‘He’s too old’
‘His legs are gone’
‘Not the player he used to be’
Those were some of the comments when Rangers announced the return of Steven Davis in January 2019, 7 years after he left the club to join Southampton.
Fast forward 2 years, Davis is still absolutely strolling games on a weekly basis and has just signed a contract extension.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully agree that he’s not the player he used to be. I would strongly argue that he’s a significantly better one.
In his first spell at the club we saw a player used in a variety of roles: he sometimes played centrally, at other times he played on the right side of a flat midfield 4, some games he would get into advanced positions while in others he would hold his position: He was very much the midfield Swiss army knife for Walter Smith.
The current version of Steven Davis has evolved with age and become a specialist in his role, that being the deep lying Playmaker.
It is the job of Davis to initiate play, dictate the tempo and control games both in and out of possession.
His fitness levels and technical ability are still at the absolute top end, but above anything else it’s his intelligence and reading of the game that allow him to still perform at Player Of The Year candidate level.
Those things do not diminish with age and at 36 Davis is as good as he’s ever been.
Rangers have had a number of different selections in the midfield 3 over the course of this season, it doesn’t matter if it’s Glen Kamara, Ryan Jack, Joe Aribo or Scott Arfield, the one constant is that Davis will be the lynch pin that sits behind any of the other two.
In possession, the qualities he brings to the team are countless. However, his ability to constantly find space and make himself available as a passing option is where everything starts.
No matter if it’s against a high press or just in amongst a crowded midfield, Rangers players under pressure will always have a passing option available in Davis who is extremely comfortable taking possession in tight or dangerous areas.
When he does receive the ball, the passing numbers somewhat paint the picture: the per 90 minute numbers read 90 passes, 88% pass accuracy, 7 long passes, 1.1 chances created.
Simple passes to keep possession are an obvious staple, but Davis has everything in the locker. Passing through the lines into dangerous areas, lofted passes in behind to find runners, spraying passes into the channels to find advancing fullbacks… It’s the Northern Irishman that makes Rangers tick.
His calmness in possession is every bit as important given how Rangers like to build out from the back.
Against opposition who press high, having midfield players who can take possession of the ball in dangerous areas, resist the press and find spaces within it is vital. Davis does exactly that.
This is highlighted further when he doesn’t play. We’ve seen Davis getting occasional rests at this stage of his career, but if games are tight he is trusted to take command, control the game and see them out.
However, as impressive as he is in possession, what he does out of possession is where the football IQ really shines.
Davis might not look like a player who would be so effective defensively, but it’s another strength of his game.
Per 90 minutes Davis averages 8 ball recoveries, 1.5 interceptions, 2 tackles won, 1 clearance – extremely impressive numbers and a huge part of the teams overall defensive solidity, there is a lot to be said for always knowing where to be.
He is not a sitting midfielder whose effectiveness defensively comes via physicality or flying into challenges, it’s entirely down to positioning and anticipation, always in position to pounce on a loose touch or slack pass.
Moving with the play to take away passing lanes, intercepting passes, tracking midfield runners who get in behind, covering the fullback areas when Tavernier or Barisic bomb forward…Davis does everything you need from a sitting midfielder.
The other major contribution is the consistency in which he collects 2nd balls.
Whether it’s picking up opposition clearances to prevent counter attacks, picking up loose balls or securing possession in our defensive third, the ability to always be in the correct position to solidify or retain possession is a huge contribution that we see countless times every week.
With players like Aribo and Kent it’s easy to point out the qualities as they are very visible, with Davis it’s understated. He just does the simple things extremely effectively and makes the difficult things look easy. It’s not a flashy role, but he is as important to this Rangers team as any player in the squad.
Given Steven Gerrard inherited a side that had won nothing and were routinely bullied in midfield, it’s no surprise that he was delighted to add Steven Davis.
His first spell at the club was a brilliant one (3 league titles, 5 domestic cups and a European final), but his 2nd spell is already every bit as important.
He, along with Allan McGregor, has brought winning experience back to the club and in just the second full season of his return Rangers once again stand as the kings of Scotland.
The first trophy back was always going to be the most difficult to win, with that now in the bag Rangers have a brilliant foundation to continue building on and Steven Davis will be vital to that.