Rangers recruitment and squad management

Season 2020/21 witnessed the culmination of a decade’s rebuilding at Rangers as what sometimes felt like a painstakingly slow step-by-step improvement reached the relentless crescendo that delivered ‘55’. Key players were retained, reinforcements were added and missing pieces of the jigsaw were found to create a squad that reached what transpired to be its peak. We didn’t know it at the time however the wisdom of hindsight has now clearly evidenced that, with many players having been at the club for several years, a refresh was needed.

While the club would have been planning transfers in the background it’s not an understatement to say that the pandemic threw a rather large and expensive spanner into the works. In the summer of 2020 we committed to transfer fees totaling £16.8m on the likes of Kemar Roofe, Ianis Hagi and Cedric Itten as well as increasing the wage bill by nearly £4m, all at a time when revenues were utterly decimated by stadium closures.  

The above meant that the board and investors had to find £26m to fund the title-winning campaign and the additions that were required to achieve this. And while this brought the desired success and took the squad to a new level of performance, it came at a cost – the well was dry. And understandably so.  

The net result of this is that club would not improve from our position of strength. While Celtic reacted to their capitulation by throwing millions at their rebuild, Rangers shopped in the bargain basement of the market bringing in only free transfers and loans.  

Steven Gerrard’s frustration was not subtle or concealed and a Champions League exit did nothing to brighten his mood, one which you might suspect began to trickle down through the squad as the start to the season was not without obvious deficiencies despite our league position. The wheels it has to be said were wobbling and one wondered when they might just begin to fall off.  

A change of manager and the now typical post-Christmas collapse and things were looking bleak. A championship-winning squad meekly surrendered a title that could have been won by about November had we not regressed so dramatically. Instead we started to limp, allowed them to strengthen in January and the rest, as they say, is history. But there is a subplot that feeds into this discussion and one which very much shapes views on the current state of the playing squad. That subplot was the Europa League.  

While domestic success had all but been lost Giovanni Van Bronkhorst expertly guided the team beyond opponents that we had little business competing with given their financial might. The famous nights at Ibrox against Dortmund, Red Star, Braga & Red Bull delivered not just footballing success but also footballing riches that provided the club with Champions League levels of income, according to Stewart Robertson. But, wait, there’s more.  

The European income was not the only source of funding that fans would hope would be reinvested in the overdue summer revamp. The sales of Nathan Patterson and Calvin Bassey represent the two biggest sales in the club’s history for a combined total of over £30m. Add in the departure of Joe Aribo for a further £7m and its fair to say that the club could not have possibly have envisaged more money flowing into the coffers in such a short space of time. Again though, the story continues.    

Victory in Eindhoven meant that the club, for the second season, would receive Champions League or equivalent levels of European income and this time with the status of dining at the top table to go with it. This money, we were told, would be game changing and so I don’t think it is unfair for supporters who are being milked at every opportunity to expect, or at least hope, for a summer splurge to completely revitalize what was becoming a squad at the end of its cycle. For Ross Wilson, who had been hamstrung by financial constraints since arriving, this was his time to shine.

SUMMER TRANSFER WINDOW 2022  

The club would proceed to spend in the region of £15m in the summer of 2022 with the largest outlays being on Ben Davies and Ridvan Yilmaz. Neither featured much in the early stages of the season although Davies now looks settled and like the kind of player you expect for a solid £4m outlay. Yilmaz however must be locked in a dark room and only let out for training as he has really yet to be seen even in games where you’d expect room for rotation. Given the way the club trumpeted his arrival, there’s certainly questions to be asked over his lack of involvement.  

Great value though has undoubtedly been found in Antonio Colak. While he doesn’t have the all-round game of a peak Alfredo Morelos, he has an eye for goal like nobody else in the squad or in recent history & that’s reflected in his contribution so far. He is a key addition especially with Morelos being slow to fitness and / or form. He is joined in the good value category by Tom Lawrence who arrived on a free from Derby but whose impressive start has been halted by injury.  

