Rangers 20/21 Squad Preview

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Football is back! Rangers have played their first game – a 2-1 friendly victory against Hamilton – since Bayer Leverkusen came to Ibrox on the 12th March. 120 days had elapsed between those games, the longest period between a game in (most fans) living memory.

So, with the first pre-season game now under Rangers belts, I felt it was a good time to start looking ahead to the upcoming season and review the Rangers squad as it stands currently in mid-July.

This article will analyse the squad overall before looking in detail at strengths and weaknesses of the squad and identify signings I feel could improve the quality of the squad for the campaign ahead.

This is the current first team squad age profile, the X axis shows player age and Y axis the number of minutes played in season 19/20. The ‘red zone’ in the middle shows that between 25-30 are considered as most players peak years.

As you can see, some of Rangers key players are in their peak and will tend to start games if they are available. Out of approx 2600 minutes of Scottish domestic league action, six players (McGregor, Tavernier, Barisic, Goldson, Arfield and Aribo) were on the pitch for at least 75% of these.

Rangers also have a number of talented players not yet at their peak but still contributing more than 50% of available league minutes (Katic, Kamara, Kent and Morelos). Niko Katic will unfortunately miss the majority of this season with a cruciate ligament injury and Kent/Morelos numbers would have been significantly higher but late arrival/injury in Kent’s case and early season rotation with Defoe for Morelos have had an impact.

At the opposite end of the scale, we can see that Rangers have been heavily reliant on soon to be 32 year old Scott Arfield and 35 year old Steven Davis. Allan McGregor & Jermaine Defoe round out the older players but one is showing no sign of slowing down (McGregor) and Defoe is still fairly well suited to being a back up/rotation option despite being almost 38.

Of the Rangers players with approx 1000 minutes or less, only Ianis Hagi & Filip Helander could be classed as genuine first 11 candidates at this stage. 

Rangers have a decent spread of talent from ages 22 – 30, however one thing that jumps out is that the players at their peak are in the main more defensively minded. For me, the attacking cohesion of the team was a big issue from January onwards (Rangers conceded the same amount of league goals as Celtic overall, but scored 25 fewer) so I would be looking to improve middle to front and if possible look to target recruitment of seasoned quality in that peak age bracket of 25-28. 

As things stand, Rangers have signed 3 players in young ex-Leicester left back Calvin Bassey (20), goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin (32) on a free from Sunderland and making Ianis Hagi’s (21) loan move permanent for what appears to be a bargain 3m fee.

Of the players going out, only Sheyi Ojo played more than 30% of the total minutes available so it’s safe to say as things stand, the squad has not been significantly weakened by departures. The club will also have a sizeable chunk of wages freed up from the 10 players leaving – plus the 300k fee received from Matt Polster – offset against incoming transfers and wages.

I’ll analyse each position in turn and give them a recruitment rating – my opinion on whether this position requires major surgery this summer.

Goalkeepers

First Choice – Allan McGregor.

Options – Jon McLaughlin, Andy Firth.

Recruitment Rating – Low

Rangers moved early to tie up a replacement for departing back up goalkeeper Wes Foderingha, signing Jon McLaughlin following his Sunderland contract ending. Most will remember McLaughlin as a solid ‘keeper from his time at Hearts and his spell down south has confirmed that. 

McGregor played 4378 minutes in season 19/20 whilst McLaughlin clocked up 3355 minutes at Sunderland.

On the face of it, McLaughlin is an upgrade on Wes Foderingham and even outperforms McGregor on some metrics from last season. 

He comes off his line to challenge for the ball around 4 times more than McGregor does with a 90% success rate. He also attempts more – and is more accurate with – his long passing. This could be down to Sunderland’s style of play, but Rangers need to move the ball through the lines quicker and having another keeper who can help with that can only be beneficial. 

Both players have a similar save percentage (this is goals conceded divided by number of total shots faced) however McGregor looks to be the better shot stopper with 0.72 goals conceded per game from an expected goals against of 0.9. 

It’s clear that McGregor will rightfully be the first pick but I wouldn’t be surprised if we McLaughlin manage more appearances than we’re used to from a back up ‘keeper.

Full Backs

First Choice – James Tavernier, Borna Barisic

Options – Nathan Patterson, Ross McCrorie, Calvin Bassey,

Recruitment Rating – Low

There was no bigger drop off in quality for Rangers than when one or both of James Tavernier & Borna Barisic missed a game last season. Both were ever present during our best run of form in autumn.

