The case for a missing defence, how Warburton must adapt or fail Questions over Rangers' central defence linger


After Rangers 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Celtic on Saturday, many would have expected Rangers manager Mark Warburton to be promising change after a very poor performance from a side and management team claiming to have ambitions of dethroning the current Scottish champions.

Instead, Mark Warburton has gone on the attack saying that there has been a huge over-reaction to Saturday’s result, saying: “I told the players that I was warned not to read the papers but I thought no, I will read the papers, and you see some of the poisonous, mischievous dialogue that is written, and that just burns in your memory and that is something we will use.”

It’s a common management ploy as the Englishman tries to regroup his side after what will be a particularly hurtful blow even this early in the season, with Rangers sluggish start not going unnoticed by the Scottish and wider media.

Much of the criticism of Saturday’s performance focused Rangers’ central defensive pairing and the decision to drop talisman Andy Halliday, who was pivotal in the semi-final against Celtic last season in favour of the obviously still unfit new signing Niko Kranjcar who looked woeful in the 45 minutes he was on the park.

The gamble to sign and start Phillipe Senderos was to go horribly wrong as the former Swiss international was sent off for two bookable offences, the second being a comical handball which would not have looked out of place on a basketball court.

One of the strangest traits that seems to be developing in Mark Warburton’s early but successful tenure at Ibrox is the inability to identify a solid central defender to suit their brand of high pressing attacking football.

Some would argue that that last statement does not go far enough saying that the duo of Warburton and Weir are yet to identify a solid central defender never mind one that can play their brand of football, but I beg to differ in the case of one of their signings.

Of the rogues gallery who have lined up at the centre of defence, Rangers have a mixture of failed journeymen and one former David Weir prodigy who was the pair’s first signing to the club. It is this man who for some reason has become something of a boo boy along with his partner the clumsy Rob Kiernan.


But in Danny Wilson, Rangers have a confirmed winner and a player who stood out captaining a Hearts side that brushed Rangers aside in their promotion push to the Premiership, so what has changed?

Is he on the decline as a player? No. Is he eyeing up a move or unhappy? No. Is he playing in a system that does not suit him? Yes.

Now there is no doubt that the Danny Wilson at one point looked like Scotland’s best hope for the future in the centre of defence and at Hearts, he seemed to look once again like the young teenager who broke into the Rangers treble winning side. But since arriving back at Ibrox the 24-year old has struggled, cutting an ever increasingly frustrated and perplexed figure.

I have lost count the number of times in the last year I have seen the defender at his wits end shouting and harassing those around him to hold some sort of a defensive shape, usually to no avail as a majority of the time his defensive partner Rob Kiernan commits to a ball he can’t win leaving Wilson to clear up his mess.

One game in particular, stands out for me and was an early indicator of how easy it could be to unlock the Rangers defence. It was the clash between Rangers and promotion rivals Falkirk – who were chasing down the two early leaders Hibs and Rangers.

The game started at the usual high tempo that both sides liked to play, but Falkirk adjusted their game plan choosing to sit deeper choking off the space behind their defensive line and at the same time playing with John Baird and the lightning quick youngster Kevin O’Hara, both of whom could chase down the Rangers backline and offer the one threat no defender enjoys pace.

On the day Falkirk time and time again played long direct balls into the channels over the heads on both Wilson and Kiernan getting their rewards with a 2-1 win, the second coming by way of a penalty conceded by Wilson as he scarpered back to try and stop the midfield run of Will Vaulks. The warning was there for all to see, as for the majority of the time Rangers defenders were 2 vs 2 with both of the central defenders being run ragged.


Much of this was to do with the high-line high-pressure that Warburton and Weir insist on playing, but in the Semi-Final it seemed to prevail as Rangers kept a deeper line mostly due to the fear of Leigh Griffiths’ pace and it was Wilson’s best game of the season as he completely nullified the threat of Griffiths. But this was overshadowed by Andy Halliday’s outstanding man of the match performance in Rangers midfield that day.

But the blueprint was there and it had worked so why after such a good performance against a side who won the previous five SPFL titles was this more conservative footballing approach abandoned?

The tiki-taka variant that Warburton and Weir have used for most of their managerial careers has worked so far bringing success at both Rangers and Brentford, but the initial success has so far stopped them developing their brand of football or even moving on from their high-line high-pressure philosophy and it is this that may be the undoing of them.

I always remember the Sir Alf Ramsey saying which was famously used most recently by Italian great Marcello Lippi, he said: “The best players don’t always make the best team.”

The same can be said in reverse for playing styles, as the best systems don’t always suit average sides or to put it another way you can only play with the hand you are dealt.

Both Warburton and Weir need to realise this before it’s too late as the Rangers fans will not stand for performances like that for too long.


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