absolutely pivotal in how Steven Gerrard’s first season as a manager goes and, in the week leading up to pre-season, £5 million was spent on two centre-backs.
But why was the relatively large outlay needed on one position?
At centre back, Rangers were a mess last season. The previous summer, Pedro Caixinha brought in two of ‘his’ guys: Bruno Alves and Fabio Cardoso.
Rangers fans were left underwhelmed and uninspired by the experienced Euro winning Bruno Alves. His performances were average. Not horrible, not great, just average.
A bigger point to be made, however, is how Rangers were affected by him being in the starting eleven. Whilst he dominates in the air and is a great presence when your back is against the wall, Rangers have to play a good few yards deeper because his hips don’t turn as quick as they used to: not great when your midfield toiled most of the season. Alves will be going to the World Cup with Portugal and its unsure if he has a future under Gerrard.
Partnering Alves was a supposed prodigy: 24-year-old Fabio Cardoso was designed to be the young understudy to the experienced Alves.
For years, Rangers have struggled to recruit those young players that you treble your money on – the ‘buy low, sell high’ types – and Cardoso was pinpointed as one. Arriving from Liga Nos for over £1 million, he was another disappointment. Physically he struggled to deal with strikers which led to him being exploited by most teams in the SPFL Premiership. After one season and still only 24, the jury remains out but he does look desperate to get back into the side.
The best pairing
Arguably Rangers best combination in the centre back positions came when Graeme Murty took over and went with the locals.
Former Liverpool player Danny Wilson was given a starting opportunity and Rangers looked more confident, if still quite ineffective. Wilson ended up in a contract dispute and left for the MLS in January. While he was rather inconsistent, he at least impressed against the stronger sides in the league.
Partnering him tended to be David Bates. Bates was a right back converted to centre back and arguably looked the best of the poor bunch. Tall, strong, he dealt with issues simply and effectively. Nothing flashy, he defended really well one-on-one and was the one centre back who got the water out of the boat faster than it got in.
Bates was injured at the peak of Rangers’ season in April and it fell apart afterwards. While he is probably not the quality required for a successful Rangers team going forward, he gave a good account of himself and earned a move to German giants Hamburg on a Bosman deal.
There were two more players who featured at centre back for a decent amount of time, bringing the total of centre backs used in a single season to six.
Russell Martin arrived on loan from Norwich in January and was an unmitigated disaster. He never gained any sort of momentum and, even though Rangers were scoring more than they let in, the goals that were conceded tended to be because Martin had handed them to the opposition on a silver platter. Too many consequential errors had Rangers fighting an uphill battle whenever Martin was in the lineup.
Finally, Ross McCrorie had a short stint at centre back. 20-year-old McCrorie tended to be a regular under Graeme Murty and looked an exciting prospect playing in a defensive midfield role but never looked comfortable at centre back.
A relatively quick player and better than the others at building from the back but like Cardoso struggled with the physicality of strikers. Celtic’s Moussa Dembele thoroughly put him in his place at Hampden leading to the Rangers youngster getting sent off in the second half.
However, he looks a terrific prospect although there’s little evidence to say that this will be at centre back in a four-man defence. It’ll be interesting to see what Steven Gerrard has in store for McCrorie, considering he may suit a midfield role or a three-man central defence better.
The new recruits: Nikola Katic
On Tuesday, Rangers announced the signing of 21-year-old Croatian international Nikola Katic from the Croatian side Slaven Belupo for a fee rumoured to be around £2 million.
At 6 foot 4, you could argue he could get more results from his size alone. He is good in the air without being a dominating force. He has a good enough leap but needs to get the better of the striker more often and, with how physical Scottish football is, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts.
Katic’s main strength is winning the ball back with his feet. He’s at his best when tight on opponents and can stretch to win the ball back. His recovery speed also allows him to make important blocks which will allow Rangers to play with a higher line than last season.
Katic is comfortable and confident on the ball without it being a particular strength and, coming to Rangers where they control most of the possession, that’s where he’ll have to improve most. Undoubtedly, there is still some improvement needed with Katic but there’s certainly the requisite groundworks to be built upon. Turning a six-out-of-ten into an eight- or a nine-out-of-ten will bring Rangers profit in Katic.
The new recruits: Connor Goldson
The fortunes of this Rangers defence probably sit more than anyone on the shoulders of Connor Goldson. For a fee of around £3 million, Goldson became Gerrard’s most expensive signing so far after a prolonged negotiation period with Brighton.
Goldson was a key part of Brighton’s Championship team in 15/16 but has seen his first-team opportunities since stifled by the emerging partnership of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy but also serious heart surgery at the age of 24.
Assuming he’s 100% healthy, Goldson provides a major upgrade on what came before him at Rangers. He’s quick, agile, composed and very positionally aware: the ‘in the right place at the right time’ defender. Winning his fair share of aerial duels in the Championship, Golson should be well-prepared for the SPFL Premiership but he could be more dominant.
Like Katic, Goldson will allow Rangers to play a lot higher up the pitch due to his quickness and ability on the ball. Where Katic has to improve his passing, Goldson just needs to adapt his. At Brighton, he played more direct passes behind the defence rather than building the game from the back: there can be little doubt he will adapt to a different system at Rangers. In sum: Goldson looks to be a coup and could become a first-name-on-the-team-sheet player for Rangers.
Rangers were the highest scorers in the Scottish Premiership last season scoring three more goals than Brendan Rodgers’ treble-winning Celtic team. However, only the bottom five clubs conceded more goals than Rangers.
With the signings of Katic and Goldson, Rangers looked to have addressed some major issues that had Gary McAllister and the rest of the Rangers support watching the final game of the season through their fingers.
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