Rangers failed to win 10 domestic games last season and of those games, Barisic & Tavernier only played together in 3 of them. Flanagan, Polster & Halliday filled in with very very limited results.

Borna Barisic & James Tavernier averaged 0.24 and 0.2 assists per 90 minutes last season, an assist every 4 or 5 games. According to Wyscout , Flanagan, Polster & Halliday didn’t register a single assist between them in their appearances.

Halliday did manage to offer some attacking threat, with the most touches in the opposition box but no tangible output was forthcoming.

We know what Barisic & Tavernier give us and we know what they don’t but it’s a very difficult sell to any prospective full backs signings this summer with the same skillset to come in and play second fiddle to two players who are crucial to our style of play.

If we are serious about offering a pathway and are wedded to this particular style of play then in Nathan Patterson, we have a player who should be capable of filling in when needed. He should have kept the jersey following his debut in January as the impact of Jon Flanagan taking over and attempting to fulfil the same role was pronounced just a week later at Tynecastle.

On the left, Calvin Bassey has been signed as a natural left back and has been given the number 3 jersey so it seems a significant amount of faith has been placed in him as understudy to Barisic.

Another possible option could be Ross McCrorie who spent last season on loan at Portsmouth playing as a right back. He averaged 0.24 assists, 0.8 touches in the opposition box per 90 and attempted double the number of dribbles (5.19) than Borna Barisic did (2.54) in each game.

Centre Backs

First Choice – Connor Goldson, Filip Helander

Options – George Edmundson, Calvin Bassey, Ross McCrorie

Injured – Niko Katic

Recruitment Rating – Medium

The untimely news that Niko Katic suffered a training ground cruciate ligament injury that will keep him out for most of the season is a blow to Rangers squad. He is a player that divides opinion: fans love his warrior attitude and he excels in physical games where Rangers are required to do a lot of defending. On the flip side, those games don’t come around all too often meaning when Rangers are dominating play his ability on the ball and concentration levels can make him an easy target for the opposition to target.

Rangers best run of form last season came in the autumn and coincided with the emergence of Helander & Goldson as Steven Gerrard’s preferred centre back pairing. Following the 1-1 draw with Hearts at Tyncastle in October, Goldson & Helander played 10 games in all competitions conceding just 4 goals. Helanders season finished with injury in the League Final defeat to Celtic meaning the partnership was short but promising.

Both are comfortable on the ball and are able to start attacks from deep. Looking at Helander’s involvement in Morelos’ goal in Porto where he plays a quick vertical pass between the lines to Ryan Kent in the build up shows exactly what he can bring in these situations. He hasn’t been without fault though as in some games he can appear cumbersome and wary of the unique physical battles this league can throw up.

Rangers could benefit from another option here as Edmundson, Bassey & McCrorie may not be suitable should one of the first choice players pick up an injury. With Helander’s record on that front so far, I would look to bring in a centre back who is comfortable with the ball at his feet, capable of stepping forward and playing quick passes through the lines to break down stubborn defences.

Using the above requirements, I trawled Wyscout to find a player who was comfortable on the ball, capable of playing through the lines whilst being dominant physically on the ground and in the air. Easy, right? No chance, 90% of centre halves are either one or the other, the holy grail costs £75m + as we’ve seen in England.

The basic parameters I’ll use throughout the article will be:

  • Market value of £4m (N.B. Wyscout value is scatty to say the least)
  • Competitions played – Top 5 Leagues, English Championship, Champions League or Europa League
  • Minutes Played – 1000+

27 year old left sided centre back Hörður Björgvin Magnússon of CSKA looks very good – achieving high numbers of passes to the final third whilst winning the majority of his defensive duels.

Magnusson moved to Moscow from Bristol City in 2018 and would be my pick purely for how comfortable he is in a 4 or 3 man defence and being left footed. It’s likely that he may be out of our price range particularly if funds are tight as mentioned above.

A more realistic option could be Nicolas Burgy of Young Boys Bern. Burgy played against Rangers at Ibrox in December and this is his breakthrough season following a couple of loan spells. At 6″1 and a 25th birthday approaching in August, he certainly fits the mould.

Rangers have also been again linked with Simon Deli, who moved to Club Brugge last summer and shows up well on both passing and defensive metrics.

As you can see above, all three players are significantly better on the ball than their Rangers counterparts and would represent an upgrade in that department.

No-one will be surprised to see Niko Katic topping the defensive duels won with a massive 73% but Deli & Burgy are not far behind with higher success rates than Goldson & Helander.

