On the day that Jurgen Klopp announced his intention to leave Borussia Dortmund at the close of the season, my mind drifted to the team he has developed: Exciting, Dynamic, Creative, Pacey, Powerful, Relentless. At their best Dortmund were one of the best sides in the world, winning 2 Bundesliga titles, a German Cup, 2 German Super Cups and reaching the Champions League final, all over a period of two years. It was all the more impressive considering they had to contend with one of football's behemoths: Bayern Munich. The man who rightly got the credit was Klopp. Considered one of the most talented young coaches in Europe, the charismatic German can't fail to put a smile on ones face, whether by his press conference outbursts, touchline enthusiasm, or by simply sitting back an admiring his side glide through opposition teams in a captivating dance.
The success of Dortmund was predicated on a quite remarkable midfield. Their three-man midfield consisting -- generally speaking -- of Sven Bender, Ilkay Gundogan, and Mario Goetze had everything: the defensive shrewdness in Bender, the metronome and energy in Gundogan, and the creative genius in Goetze. It occurred to me that other great sides of recent times have had a similar make-up in midfield. Barcelona, who could never be omitted from any list of great sides and in fact are possibly going to head up any list, also had a three-man midfield consisting of a defensive destroyer in Busquets, a metronome in Xavi and the creative genius in Iniesta; and then the great AC Milan side of the early 00's also had this mix: The metronome in Pirlo, the archetypal destroyer in Gattuso, and the creative genius in Kaka. All three sides had this mix, not necessarily in the same positions: the metronome could play deep, like Pirlo, or further up, like Xavi; the destroyer could play deep, like Busquets, or again, further up like Gattuso. And then my mind drifted, somewhat unnaturally, to Rangers -- as tenuous a link as you'll ever see.
I had assumed that over the years Rangers probably had individuals that played these roles, not necessarily at the same time, and albeit not at the level of Barcelona, Milan or Dortmund. On reflection I actually don't recall that many. It seems to me that we are preoccupied with big, strong, powerful Centre-Halfs; quick, tricky Wingers; or Goalscorers -- probably in reverse order. Perhaps it's just my age, but I am struggling to recall any individuals that played these specific roles. Even the defensive destroyer which is ubiquitous in Scottish football, and British football in general, is missing from my memory. I never saw Gattuso play, but I recall him playing with a bit more attacking threat rather than as a destroyer with us. Souness comes to mind as a destroyer, and then Kevin Thompson in more recent times. Barry Ferguson was always very good at that metronome role. And we've certainly had our fair share of creative midfielders, but they have always been wide players. Anyway, it does not matter if I can't remember any players from the past that played these roles, because I think I can state with certainty (almost?) that we have not had that mix of roles in the same starting eleven.
The problem at Rangers is that we have not played a three-man midfield for any length of time. Managers are too entrenched in the rigid 4-4-2 system. The only deviation from this is the 4-4-1-1, which does allow for a number 10 but we have often played a striker there which negates the reason creating that role in the first place: added creativity; dropping a forward into a creative position does not necessarily imply that they will create. The 4-4-2 (or the inventive 4-4-1-1!) means we can have that destroyer and metronome role, but we've often failed to include a proper number 10.
The irony is we have actually produced some splendid number 10's over recent seasons. Off the top of my head I can remember Charlie Adam, John Fleck, Andrew Shinnie and even Lewis Macleod. Every one apart from Macleod struggled at Rangers. Fleck was a great talent and had to leave to get first-team football. He's now a key player in an otherwise disappointing Coventry side. Shinnie was another that struggled to get games despite his obvious talent. Again, it was only when he left that he got games and started to show what he could really do, with a string of impressive performances at Inverness CT eventually getting him a move to a decent Birmingham City side. Perhaps the most impressive player was Adam. A player that played a several times for Rangers, showing glimpses of what he could do, but was never quite given the role he needed to flourish -- It was Le Guen that gave him a decent run in a number 10 role which lasted only as long as he was in the job, then Walter Smith preferred to play him out wide -- but a move to Blackpool followed where he pulled the strings in an impressive attacking side that reached the Premier League; and a £9M move to Liverpool followed. It begs the question: why can't these players produce for Rangers? They are demonstrably talented, but it's only once they leave Rangers that they show it.
