Six into two won't go - the central defensive conundrum facing Rangers manager Steven Gerrard ahead of new season
When Steven Gerrard compiled his wish list for Rangers’ recruitment this summer, it’s pretty safe to assume it didn’t feature any central defenders.
As Gerrard himself has observed, it’s a department of his squad which is currently over-stocked.
With six players competing for the two positions at the heart of Gerrard’s back four, departures are more likely than arrivals in that area as the Scottish champions conduct their business ahead of next month’s transfer deadline.
During Rangers’ pre-season programme, which continues with a friendly against English League Two side Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park on Saturday afternoon, the identity of those who will stick around and those who may be deemed surplus to requirements could become clearer.
The Scotsman has assessed how the six central defensive contenders stack up ahead a campaign when Rangers will bid to combine the retention of their Premiership title with a return to the group stage of the Champions League.
Last season saw another certainty in life added to the old idiom about death and taxes - Connor Goldson appearing in Rangers’ starting line-up.
The big Englishman enjoyed a remarkably robust campaign as the Ibrox club became champions for the first time in a decade, playing every single minute of all 56 of their competitive matches.
Goldson’s consistency and leadership qualities were a key factor in Rangers keeping 34 clean sheets.
The 28-year-old is entering the final year of his current contract and has been linked with a return to the English Premier League. Gerrard will be hopeful a new deal can be agreed soon with a player who seems sure to be his first pick in central defence again this season.
The Swedish international has had injury issues since his £3 million move to Rangers from Bologna two years ago but emerged last season as the most regular partner for Goldson in central defence.
Helander started 30 matches and struck up a highly effective relationship with Goldson.
His performances earned the 28-year-old a place in Sweden’s squad for the Euro 2020 finals but his involvement was restricted to a substitute outing as his country lost to Ukraine in their last 16 tie at Hampden.
Helander, under contract until 2023, has also been the subject of transfer speculation but remains in pole position to nail down a regular place in Gerrard’s line-up this season.
A free transfer signing from Wigan Athletic on an initial one-year deal last summer, Nigerian international Balogun played enough games in Rangers’ title-winning campaign to trigger a one-year extension to his contract.
The 33-year-old has proved a valuable addition to Gerrard’s squad and started 20 matches alongside Goldson in central defence last season.
He was also deployed at right-back on three occasions before young Nathan Patterson firmly established himself as the heir apparent to captain James Tavernier in that position.
Balogun, who will miss the first leg of Rangers’ opening Champions League qualifier as he serves a UEFA suspension carried over from last season, can again provide Gerrard with an experienced and accomplished option at centre-back.
The Croatian international has made a welcome return to full training after missing the whole of last season with a serious knee injury which was described by Gerrard as ‘career threatening’.
Happily, after surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process, Katic is poised to get back on the pitch for Rangers in the coming days and weeks.
Before his injury, the 24-year-old had become a firm favourite with the Ibrox support. He now faces the challenge of returning to the kind of form which made Rangers’ £2 million investment in him three years ago appear so shrewd.
Katic has another two years left on his contract and has made it clear just how desperate he is to make up for lost time.
Rangers’ move to sign Simpson from Bournemouth in January was perhaps partly influenced by uncertainty at the time over Katic’s prospects of making a full recovery.
Also 24, the tall Englishman’s initial pre-contract summer move was brought forward to give him extra time to settle into life in Scotland. Simpson made seven appearances in total last season, four of them in the starting line-up where he gained valuable minutes finding out what is required of him alongside Goldson.
A ball-playing defender, Simpson made a couple of unforced errors which he will need to cut out of his game. Under contract until 2025, he has time on his side to establish himself.
A £700,000 signing from Oldham Athletic two years ago, Edmundson has struggled to push himself up the central defensive pecking order at Rangers with just 13 starting appearances so far.
His cause wasn’t helped last season by a breach of coronavirus protocols which earned him a seven-match Scottish FA suspension.
The 23-year-old, under contract until 2023, joined Derby County on loan for the second half of the campaign and has been linked with a move to Peterborough United this summer.
Gerrard, however, has not yet given any indication he is ready to offload Edmundson who started Rangers’ opening pre-season game at Partick Thistle on Monday night.
But with left-back Calvin Bassey providing additional cover in the middle of the back four, having played there once alongside Goldson last season, it will still be a surprise if at least one of Rangers current cohort of central defenders does not move on before the summer transfer window closes.
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