Physicality is still a hugely important requirement in Scotland and should not be discounted. No-one will be surprised to see Niko Katic topping the defensive duels won but Deli & Burgy are not far behind with higher success rates than Goldson & Helander.

Central Midfield

First Choice – Ryan Jack, Steven Davis

Options – Scott Arfield, Glen Kamara, Joe Aribo, Greg Docherty, Ross McCrorie

Recruitment Rating – High

Not many people would have questioned major reconstruction of the midfield on New Years Day 2020, however January-March showed that this is an area Rangers need to tweak

There are a lot of options, and a number of good players but there are two glaring weaknesses.

There is no proven defensive destroyer, crucial when the going gets tough at places like Tynecastle & Pittodrie. Steven Davis, Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara work very well together in certain games, but all three can be quite similar. They are neat and tidy passers more focused on recycling possession and not naturally suited to a creative midfield role. All three are simply not necessary for the majority of teams Rangers face domestically.

That being said, the defensive side was not a major concern for Rangres last season. The lack of creativity (both goals and assists) from midfield can sometimes be explained away as a byproduct of a tactical philosophy – attacking full backs and three central attackers with limited tracking back requirements places an extra physical onus on the midfield three – but this doesn’t have to be an either or situation. With the quality Rangers face week in week out, there should be flexibility and a varied skillset.

Should Rangers persist with a 3 man midfield then it may be of benefit to utilise the classic combination of a destroyer, a creative passer and a box to box midfielder ala Essien, Makelele, Lampard for Chelsea in 2005.

Ross McCrorie has performed the destroyer role under Steven Gerrard before and will be a good squad option this season if he doesn’t go out on loan this season, but some proven quality would be preferred at this stage.

Ideally, Rangers need a player who can play in a 2 or 3 man midfield would be preferable to allow flexibility between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 as and when required.

Strength, speed and passing are all crucial for this role as is anticipation and positioning to break up attacks.

6″5 inch 24 year old Nimes defensive midfielder Sidy Sarr certainly fits the physical and age profiles but looks to be limited on the ball which isn’t something a Rangers midfielder can afford to be.

Glen Rea spent the first half of season 19/20 on loan in the National League at Woking with limited success, but has enjoyed a run in the Luton Town starting eleven in 20202 as they attempt to avoid relegation back to League One at the first time of asking. Again he shows up well defensively but isn’t of the standard required in possession.

Stefan Panić is a 27 year old Serbian international midfielder currently playing for Latvian Champions, Riga FC. Physically commanding at 6″5, Panic completes over 90% of his passes and also contributes offensively with 4 goals and 3 assists.

Panić is strong in the tackle averaging over 8 defensive duels and reads the game well making 6 plus interceptions per 90 minutes. There are a lot of arguably more important factors to be taken into account such as tactical capability, how suited they are to our environment and how well they integrate with the team but Panic could be a very interesting option.

Transfrmarkt has his contract expiring on 31st December 2020, so if accurate he could be picked up for a nominal fee this summer.

Niklas Dorsch would have been a very interesting option here – and the pick of the bunch – however it appears he is on the verge of signing for Gent for €3.5m.

Moving further forward, a creative passer capable of playing in a central midfield role should be another high priority. Scott Arfield performed well in patches last season as the link man between midfield and attack however he can be better off the ball than on and has a history of niggling injuries. Greg Docherty does not appear to be in the managers plan regardless of performances out on loan, so Rangers could do with another option to add some attacking threat.

Attacking Midfield

First Choice – Ryan Kent, Ianis Hagi, Joe Aribo

Options – Jordan Jones, Greg Stewart, Jamie Murphy, Brandon Barker

Recruitment Rating – High

Again, there are a number of options here and three stand out in Ryan Kent, Ianis Hagis and Joe Aribo. All three players have played in the same team during 2020 with limited success, not necessarily the fault of the three players. Rangers deployment of two number 10’s is a source of much debate amongst fans and it remains to be seen whether the management team will persist with it into the new season.

Should Rangers switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Ryan Kent on the left and Aribo & Hagi fighting it out for their preferred central Number 10 slot, then that leaves a vacancy on the right. This was Rangers problem position last season with a number of playing playing this role in different ways with varying degrees of success.

In an ideal world, the three players behind the striker should have different but complimentary skillsets. Ryan Kent is the dribbler, tasked with creating space and bringing others play by committing defenders. The central 10 is the passer, capable of unlocking tight defences and bringing that touch of magic to the attack. As mentioned at the outset, Rangers struggled for goals when Morelos & Defoe were unavailable or out of form, therefore it would stand to reason that a player on the right capable of chipping in with 15+ goals per season would help significantly.