I think the answer is illustrated in Lewis Macleod's career. An exceptional young talent, he ran the team for the first half of this Championship season. But the fans were acutely aware that he was not being played in his best position. His ability to run with the ball, effortlessly glide past players and, crucially, thread balls through for others made him a diamond among a pile of coal. McCoist had him languishing out wide, to the frustration of fans, where he couldn't get hold of the ball. It's a testament to the lad that when he did get the ball he was the main creative force. What could he have done if he was played centrally? The historical problem at Rangers is that we have tended to play creative players out wide, where they are often isolated.
The Scottish game is based on power, pace and workrate -- and we're not even that strong or quick on the European stage, never mind the world stage; just compare a Scottish side with Atletico Madrid! The make-up of Scottish games have no place of prominence for metronomes or creative number 10's, but there is plenty of destroyers; in fact I would suggest that most Scottish sides have their destroyer, and perhaps even that entire central midfield's are made up entirely of them --perhaps I go too far, but you get the point. The Scottish game is all about long balls, fast wing play and counter-attacks. Its all very predictable. There is no room for possession football or controlled passing. The game has degraded or retreated into tried and tested tactics. And that is what has happened to Rangers. We feel the need to combat these workman-like styles by matching them, relying on our "better" players to get us through, but now that we don't have those better players we are struggling to match the workrate of the so-called lesser sides.
It would be easy to presume that a golden triumvirate in central midfield would be out of our reach in current circumstances, but you'd be wrong. It is my contention that we actually have three players each possessing the necessary skills to play these roles. And, moreover, we actually have a good mix of style in which to pick and choose.
Andy Murdoch has been a rare light in a season beset by failure. He is a small but well-proportioned and a deceptively strong young player whose ball-control, passing ability and movement is far superior to any other player in the team. He doesn't do much, and he certainly won't always be remembered at the end of a game, but what he brings to the team is invaluable: keeping the ball moving with short passes, and moving to protect the back four and to receive the back ball again. He reminds me of Joe Allen, an unprepossessing passer of the ball but instrumental in a good technical Swansea side. In short, I think Murdoch is the perfect player to be the metronome, and in many ways he already is.
The second of a midfield triumvirate would need to be the legs, the box-to-box player that presses, covers and joins in with the attack. I may take some slack for this but, for me, Nicky Law has those attributes. He has certainly not set the team alight this year, but when he is good, he is very good. He is quick and has good stamina. His performance against Hearts was phenomenal. With the team tiring against the relentless possession and pressing of a Hearts side smelling blood, Law broke a few times at pace beating players and carrying the ball into the final third. I was astonished at his stamina; while the others were dead on their feet, he was still running well into the final minutes of the game. There are question marks over his ability to "get-stuck-in", but I think he has the raw attributes to play that role -- a Gundogan role if you will.
The creative number 10 role is key. I've mentioned that we have produced several over the years without actually playing them in the number 10 role. At the minute we don't have many, but if I can overlook Vuckic, because I'm looking more long-term and I don't think he has the deftness of touch to play that role, I think the only one who can play that role is Dean Shiels.
Shiels is another example of a talented player that has not been given the role to suit him. Again, McCoist played him out wide where he couldn't get the ball and was often bullied when he didn't have options off it; in short, he was isolated and marginalised. In fact, his father stated last year that Rangers have ruined his career and I'm inclined to agree; at the very least Rangers have failed to take advantage of his qualities. McCall has moved him inside to play a proper number 10 role and he's been reinvigorated. Shiels was always a decent player with a deftness of touch, able to glide past players easily and has a knack for scoring sublime goals. Moreover, his performances have been good when he's played in a three-man midfield, when he has the support behind and freedom to create in front.
I am not suggesting for a minute that replicating a midfield triumvirate would allow us to achieve the success of Dortmund, Milan or Barcelona, but I am suggesting that this three-man midfield has obvious benefits. It allows for simultaneously greater control of the ball and a greater attacking threat. It also allows the individuals a freedom to carry out roles that suit their game. We have let players down over the years by sticking religiously to the 4-4-2, and we then blame the players when it doesn't work; we've seen recently that workrate is not enough to win. Winston Churchill once said: "Give us the tools, and we'll finish the job." Well, I think we have the tools. It's up to McCall to be brave enough to give the players the freedom to finish the job.
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