Contrary to what a lot of us were saying after Rangers’ 5-1 defeat to Celtic, Niko Kranjcar is good. In Scottish football terms, he might even be very good. What he isn’t, at least not any more, is the player who received the shock of his life against Hamilton on the opening day, or the serial hacker who forced his manager into a half-time substitution in the last Old Firm game.
While some regarded the big name arrival as a definite success before he’d even played a game, others were rightly sceptical. After leaving Spurs in 2012 he had underwhelming spells with QPR, Dynamo Kiev and, finally, the New York Cosmos. It was a career on the decline and sometimes, regardless of what level you go to, that’s hard to arrest. His arrival direct from the second tier of American soccer raised further concern. Fast approaching 32 years of age, he’d coasted through the last six months before his Scotland move. How was an ageing player, one already with a reputation for drifting lackadaisically through games, going to survive in the up-and-at-them world of the Ladbrokes Premiership? Those fears were realised when the pressing of Hamilton’s tenacious midfield spooked the Croat into a constant surrendering of possession in the underwhelming 1-1 draw on his league debut.
It wasn’t long before Mark Warburton leapt to the defence of his playmaker, highlighting an improved showing against Peterhead in the Betfred Cup. The advocacy was damning in itself. It was only Peterhead, after all. That’s not the kind of opponent he was brought into help defeat. The veteran trio of Joey Barton, Clint Hill and Kranjcar (Philippe Senderos would join the party later) was always likely to produce one dud. Kranjcar appeared to be it.
This seemed to be confirmed when, in the first league Old Firm game in four years, desperate to prove his worth, Kranjcar tore around the field after his counterparts, fouling repeatedly. You almost felt sorry for him. He was giving it all he could, but it was not the game he was supposed to be playing. He required a team to be built around his talents, not merely dropped into Warburton’s quick-passing, high tempo system and forced to adapt on the fly. Especially not when that midfield also contained Barton, another player unsuited to what was being asked of him.
However, after consecutive man-of-the-match worthy performances in the last two games against Partick Thistle and Inverness CT, it finally seems there is method in the madness.
His display in the last outing, a 1-0 victory in the Highland capital, was particularly impressive. He barely gave the ball away. Seriously, it only happened twice. That’s faint praise if you’re describing a sitting midfielder tasked with doing nothing except keeping possession ticking over, but Kranjcar continually sought out team-mates over 20 yards away and, with a pinpoint range of passing, always seemed to hit them in stride.
One of the few times he didn’t was when he picked up the ball ten yards from his own box and, swivelling around in one swift motion, sent a 40-yard pass towards Kenny Miller, who was looking to run in behind. It didn’t put Miller clean through, but the pass still found its target. The awkward manner in which he hurriedly turned and launched should have seen the ball drift aimlessly anywhere but near his club-mate, and yet suddenly Rangers were in attack. No other player on the park could have done that. It displayed the immense talent which enabled him to once play at a much higher level. His natural ability was never in doubt. It was about all adapting, and whether he still had the means and desire in his early 30s.
No longer does he relinquish so easily. Against Hamilton he thought he had all day on the ball, now he hears the footsteps coming and will immediately play it back to the back-line or Andy Halliday at the defensive midfield spot. If the pressing doesn’t come, then he pivots quickly, gets his head up and looks for a killer ball. If nothing is on, he plays the simple pass and moves into space. It’s exactly what Warburton wants his midfield to do, and exactly what he wasn’t getting from Barton.
With sharper fitness comes a quicker mind. Even when the pressing gets there in time, he’s able to angle his body, using that surprisingly large frame for a player who relies on skill and technique, to shepherd opponents away from the ball. Those quick feet are also an advantage in such situations.
There are still flaws. Some may be ironed out with increased game-time, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be an asset on the defensive side. He takes a wide angle when pressuring opponents, which allows them to see past the press and look for team-mates further up the field. There’s also a tendency to drift over to the wings when defending attacks, leaving the central area outside the penalty box a little exposed.
Halliday and Jason Holt aren’t rock solid on that side of the ball, either, which has been a problem for Rangers going back to last season. Although, if the three can continue to dominate possession in the manner they did against ICT, especially in the first half, then it shouldn’t be too much of a problem against most sides in the division.
The real acid test will come this Sunday, and may go a long way to determining whether Kranjcar is a player who can help Rangers mount a title challenge next season, or someone who can just make the journey a little less bumpier on the way. He doesn’t need to win the Old Firm game on his own. He doesn’t even need to be on the winning side. He just needs to show he belongs in the company, and that he can help dictate possession rather than relinquish it. If he can do that, then Rangers’ chances of pulling off an upset increase significantly.