Mark Warburton’s past two forays into the transfer market have gone against our expectations. Until this point, he’s been fairly consistent with his player recruitment, generally going after talent from the English lower leagues in their mid-20s and supplementing them with teenage loanees from English Premier League clubs. That trend appeared to be continuing into next season with Matt Crooks and Josh Windass signed on pre-contracts and young Jordan Rossiter arriving from Liverpool, albeit on a permanent deal rather than a temporary one.
Rangers weren’t necessarily a young side last season. They still had Lee Wallace, Kenny Miller and squad players Nicky Law and Dean Shiels, providing more than enough veteran experience in the team, but these were players that Warburton inherited when he took the job. With Shiels and Law (a candidate for a buddy cop show if I’ve ever heard one) having left Ibrox, Warburton clearly felt there was a void to be filled on the experience front, so he went back to the English Championship and captured 33-year-old Joey Barton and 37-year-old Clint Hill.
Hill is the kind of character every club would wish to have off the park. The sort of personality that shines so bright inside a dressing room that the light escapes through the physical and metaphorical walls and becomes recognised by supporters; people who usually can’t appreciate a beloved team-mate because they aren’t privy to what occurs within the inner sanctum. Nobody at QPR had a bad word to say about Hill the person and that respect will almost certainly continue in Glasgow.
Barton’s violent past has been well documented, but since his loan to Marseille the midfielder has done a much better job of keeping his temper under control. After all, his biggest indiscretion of the past four years was putting on a silly French accent in a press conference. Even though he was ultimately phased out at QPR, the chairman still admitted he was a “real leader” and someone the club missed when he went out on loan. He may not have set the best example over his career, but he gets others going on the football field.
Though these two fit as characters in the dressing room, rightly or wrongly, it’s on the park where they’ll be judged. And they might not fit so seamlessly into the style of play Rangers adopted last season.
Barton will slot in easily as an attacking player. Andy Carroll made himself a £35 million striker thanks in part to Barton’s ability to ping 30-yard diagonals on to the striker’s head when the pair were at Newcastle together, and Rangers will benefit from a centre midfielder with a greater range of passing than Andy Halliday or Jason Holt. Holt plays the short game superbly, as good as anyone in Scotland, but sometimes this approach can be frustrated by stubborn opponents who camp around their own area. Rangers supporters are expecting other sides to come out and attack more than their Championship opponents last term. While that’s true to an extent, no team other than Celtic, or perhaps Hearts and Aberdeen, are going to come to Ibrox and have a go right from kick-off. They’ll need the option of a direct, accurate passer to mix up their attacking arsenal. Furthermore, if Barton plays to the level he did last season, where he was a standout for Championship winners Burnley, he’ll be a cut above almost everyone in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
An adjustment may be required on the defensive side to ensure Barton performs to his full capability, particularly if they station him as the tempo-setting defensive midfielder. When Rangers push everyone forward, including both full backs, it leaves a lot of the field open behind them for other teams to attack. Barton shows real quickness going into the tackle and plays with real enthusiasm and tenacity, but if he plays the position in the same style as Halliday was asked to last term, he’ll have to do a lot of running with diminishing speed to halt opposing counter attacks.
It may be preferable to use him alongside Holt, especially if they stick with the exact same approach as they adopted last year. He’s not a prolific goal threat, but then neither were any of Law, Shiels or Gedion Zelalem - they scored four combined - and Rangers got by just fine. It would also allow Rangers to utilise his pressing skills, with Warburton calling for his attacking players to harass the opposing defenders and win the ball back high up the field, while giving him a partner would reduce the ground he has to cover.
Speaking of high up the field, it’s exactly where the Rangers centre backs spend the majority of matches which, again, leaves them vulnerable to speedy players on the counter. Both Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan move well for centre backs. Clint Hill does not. This is not an ageist remark. Hill has never been blessed with good pace for a defender. In fact, the reason he’s been able to play with such distinction into his late 30s is because he’s never relied on athleticism or quickness. His strengths are in his reading of the game, his leadership on the field and his toughness, both physically and mentally. The way Rangers played last year would diminish those qualities and expose his frailties.
Warburton meticulously constructed his team last term. It seems highly unlikely he’s snagged a couple of big name players just for the sake of it, without putting real thought into how he’s going to use them. Therefore, it would suggest he’s going to make a change of some sort to his approach.
It may not be a drastic change. It might just be a little tweak here or there, allowing Barton and Hill to perform within this side and enhance the quality of the starting XI. Exactly how it occurs we shall have to wait and see, but narrowing their shape and dropping the defensive line would accommodate Hill at centre back and Barton at defensive midfield. If they take away some of the space around him and limit the amount of running he’d have to do off the ball going laterally to halt counter attackers, then he could be an effective screener in front of the back four.
On the other hand, maybe he is looking to reinvent the shape of the team. I don’t know about you, but Barton and Hill would fit perfectly into a 3-5-2, which Rangers certainly have the players for with their tireless and enthusiastically attacking full backs. It would also allow Hill to play a sweeper role, mopping up beside two young centre backs.
Warburton doggedly stuck to the same philosophy and system throughout last season, though as he kept saying whenever asked about a possible Plan B, there was no other style for them to adopt. They didn’t have the squad big enough and the options to alter things. He did, however, stop both full-backs from simultaneously attacking as high as the opposing penalty area and began using Dominic Ball, a natural centre back, rather than Halliday, a natural attacking midfielder, as the sitting man in front of the defence, moves which brought greater defensive resolve.
They won’t start shelling the ball from front to back, but Warburton is open to change and with a bigger selection of players from which to call on, expect to see more of it next year.