Hitting the red zone and work rate: Rangers benefiting from indispensable Ryan Kent

For all of the variety Steven Gerrard has at his disposal in terms of his attacking resources this season, there has been one constant when it comes to his team selection in advanced positions.

Ryan Kent has been dialled in for Rangers recently.
Ryan Kent has been dialled in for Rangers recently.

Along with defenders James Tavernier and Connor Goldson, the only other player to have appeared in every Scottish Premiership match for Rangers so far this season is Ryan Kent.

It is a mark of Gerrard’s faith in the winger that while he regularly rotates the rest of his midfield and attacking personnel, Kent is pretty much nailed on to be involved.

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The 24-year-old winger’s performance in Saturday’s 5-0 rout of Ross County at Ibrox underlined why his manager sets so much store by the player whose permanent capture from Liverpool in a deal worth up to £7.5 million he pushed so hard for right until the closing hours of the summer transfer window in 2019.

Ryan Kent was back to his best with a Man of the Match performance in Rangers' 5-0 win over Ross County at Ibrox. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Looking beyond the statistics

If there was a perception at any stage of the current campaign that Kent’s performance levels had dipped after such an impressive start, it wasn’t a view ever shared by Gerrard.

While Kent’s headline numbers did drop off for a spell – his goal to open the scoring against County was his first for two months – the underlying value of his contribution to the overall effectiveness of this Rangers side has always been appreciated by the club’s coaching staff.

The style of play which Gerrard and his assistants have instilled and nurtured since 2018 demands just as much from players when they are out of possession as it does when they have their ball at their feet.

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Kent’s technique, close control, trickery and pace are all pleasing on the eye and have helped him to score seven goals and provide 11 assists in a season which currently sees Rangers romping towards a first domestic title in a decade and eagerly awaiting what looks like a highly winnable Europa League last 32 tie against Royal Antwerp next month.

But what can often go unnoticed is Kent’s exceptional work rate and willingness to shut down potential counter-attacks from opponents or track back to supplement Rangers’ defensive line.

Leeds’ interest is no surprise

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It’s certainly not difficult to understand why legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa, who constantly demands that type of relentless all-round contribution from his players, was so keen to take Kent to Leeds United last summer.

Rangers rejected a £10 million bid from the Premier League club for Kent and can expect fresh interest in him at the end of this season.

Gerrard will hope the prospect of a crack at Champions League football will help Kent, currently under contract until 2023, to resist any temptation to head back south.

“He was outstanding (against Ross County),” Gerrard told Rangers TV. “When he does that selfless running without the ball, when he breaks the line running without the ball. We know he can play with the ball at his feet, we know he’s fast and he can pass.

“But I think an extra dimension to his game which we are keen on is he has got to break the line and run behind, because it gives us such a different option to go over - if we don’t get the first ball, we can pick up the seconds.

“When we are up against these (defensive) blocks, we have to keep disrupting it in as many ways as possible. We can’t keep playing in front of teams for the whole game.

“He (Kent) was certainly right back at it. He could have had a hat-trick. Throughout, he was a real threat. The job he does for the team out of possession as well is why I trust him so much.”

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Hitting the red zone

A tactical tweak to Gerrard’s established 4-3-3 formation, which saw Joe Aribo given licence to advance a line and join Ianis Hagi and Kent in playing much closer to central striker Alfredo Morelos, also played its part in the winger being able to deliver his Man of the Match display.

“We flipped the formation a bit to a 4-2-3-1 to be a bit more bold and aggressive,” reflected Gerrard. “We wanted (defensive midfielders) Steven Davis and Glen Kamara to be obsessed with hitting our numbers 10s.

“We want the players to be extremely hungry to score goals, we want them to really hit those dangerous areas - running through and getting into that red zone as we call it.

“Ryan ended up getting rewarded for that. Of late, we’ve had too many people hanging outside the box.”

The hunger in Rangers’ approach was a response to Gerrard’s dissatisfaction when his team tailed off in the closing stages of their 2-1 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie, a match which saw Kent signalling his return to optimum form with two assists for Morelos, and with their first half display when they had to come from behind to draw 1-1 with Motherwell at Fir Park.

"We brought a lot of energy to the game (against Ross County), especially at the start,” Kent told Rangers TV. “We set the tempo right and we followed it through right to the end of the game.

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“The gaffer mentioned we probably left the Aberdeen game early, so that was in our minds and we scored lots of goals coming from right across the pitch.

“Everyone has been dangerous in lots of areas of the pitch, providing lots of opportunities (this season). It has been very diverse.

“The gaffer has been mentioning getting into the box more often and getting myself on the end of some crosses, and it paid dividends today.”

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