Should Rangers bring Carlos Pena back in from the cold?
Graeme Murty was facing a real problem on Saturday. One-nil down at home to Hamilton, it became increasingly apparent with each passing minute that the players on the park were not going to get Rangers back into the game. Looking along the bench for the man to come on and provide that spark, he would have realised just how big a problem he had.
There was nobody he could rely on to go on and make a difference. In the end, he settled for introducing Eduardo Herrera and Ryan Hardie, a strike duo likely to instill fear in exactly zero Ladbrokes Premiership opponents, and in the end Rangers lost 2-0.
Pedro Caixinha’s recruitment over the summer was, on the whole, disappointing. And there is no bigger disappointment than Carlos Pena. The Mexican international was the most expensive signing, thought to be bought for around £2.5 million, and the one which intrigued the support the most. But he barely played at the start of the season. Rumours swirled among the support that he was unfit, overweight and was enjoying Glasgow’s nightlife a bit too much.
Eventually, he featured from the bench twice in August and it quickly became apparent just how alarming the situation was: he just wasn’t any good. His touch was wayward, he looked cumbersome for a midfielder and completely at odds with the game in Scotland. Some were willing to give him time to assimilate, though others were wondering how long a £2.5 million player needed in the Scottish game, especially when guys like Alfredo Morelos and Daniel Candeias - the undoubted stars of the recruitment drive - were already beginning to shine.
Then something even stranger happened. He started scoring goals. It wasn’t every game, granted, and his performances in the matches were he didn’t find the back of the net left many wondering why he’d played at all, but it was hard to argue with a return of four goals in six games.
It didn’t last, though. Following another poor showing in the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat to Motherwell, Caixinha appeared to have had enough, and Pena was completely absent from the squad for the league match against Kilmarnock. Unfortunately for Caixinha, the Rangers board had run out of patience also, and he was out on his backside.
Graeme Murty came in, and although he brought one player in the front the cold - Kenny Miller - he opted to leave Pena where he was. But should he, or the next manager, continue to do so?
It’s clear that Pena is not the long-term answer at Rangers, at least not without a near-magical transformation in his all-round play. At present, he doesn’t contribute enough outside the box to justify his fee and make him a certain starter. But just because he’s not a nailed-on first pick, it doesn’t mean he can’t contribute whatsoever. He’s already got four goals this season from midfield. Even if his only use is an uncanny ability to get into dangerous areas and put the ball in the back of the net, that’s a pretty good strength to have.
Starting him against the likes of Celtic, or Hibs, Aberdeen or Motherwell, would not be a recommended course of action. Instead, why not keep him on the bench and call on him in the dire situations where you just need something, anything to happen in the opposing penalty area, especially at home to teams rooted in the bottom half of the table.
Rangers had 50 crosses into the penalty area against Hamilton without getting a single goal. Every single time Pena has found the back of the net so far, it has been from a cross. He’s the late-arriving midfielder who is so difficult to account for.
Of course, there is the possibility that the decision has been taken out of Murty’s hands. And, unless he’s desperate to keep the expensive flop, it may be taken out of the next manager’s hands as well. The best way to convince an unwanted player to leave a club is to refuse to play him under any circumstances. The best example in the last couple of seasons would be Hearts with Juwon Oshaniwa. There’s only so much sitting and sight-seeing a player can do before he wants to go.
Unless that’s the case, Rangers should at least bring Pena into contention. The next manager will be hoping to bring in an upgrade, either in January or the summer, but there’s a whole lot of football to be played between now and then.