Shaughan McGuigan (@ShaughanM)
The Petrofac Training Cup may be a much derided competition (although unlike Scotland’s premier cup tournament, they’ve never had to abandon the draw and start again) but this season’s first round landed us the plummest of ties. Hibernian versus Rangers.
It was an intriguing contest, allowing us not only a first glimpse of Mark Warburton’s new charges, but also a gander at Alan Stubbs’ pretenders to the throne.
As it happened, Stubbs elected to field an under-strength starting XI which was eventually comprehensively over-run by Mark Warburton’s swashbuckling squad by six goals to two.
As you’d expect, the result saw the media pore over Warburton’s tactics and signings, almost all of whom were given a big thumb up, and perhaps none more so than James Tavernier.
The then 23-year-old was singled out for special praise, with his wonderful, bending free-kick drawing Rangers level, while he also had a hand in the second, fourth and sixth goals. Here was a full-back who clearly had so much more to offer, with his energy levels seemingly a bottomless-pit, allowing him to gallivant forward at will to supplement the attack.
Here was a right-back version 2.0. The nickname was tongue in cheek, but the Englishman was now The Blue Cafu.
What was forgotten amongst all the hubbub and brouhaha, however, was that for the first 35-minutes or so, Rangers and Tavernier had toiled.
The former Wigan player had looked timid in the tackle, lackadaisical at tracking back, and completely unsure of his positioning and general wherewithal in a defensive sense. It didn’t really matter of course, as his positives against far inferior opposition, who eventually gave up the ghost, more than outweighed the negatives.
So why bring this up? Because that match is essentially James Tavernier’s campaign in microcosm. Almost a full-season on, and the defender still seems unsure on how to actually go about the business of defending. At times, he almost acts like a half-back from a bygone-age, or occasionally even an inside-forward, which is all well and good but not if such shenanigans leaves his side exposed when the team is on a more level-playing field, as he has done at times during the Championship and cup campaigns.
That’s not to say Tavernier is poor, far from it. His name would feature prominently on any Championship player-of-the-year shortlist, but the niggling doubt is that he can’t be nearly as bold next season. Sure, a more defensive midfielder to shield him will help, as would a tweak to the system in general, but Tavernier ultimately has to recognise when he should rein in his attacking tendency. Like the world’s boldest pontoon player, Tavernier’s only instinct is to twist, but sticking is not only prudent, it’s necessary. Whether he can learn that remains to be seen.
Joel Sked (@sked21)
What a bizarre season. What a bizarre player. Pep Guardiola has pioneered the full-back-cum-central-midfielder. Tavernier has went a step or three further with the right-back-cum-striker role.
Fourteen goals so far this season and all from right-back. Tavernier has scored six more goals this season than he has in spells with Newcastle United, Gateshead, Carlisle, Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons, Shrewsbury, Rotherham, Wigan Athletic and Bristol City combined.
It’s still hard to decipher whether he is a flat-track bully or someone who has finally found a system where his qualities are fully integrated. It is one of the many interesting sub-plots looking ahead to next season’s Ladbrokes Premiership. How will he fare up against better, more crafty wingers/wide men and tactically astute managers? First and foremost he is a right-back and will be asked, whether from Warburton or the opposition, to play like one.
Sunday’s showdown will give us perhaps the best glimpse of what we can expect from the rampaging Tavernier next season. It will be the fourth time he has faced Premiership opposition. In matches against Kilmarnock (twice) and St Johnstone he hasn’t possessed the same influence. In the Championship season he has been another part of Rangers’ attacking artillery rather than a part of a defensive wolfpack.
What Rangers possess defensively is not a unit but separate parts sheltered by an attacking and dominating game plan. This was exposed by Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone quite clearly. Tavernier leaves acres of space behind him and sometimes it is too much for his pace to cover. When pegged back he is a different player. One on one his pace can enable him to get out of tight areas but question marks can be raised about his ability to cover narrow, body position in defensive positions and a general apathy to his defensive responsibilities.
While an incredibly exciting talent there may be a reason that nearly 30 per cent of his professional games have come this season.
Craig Fowler (@craigfowler86)
These guys have made my argument for me. Yes, Tavernier is not the most dependable of defenders. Yes, his attacking exuberance can leave the side short at the back. But what he is, within the confines of Scottish football, is a unique talent from full back. Gone are the days when the flanking defenders were the most trustworthy (i.e. boring) players on any side. Now they are expected to get forward and supplement the attack and no-one does this better than the rampaging Rangers man.
In this writer’s opinion, far too much is made of his lack of defensive ability. Is it a weakness to his game? Sure, but then this is Scottish football. Everyone has weaknesses. The real question should be, does this frailty go anywhere near offsetting what he contributes to the attack? Not even close.
Not only has he scored 14 (F-O-U-R-T-E-E-N) goals this season, he’s also contributed almost 20 assists, meaning he is responsible for over 30 of Rangers’ total goals.
Besides, he’s not as bad on the defensive side as people make out, which is an argument that can be extended to the entire Ibrox unit. They still have the best defensive record in the Championship. Of course, they should have the best record in the second tier given their resources, but had Hibs been playing Celtic this week it’s doubtful people would be bringing up Hibernian’s “brittle” defence as much as they have with Rangers.
The loss to St Johnstone, along with a recent collapse against Falkirk, has stuck in people’s minds, understandably so. However, there’s also the two games against Kilmarnock and next round meeting with Dundee where, overall, they looked fairly comfortable at the back, conceding only one goal across the three games. When it’s called for them to be less gung-ho, with the exception of the aforementioned St Johnstone tie, they’ve tended to respond. The same goes for Tavernier. When he’s asked to concentrate on his defensive duties, yeah, fair enough, he’s not exactly Paolo Maldini, but he’s not a complete joke either.
He’s a genuine match-winner from full back, someone who is exciting to watch. We should be concentrating more on the positives instead of the weaknesses.
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