The below comparison with James Forrest & Ryan Christie of Celtic show the difference in attacking output with only Ianis Hagi (stats show both Genk & Rangers appearances last season) coming close to matching their efforts.

Jamie Murphy, Jordan Jones and Brandon Barker tend to favour playing off the left meaning Rangers have no natural fit on the right currently with only Greg Stewart having played that role regularly for a previous club. It remains to be seen whether any of this four will be with the club for much longer or indeed play a regular part in the team this season for a variety of reasons such as injury, form, attitude, quality therefore a higher calibre of player would be required.

Ianis Hagi popped up a lot during my analysis which was pleasing. He ranked highest for Assists per 90, Shots per 90 and Key passes per 90 of players I located within the terms mentioned earlier. Based on his numbers and general performances we can assume he will be a big player for Rangers this season hopefully in his preferred role.

Marcus Maddison is available on a free after his Peterborough contract expired. He is a 26 year old left footer who contributed 17 goals and assists from just 33 games in a Peterborough team that just missed out on the League One play offs. A goal or assist every 0.6 games (or 140 minutes)

This figure is slightly higher than his combined xG & xA is 0.51 which suggests he is finishing the chances he should finish and is contributing consistently in the build up.

By comparison, Joe Aribo scored 15 goals last season from 49 games – 0.3 goals & assists per game. Again, this is in line with his xG & xA of 0.35 – the same as Scott Arfield.

Obviously goals and assists don’t tell the full story, so it’s worth digging a little deeper and looking at how players contribute to the build up overall. A good box to box midfielder should have the energy to get beyond the forwards, should be strong in the tackle and be capable on the ball.

Wyscout defines progressive passes as forward passes that are 30m long when the pass starts in the team’s own half or at least 10m in length in the opponent’s half. A players starting position is important there, Scott Arfield starts deeper than the others, therefore it stands to reason he would play more longer passes. Hagi had to come deep more often than he would like also, something we should look to eradicate this season.

Maddison shows up well, making the most progressive runs and highest number of passes into the penalty area. Aribo & Arfield both make more touches in the box but the goals & assists mentioned earlier suggest these are lacking in quality.

Rangers were linked with him last year – and he is apparently a fan – so it would be interesting to see if this was followed up now he is out of contract.

Andreas Skov Olsen was linked with Rangers in summer 2019 before he moved to Bologna for a reported £6m. This link has again surfaced this season after a decent if unspectacular debut season in Serie A for the 20 year old.

Skov Olsen plays on the right but likes to cut in on his right foot to good effect scoring 7 goals from just 1100 minutes of football. He shoots a lot and attempts a huge 9 dribbles per 90 minutes, so it’s clear to see what his intention is.

His goal return outperforms his expected goals which suggests that this may not be something he can achieve consistently. He is young and raw – something Rangers aren’t short of in the attacking areas – so more proven quality with a lower potential ceiling may be a better bet given the likely fee involved here.

Gabriel Iancu is a 28 year old Romanian who plays for Hagi senior’s club Vitorul Constanta after rejoining for a third spell last summer. Iancu scores goals which is key, his xG suggests this is consistent and he attempts a high number of shots. Not as much of a dribbler and in truth probably more of a centre forward who can play on the right but he is another left footer who likes cutting in on his stronger side.

Iancu has European experience with Vitorul & Steaua and is also a four time Romanian league champions.

The last player I analysed was 25 year old Norwegian Niklas Sandberg. A bit more of a rounded skillset than the others, he attempts 0.69 key passes per 90 whilst still scoring a goal every 3 games (10 from 29 appearances).

Iancu seems to be the most proven of the three as you would expect at 28 years of age, but Scandinavians are very suited to the Scottish league. If money was no object I would be looking at Skov Olsen, however Sandberg would possibly be the cheapest of the three and may represent better value at this stage.

Centre Forward

First Choice – Alfredo Morelos

Options – Jermaine Defoe, Greg Stewart

Recruitment Rating – Medium (High if Morelos leaves)

I won’t spend too much time on this one as everyone knows if Alfredo Morelos leaves a replacement would be the number one priority for the club. Similarly, if Gerrard decides to go with two up front, then another option would be required.

I have already written an article in January identifying potential replacements which can be read here (tl:dr – sign Shon Weissmann before anyone else does).

Should a fit and firing Morelos stay at the club backed up by Jermaine Defoe, then the other areas of the team identified would be more pressing for recruitment.

Adam Thornton (@adamski152)

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