IT’S a risk signing anyone over the age of 30. The cruel decline brought on by the advancement of time happens to everyone. One minute a player is still at the top of their game, then suddenly they can’t perform at the same standards. Rangers didn’t believe that would be the case with the 34-year-old Barton. Last season he was looked upon as the best player in a side that won the Championship crown. He was granted a Team of the Year berth. Fans are often too quick to write off the quality of Scottish football in comparison to the English second tier, but there’s little denying a side that wins the 24-team league and gains promotion to the English top tier would fancy it’s chances against anyone in Scotland. Barton was expected to slot in comfortably. So what’s gone wrong? It this rapid regression or something else at play?
At Burnley, Barton usually operated as part of a four-man midfield in a 4-4-2. He would sit in the centre, one-half of a two-man unit tasked with pressing opponents and intercepting passes, though he would be the more attacking of the two. On the surface this may sound like a tougher task than the one he has in the current Rangers 4-3-3 system, where he’s got an extra partner to cover space in the middle of the park.
The major difference was that Burnley wouldn’t push up their full-backs. At Rangers the gameplan is dependent on the wide defenders getting forward and supplementing the attack. Furthermore, there is only one midfielder tasked with sitting and reading the game, meaning there’s a lot more space to cover for the player in that position. With enough protection around him at Burnley, Barton was able to look solid on the defensive end. At Rangers, after only five league games, he’s already been exposed for two of the goals conceded by his side. Greg Kiltie ran circles around him at Rugby Park, including blowing past Barton like he wasn’t there in the build up to Kilmarnock’s goal, while analysis of Celtic’s second in the 5-1 win on Saturday showed Barton doing less then required to get back in position on a Celtic counter attack.
Rangers boss Mark Warburton has to shoulder the blame for his form in this regard. He’s asking too much of an ageing player on the defensive side. If he wants Barton to be a deep-lying playmaker then he’ll have to tweak the system and give him a partner. However, he’s not the only one who should be looking to change in order to make this marriage work.
Barton has been used further forward on three occasions. He was decent away to Dundee, mediocre against Motherwell and culpable at Kilmarnock. Particularly in the latter two matches, he looked completely out of sync with his midfield partners. Even when playing further forward, Barton would drop into the area between the centre-backs and pick up the ball, looking to dictate the play. It made a spare part out of Jordan Rossiter, who was the defensive midfielder for each of those games. In fact, in the build-up to the aforementioned Kilmarnock goal, Rossiter makes a dash into an advanced area in order to give Barton another option, and is caught too far up the field when the pass is intercepted, unable to do anything to halt Kiltie leading Kilmarnock’s counter.
It strikes of a man looking to live up to his own hype. He said today he’s “not Leo Messi”. He’s a player who, in his own words, “gets the ball and moves it, gets it back and moves it again”. He paints the picture of someone who wants to be a cog in a machine, but he’s playing like he’s the Leo Messi of Rangers - which may not be a fitting comparison since Messi is regarded as a selfless team-mate. At the very least, he wants to be the Messi of Scottish football, while at present he can’t even hold a candle to many midfielders in the Ladbrokes Premiership. If Warburton is unwilling to change the system, then Barton should look to adapt and become less intrusive on his own side’s attacks when playing further forward.
Ultimately, if Warburton wants to make a success of the four veteran players he signed this summer - Clint Hill, Niko Kranjcar and Philippe Senderos being the others - he’ll be the one who’ll have to change the most. In the current set-up, there’s no protection for the defence, which plays with two high a line to accommodate Hill, while Kranjcar and Barton slow down the midfield too much, both on and away from the football.
If Warburton is refusing to budge then he has to go back to the future in terms of his team selection. Last season’s heroes Jason Holt and Andy Halliday have become the forgotten men of the current campaign, or at least Halliday had until he gave Barton a piece of his mind in training. Any manager would be hesitate to learn on the core of a side that won the second tier crown when the mandate is to challenge for the national title, but there’s little to suggest the veteran foursome are upgrades on the players who held their positions last term.
A midfield three from Jason Holt, Andy Halliday, Josh Windass and Jordan Rossiter would give Rangers back their urgency and energy in the centre of the park, which is such a valuable aspect of how they want to play. With Holt returning from injury and Halliday’s introduction having Rangers a brief lift in the Old Firm game, we’ll likely see such a line-up this weekend. If they do start, don’t be surprised if Rangers get their swagger back and return to winning ways.
What such a result would do for the future of Barton at Ibrox is anyone’s guess.