In Rabbi Matondo it appears we have someone who was brought in to address our problems with the right-wing position but whose best football for Shalke came on the opposite flank. At best I think we can safely say the jury is still out on this one with flashes of ability being the exception rather than the rule. Still, it’s early doors. He was joined by Malik Tillman to bolster our attacking options and while the Bayern Munich loanee has shown more quality than his former Bundesliga opponent, he is still only a loanee and therefore a short-term solution, albeit a talented one.  

In isolation the above doesn’t read too badly. No manager or director of football is going to have a 100% success rate and it’s important that we acknowledge that however when we begin to drill down on it and look at the bigger picture in terms of the squad then we begin to see more clearly why the current team really isn’t at the level or in the healthiest shape that it perhaps could be.  

In the summer alone we have around £7m tied up in Yilmaz and Matondo. That’s 50% of our budget gone on two players who really haven’t featured or contributed. So while value has undoubtedly been found elsewhere it’s a damning indictment that so much of our spend has been, thus far, wasted on players who simply aren’t featuring for the team. There’s an “opportunity cost” to those transfers in that it’s money that could have been better spent elsewhere and perhaps addressed some of the deficiencies we are about to discuss.

WEAKNESSES  

It’s been abundantly clear to most Rangers fans, indeed if social media is any barometer, that there are certain positions in the team that would be high up the priority list when Ross Wilson was handed his budget ahead of the current campaign.  

GK – Starting at the back we had huge questions over Allan McGregor’s ability continue stemming from an uncharacteristically error-strewn domestic campaign. This of course was offset by some European heroics but nevertheless at the age of 40 some forward planning really can’t be put off forever. The fact that Jon McLaughlin started the season as No1 supports this argument however he was binned after another Parkhead horror show and now surely can’t be considered as a successor to the No1 role. That problem therefore sits on the backburner and has been kicked down the line.

CB – In the interest of balance we must be fair and commend the excellent re-signing of Connor Goldson given his importance to the team, his leadership capabilities & the fact it would cost us a pretty price to go and replace him. Add in Ben Davies who is now showing why we forked out such a fee for his services and the central defence was at least an area where we can look to as a reasonable job done by those in charge of recruitment, even if the gamble on John Souttar was not the wisest move imaginable.  

CM – The centre of the park has been a long time concern for supporters with it being an area neglected over several windows despite the obvious shortcomings we have seen season-on-season. Many of our 3-man midfields this season will have cost precisely £0 in terms of transfer fees and that’s perhaps reflected in the output on the pitch. There is no dynamism or athleticism to our midfield especially after Aribo’s departure. Davis, Lundstram, Jack, Arfield, Kamara are not going to drive with the ball, open up spaces and thread passes. We therefore play the game from the wrong side of the opponent’s midfield and too often go sideways as a means of playing forward.

The fact that we started the game vs Napoli with players from Gerrard’s *first* season is testament to the lack of investment in this area of the team or the lack of success in finding value in lower-budget players over a now three-year period. Lawrence or Tillman may be used as a solution to this particular issue however the fact both have also played right-wing at different points rather displays that we’re trying to cover two weaknesses with the same players.

RW – The right-wing problem at Ibrox – light-hearted political jokes aside – stems back to the period when probably Daniel Candeias was at the club. He fulfilled a role good enough for where the team was at that particular time of the Gerrard rebuild and, while he wouldn’t be good enough now, it’s still an area we haven’t actually improved since he left which is a huge concern. With Ryan Kent quite clearly not being a goalscorer, the lack of a threat of any kind from the opposite flank really does put unfair pressure on other areas of the team. This season we’ll have played Wright, Matondo, Tillman, Arfield, Lawrence, Sakala all at right-wing, neither of whom are really the answer. It has probably been the most obvious hole in the team for at least two-years and yet it sat unaddressed as we spent £15m in the summer. That’s sheer negligence.

