Premier League returnees Burnley are welcomed to Ibrox on Saturday for what will be our final pre-season game before our long-awaited return to the Scottish top-flight. Despite the last four games being competitive in nature, it has been a gentle introduction to the new league campaign, with Burnley our last and toughest assignment. Mark Warburton has been generous with his squad rotation, and while we have gradually seen a distilling of the first-XI, it's still tricky to pick our strongest XI. Saturday will perhaps give us a glimpse of the team to begin our Premiership campaign next week.
While our last few games have been in the League Cup, they have essentially been pre-season games. Lower league opponents, Stranraer, East Stirling and Annan, proved no real test. Motherwell were arguably our toughest opponent, and certainly the highest positioned side we faced, but the game came early and both sides were nowhere near full fitness. But, 4 wins from 4, 10 goals scored and zero conceded saw us top Group F and qualify for the next stage; job done, with a few highlights and nothing much to complain about.
Warburton has been vocal in his criticism of the pre-season schedule, but it has allowed him to be generous in his squad rotation and allowed most of the new signings the opportunity to get game-time. In many ways he had no choice but to field a patchwork side; 4 games in 9 days is a grueling schedule at the best of times, but even more problematic when one's squad is still feeling the effects of the summer break, where injury is a real concern. Ideally you would like 5-6 games, gradually building-up quality and intensity. While the first part of pre-season has been less than perfect, presumably the last game provides the step-up in quality and intensity required to elevate the side to peak physical condition?
In contrast, Burnley have perhaps had the type of pre-season Warburton would've preferred -- not too surprising as Warburton and Sean Dyche, great friend off the pitch, are from the same footballing school; with Dyche the more conservative and pragmatic of the two in terms of style. An easy win against Swiss amateurs FC Stade Nyonnais was followed up by a draw against Morecambe, and then wins against Bradford and Bolton. This gradual increase in quality and intensity will see them face Rangers next, before heading back to Turf Moor for their final pre-season game against Spanish side Real Sociedad.
It has been an indifferent period for Burnley in terms of new signings, with more going out than coming in thus far. A couple of loan returns and a couple of youth signings has been about the most of it. The only real first-team acquisition has been Charlton's Johann Berg Gudmundsson; the fast winger had a fantastic Euro Championship campaign with Iceland last month. The big movements have been departures: Michael Duff and Steven Reid, Premier League regulars from two season ago, have left; but the most high profile, and interesting for us, is the departure of Club Captain Joey Barton to Rangers.
Despite the less than ideal pre-season preparation for Warburton's men, it has perhaps been a blessing in disguise, allowing several new signings get game time. The light squad last season has seen 7 first-team players added and now looks to have real strength in depth; so much so that picking a first-XI looks a difficult prospect. In fact, Warburton has stated that he doesn’t want to know his best 11 because, for him, it won’t matter this season; he expects to use every player to the max during the forthcoming campaign.
Speaking to RangersTV, Warburton said: “It’s not about the best 11, it’s about the squad; 11 won’t win anything this season. We have to make sure we have a squad there where everyone understands their role and maintains a real level of fitness and desire.” (Full interview here)
Dyche typically has his teams line up in a 4-4-2, and going by their pre-season he doesn't look like deviating. Burnley blew away the league last season with a pragmatic, disciplined and direct style. Burnley play with two out-and-out strikers (or one will drop into the hole), who look to play on the shoulder. Vokes, Gray and Barnes all took turns playing up front, and all possess power and pace in abundance. Warburton knows Andre Gray well, having bought him for Brentford before selling for an undisclosed fee reported to be over £7m -- something Warburton is quick to reference when asked about player value.
Instead of playing with traditional wingers, Dyche prefers inverted wingers. George Boyd and former Falkirk player Scott Arfield tend to play in the half-space to provide guile, creating a makeshift 4-2-2-2 in attack. Both full-backs are conservative but provide the width, and always look to get crosses into the box for the big target-men. The back four is usually protected by two DMs, with Barton and Marney doing the job last year; Marney has continued this role with Jones coming in to replace Barton. This set-up doesn't look like changing, and looks to be the team Rangers will face at 3pm on Saturday.
Rangers also have a settled way of playing, but Burnley look to be the perfect foil for that style. Burnley will be well-disciplined in defense, and quick on the counter. Their direct, counter-attacking play caused untold damage to side after side last season, steering them to the Championship title. They can build up slowly from the back, but with pace out wide and up-front, they will be dangerous. On top of that, they have strong, powerful players throughout; most of whom are excellent in the air. Both are areas where we struggled last season.
Predicting a potential line-up is tricky. Quite frankly, I don't have a scooby! And the best XI discussion thread on Gersnet (You can view the thread here) was hardly conclusive. If I head to guess -- and it would be a guess -- I'd go:
My prediction even omits Dodoo, Windass, Holt, O'Halloran, Hill, Rossiter and Miller; all arguably deserve a place in the side. We have a good sized squad, with several players who can play a variety of positions, and all of comparable quality. It's a really nice position to be in, and it can only bring a smile to the face of many a Rangers fan.
The last time we played Burnley was during last season's pre-season, when they won 0-1. It was a stiff test last year and will be again. However, with our added quality, increased comfort in playing Warburton's philosophy, and perhaps also that we are slightly ahead of Burnley in our pre-season schedule, could lead to an evenly matched game. Burnley potentially have the tools to rip us apart, so it will be a big test of our side. But, we're confident in our style of play, and I'd expect to see us dominate possession and hopefully score a few goals. The real test will be the defensive aspect: can we add to the 4 clean sheets picked-up already?
At the very least, this match will give us a glimpse of the starting line-up for next weeks Premiership opener against Hamilton. That's what this game is all about: racking up the quality and intensity so we are at peak physical fitness; the final test before we kick-off our long-awaited top-flight return.
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