Rangers may be without Martyn Waghorn for the remainder of the season, the club have admitted. Craig Fowler looks at how this will affect the team and their chances of staying on course for the Ladbrokes Championship title
Opposition fans tend to sneer at Martyn Waghorn’s goal tally. Yes, the striker’s total of 28 goals has been inflated by the 11 penalties he’s converted, but to judge the attacker solely on his goalscoring would be an act of sheer narrow-mindedness. He brings a lot more to the table in the Ibrox first team beyond putting the ball in the back of the net, and Rangers will really miss his presence as he recovers from a knee injury.
Mark Warburton will likely adjust to the absence by promoting Kenny Miller from squad rotation player to the team’s undeniable first choice striker. Nicky Clark is also in contention. Although, while he was the hero on Tuesday night, Clark has lacked consistency throughout his time at Ibrox and most fans have already dismissed any notion he’ll be a long-term asset. Michael O’Halloran will be cemented as the team’s option on the right. He’s never looked wholly comfortable as an out-and-out forward, but he’s played there enough that Warburton could continue to switch his striker and right midfielder during matches, as he did with Waghorn and Miller. With Billy King able to provide excellent cover on both flanks, Rangers at least have strong depth across the attacking positions.
Unfortunately, chucking in another striker does not constitute a like-for-like replacement, just because they play the same position. Neither Clark nor Miller plays the game in the same manner as Waghorn, so there will be a deviation in the flow of Rangers’ attack.
When he starts through the centre without Miller in the side, Waghorn drops deep to help link play with the midfield. This is far from a negligible role. Rangers beat opponents by dominating possession, probing the ball across the park until a gap opens up for them to exploit. There’s also his ability to take the ball in tight areas. He has a terrific low centre of gravity due to that somewhat squatty frame, making it difficult for opposing defenders to get around or push him off the ball.
When he plays with Miller in the side, he largely operates from the right, though never actually plays the role of right winger at all throughout the match. This allows him to drift in, using his excellent off the ball movement to attack a defender’s blind side and get off a clean strike at goal. One of the criticisms you could level at him is his lack of ruthlessness at times. He scores a lot of goals but misses a lot of chances, often in the same game. However, as all managers will tell you, you’d rather a striker missing chances than not getting any at all.
Both back-ups are similarly instinctive in the box, while Miller can do a lot of the dirty work outside the area. What they’ll miss, however, is Waghorn’s strength and link-up play around the opposing box. Rangers frequently come up against opponents who put everyone behind the ball and crowd the danger area. Waghorn’s ability to not only control in tight spaces and shoot for goal, but also play those slide rule balls that Rangers use to attack opponents, as the full backs attack high up the pitch.
The big question is whether Rangers drop points as a result of this injury, and will Hibs gain ground or even usurp them atop the table before Waghorn returns? It’s certainly a concern and the reason why many Hibs fans rubbed their hands together in glee upon hearing the news of his lengthy absence.
Warburton’s men were already going through a tough stretch in terms of scoring, notching five in five matches. By most team’s standards that’s not bad at all. However, for this current Rangers side it could almost be considered a drought, given they’ve averaged three goals a game in the league this season. Waghorn’s failure to score in four of those five games cannot be considered a coincidence and they’ll definitely miss his goals in addition to the other work he does for the side.
Hibs will need to hit a great run of form to put pressure on their wounded rivals, which may be a tough task with the distraction of the League Cup final looming just over the horizon, not to mention the building belief that this is the year Hibs can finally end their Scottish Cup hoodoo. Rangers have a similar interest in three competitions, but the current lead they hold over Hibs is a major advantage.
Five points, assuming they win their game in hand, may not sound like much, but it is a big lead in the second tier, as the division suffers from a real dearth of quality outside the top three. Rangers may not rack up the victories quite so convincingly without Waghorn, but they’ll still have enough to collect three points against the majority of the division, keeping them ahead of their nearest rivals for the duration.
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