The role of a full back has evolved probably more than any other role in the modern game. The full backs in top sides are now required to do far more than just defend.
This can cause division between fans of different eras or supporters with different opinions. Some will say that a full back should be solely judged on his defensive actions and stopping the opposing attacker. Others will argue that given the attacking responsibility placed on a full back, the occasional defensive mistake can be excused.
Maybe it is because I am so close to the club and it is generally opinons of fellow Rangers supporters that I see and interact with on social media, including in the stands on a match day, but James Tavernier remains a very divisive player.
I won’t even attempt to claim I’m unbiased, I have loved what Tav has delivered for us whilst recognising his defensive faults which were vast at one stage. However last season he made a big improvement and actually scored well on the defensive aspect of his game, statistically speaking, which surprised many supporters. Again this season he has made further strides and yet despite this he is at times labelled a weak link defensively.
If we take a look at the team as a whole, which Tavernier has been an almost ever present, in the Scottish Premiership this season we average 0.73 goals conceded per game which compares favourably to 1.31 goals per game lost in our 17/18 campaign. This has helped turn our goal difference from +26 to +51 with 4 games remaining to improve.
In this article we will cover some statistics which show how valuable he is and the myth that he can’t defend is exactly that, a myth.
There is only one single talent in the full back role in Scotland that is on the same level as Tavernier and that is of course Kieran Tierney. Arguably overhyped however, he is still a solid talent too, it’s commonly claimed that he is a far superior defender in comparison but some statistics taken from Wyscout put some doubt to that.
All statistics I will use are from the league this season.
Tavernier has won 42.8% of his defensive duels compared to Tierney with 40.7%. He also comes out on top on aerial duels winning 57.3% of them compared to 30.8%. Tierney does have a stronger pass completion of 81.9% vs 75.1% however our captain has a better cross accuracy with 42.9% comparing to 38.5%.
There are other full backs within the league with similar defensive stats, such as Killie’s Stephen O’Donnell, but they don’t compare offensively. If we look at assists per 90 minutes as the fairest way to look at things on the attacking front, given Tierney’s injury problems this season along with Tavernier taking our penalties, then he compares well with 0.42 assists per 90 minutes vs 0.26 for Tierney.
If you were to include goals and assists together then our captain delivers 0.75 direct goal contributions per 90.
Given Tav hasn’t been included in any talk of Player of Year awards, let’s look at who has been. James Forrest plays a far more attacking role at Celtic but let’s compare the two anyway.
Forrest gives Celtic 0.81 goals or assists per 90, it’s a terrific return but I think Tavernier is being overlooked both from the media and by the misconceptions our own support hold of him.
He used to be positionally suspect and very susceptible to losing the flight of the ball from crosses from the opposite flank. I’d say he has improved immeasurably on this, often he has made vital interceptions to prevent goals when the ball flashes across the box, but yes he has made a few mistakes as well.
A talent with 14 goals and 20 assists from full back wouldn’t play his football at Ibrox if he had no deficiencies to his game.
I’m trying to rack my brain for his errors leading to goals this season and can only come up with the Motherwell’s last minute leveller early in the season. You could argue that our game management was poor and McGregor, who has been terrific, was at fault too. You could also add the Aberdeen penalty conceded in the win at Pittodrie and the big Celtic mistake. He was along with Kent was my man of the match at Parkhead until that moment, with some solid challenges and great attacking play.
He was tremendous that day, playing the captains role and he helped create the goal for Kent, but it was a freak and costly mistake.
The recent 1-1 draw with Hibs is another one I’ve heard some complaints about. His role in the goal is more complex however. Arguably fouled on the edge of the opposition box and we have then over committed late in the game with chances to deal with it thereafter.
The referee would go on to apologise directly to Steven Gerrard for not giving that foul
Tavernier has 11 league goals which put him jointly 4th on the top scorer list, his 14 assists put him a clear number 1, all in the league.
Rangers managing to keep him this summer would mark as our best business we could do. I believe many people, including some of our own support, undervalue him greatly. Preferring to overstate his defensive issues and he, for me, would be the single most difficult player to replace.
He’s also 27 now and coming to age where, despite his ability to play in the English Premier League, the club value him so highly that clubs may not want to meet that due to his age but there are always rumours floating about.
As I close I’ll leave the debate over his captaincy, however I would add he’s a different type of captain to our previous ones.
It is obvious the players respect him and he’s often the leader by example rather than being the aggressive combative type. To me it’s obvious Gerrard loves him and we should do everything in our power to keep him for years to come. However every player has a value for any club operating in the financial limitations of Scottish football and if worst case happens, the club will be looking for more than £10m for an initial investment of £200k, which is great business.
Sometimes money isn’t everything, Rangers will be a far better team for our captain staying and producing the same levels of performance he has this season