CONTRACTS  

The last part of the recruitment analysis is the contract situation at the club. While Goldson’s extension was a hugely welcome bonus this season, as we look to next summer we face losing the likes of Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos for nothing.  

Even if you don’t want one or either re-signed it simply means that we have failed to cash in on what have been valuable assets at the right time and now face two huge holes in the team next season, holes that are not easy to fill without spending decent sums of money. Unless we find some terrific free transfers, and history tells us of the difficulty in doing that, we’ll be spending millions to effectively stand still.  

We will also lose Allan McGregor, Filip Helander, Ryan Jack and Scott Arfield on top of the loan periods of Sands and Tillman ending. At the very least to maintain current levels we will need a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a central midfielder. Again, that won’t come cheap. Tillman’s release clause alone would represent a huge chunk of any likely budget even with another year of CL revenues.  

On the other side of the coin we have the likes of Glen Kamara, Fashion Sakala, Scott Wright and Nnamdi Ofoborh tied up to 2025 when, in truth, the contribution from all listed has been very limited this season, be it through manager selection or otherwise. Kamara also falls into the category of not selling at the opportune moment as he finds himself out of the team and out of form. These are wages we will struggle to shift and which will continue to eat into the club’s budget.  

The extensions seen this summer therefore to senior players has only delayed what should have happened this year – a complete revamp. An ageing squad – one of the oldest competing in the Champions League this year – cannot be expected to continue going to the well after 4 and 5 years for some of these players. It doesn’t work. So let’s summarise….

OVERALL PICTURE  

The inability to adequately refresh the squad undoubtedly traces back to the pandemic where the board and investors delved deep into their pockets to avoid player sales and bring in additions that would ultimately win us the league title. The financial hangover from that period however meant that no improvement was possible in the summer of 2021 and, in truth, we’re still behind the curve in terms of refreshing that squad.  

The money that has flowed into the club from January 2022 however should, on the face of it, have allowed much more scope for investment and refreshment than we have actually seen. We’re talking record levels of revenues, record player sales & the attraction of playing in the most prestigious club competition in world football. So where has the money gone?  

Instead we retained some ageing players who – while they will contribute – simply means we’re carrying a wage bill with more players who will walk out the door for nothing at the end of the season and whose performances are unlikely to go anywhere but slowly backwards. Add in the typical hit and miss nature of transfer dealings – the Yilmaz and Matondo examples outlined above – and it’s perhaps clear why, despite still challenging domestically so far, fans are concerned at the bigger picture.  

That picture takes us into next season when these senior players leave along with the likes of Kent and Morelos if we are looking at the likely scenario as things stand. Add in Tillman and Sands either leaving or having to be purchased, perhaps for as much as a combined £10m, and it begs the question as to quite where the money is going to come from, especially if record sales and Champions League participation doesn’t boost the budget by as much as we had been allowed to believe.  

Unlike this year it also looks like we cannot rely on even as much as £10-15m in player sales to at least partially fund any incoming transfers. There are no players in the current squad who, either due to contract situation or form, could be reasonably expected to fetch a substantial fee. If anything, therefore, next summer may be even more important than any of the last two. We simply cannot afford another year of stagnation – a la 2021/22 – as we’ve already seen how that movie ends, and it’s not with significant silverware.  

While questions rightly remain over the manager and his playing style – or lack thereof – I don’t believe he has been set up for success with the recruitment and investment in the squad, even that which predates his arrival.  

Ross Wilson rightly deserves *some* leeway for the financial position he inherited & the constraints under which he had to initially operate. That said we have not handled certain contract situations well, have thus far spent nearly half of our summer budget poorly and we have an enormous cloud hanging over next summer with players leaving, loans ending and few obviously sellable assets sitting in the current team.  

Van Bronckhorst might be able to paper over the cracks if he can guide this team to some relative success, but only Wilson and the board can properly fix them.

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