Monday, June 27, 2022

Breaking Down Rangers’ Defensive Shortcomings & What Leon Balogun Could Do To Help Gerrard’s Cause

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Nikhil Vinodh
Nikhil has been an avid Chelsea fan for as long as the concept of time has existed and rumours say that he even bleeds blue. Having lived in the UK for 3 years, Nikhil is said to have an excellent understanding of the atmosphere surrounding the English game. His role model is the greatest manager of all time - Jose Mourinho.

With the new Premiership season having just commenced, there is no doubt that Rangers need maybe one or two players to truly challenge Celtic for the title. Their most recent defensive acquisition came in the form of a free transfer for veteran Nigerian international defender Leon Balogun.

There had been ongoing talk about potentially adding a new centre-half to the mix for a while now, and the signing of Balogun couldn’t have been timed any better by the Gers either. Speaking to Rangers TV, the former Brighton man was quick to express his excitement about playing in front of 50,000 fans on a regular basis and further went on to comment on the club’s history and general fan-culture as well.

Rangers’ Pre-Season Preparations

The answer to the question ‘which of the two Scottish giants have had a better pre-season tour’ might come as a slight surprise to the casual observer, but Steven Gerrard’s Rangers looked to be a cut above their Old Firm rivals Celtic until last weekend. Not only did the Gers manage to pick up the results they needed, but they also used the opportunity to showcase some of the tactical elements that had clearly been worked on during the lockdown period.

Their two scheduled fixtures in the Veolia Trophy saw them face off against Ligue 1 sides Nice and Lyon over the matter of just days, and it’s safe to say that both their performances were secure for the most part. At no point in either of those fixtures did Rangers look off the pace of the game, while their defensive positioning and general playing out from the back had improved drastically from the back end of last season too.

As seen in the above image, one thing that’s for sure is that Gerrard and the boys have put in an extensive amount of work to ensure that the shape of their defensive line doesn’t alter throughout the ninety. The back-four seem to be maintaining the perfect amount of space in between themselves – enough for them to help each other out, while also being spread out enough to cover the opposition width consistently.

Moreover, the midfield trio can also be seen dropping into their position in the above image, where they’re all trying to get back into the shape that Gerrard would’ve demanded going into the fixture. In the image above, the full-backs’ general starting position when going in the attacking direction has been highlighted as well.

The Areas For Concern

Playing Out From The Back

Despite these motivating signs though, there were a few moments during the matches that Gerrard will likely already have looked to address. One of the biggest problems is Gerrard’s desire to play out from the back. As good as Connor Goldson and George Edmundson has been over the last couple of outings, there have been various instances where a poor pass out from the back has put them in a dangerous situation.

In the above image, the ball is at the feet of Edmundson in a completely safe position, and his thought process at this point involves breaking the Lyon press. Despite having several much safer passes to play – across to Goldson, wide to Barisic, or even back to the goalkeeper, Edmundson’s insistence on getting the ball forward from this position could’ve cost Gerrard’s men a goal.

A quick pass out to Aribo is what the defender chose to do, but given the pressure that was on him, the young midfielder was forced to send the ball back the way it came. Suddenly, three Lyon players are seen closing the young defender down. Instead of maintaining his head and looking for an alternative passing option to ease the pressure, Edmundson chooses to turn and try to carry the ball out of trouble.

The back-pass by Aribo wasn’t necessarily a bad one, and Edmundson didn’t have to do too much to control the ball either. It was his next touch that proved to be the erratic one that would present the ball to the Lyon forward in a dangerously advanced position. Thankfully for Gerrard’s men, given that it was a friendly, the rest of the Lyon attackers were a tad off the pace of the game, and the away side got themselves out of an extremely sticky situation.

Passing Range

For a team to be able to play out from the back successfully, all four of the side’s defenders have to possess certain attributes. The two biggest and most important ones are vision on the ball and composure in possession. In the image shown below, Edmundson can be seen looking up to try and find the ideal pass.

Despite the presence of Davis dropping into the space to provide him with an option, the defender chooses to go for the long ball out to Barisic instead. The pass gets misplaced, thereby leaving the Gers in an extremely sensitive position with the opposition attackers charging forward on the counter.

Covering The Right Spaces

In the image shown below, the Gers’ back-line can be seen defending against a Lyon attack developing on the right flank. Tavernier is quick to step up to his man, but instead of attempting a cross, the forward chooses to enter the inside channel.

As seen above, this opens up a massive space right in the core of the Rangers back-line that the Lyon attackers could’ve easily exploited. This process is largely down to the fact that the defenders in the picture are focused entirely on stopping the ball from entering the box, instead of not allowing the space for the Lyon forwards to exploit in the first place. Against a stronger team in a competitive encounter, the outcome of this situation could’ve been very different, as the amount of space that’s been allowed in the heart of the defence is simply unacceptable.

Enter Leon Balogun

The Nigerian international central defender is the latest defender to join the Ibrox club, added to the acquisitions of Ianis Hagi Kemar Roofe and Cedric Itten in attack and Jon McLaughlin in between the sticks. The 32-year-old arrives in Glasgow with a long and illustrious career already behind him, having enjoyed stints at the likes of Hannover, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Mainz, Brighton and most recently, Wigan Athletic.

The former Brighton man spent the second half of last season on loan at the DW Stadium, and it’s safe to say that he was received quite well by the Latics’ faithful. Having moved in January, the centre-half went on to make eleven appearances for the club in the Championship, even signing a short-term extension at the club post-resumption to ensure that he’s able to see out the entirety of the campaign.

WIGAN, ENGLAND – JULY 22: Leon Balogun of Wigan Athletic looks dejected after the Sky Bet Championship match between Wigan Athletic and Fulham at DW Stadium on July 22, 2020 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Although some might argue that there’s a reason he didn’t play a single Premier League minute for Brighton this season, that is largely down to the fact that the Seagulls already have the likes of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk as the first-choice starters for the role. It’s possible that the Nigerian realised that he wasn’t going to get any playing time, and chose to make the sensible switch to the Championship. Having impressed thoroughly in the English second division, the Rangers fans have more than enough reason to get excited about this acquisition.

What Makes Balogun A Good Option For Gerrard? 

The former Brighton man has been renowned for his amazing ability to deal with any aerial crosses played into the box. Standing at 1.9m tall, the German-born Nigerian international tends to boast a strong physical presence in the defensive third of the pitch. Capable of making humongous leaps when dealing with set-pieces, the defender boasts a strong sense of positioning in the area as well. He’s notched up an impressive 31 caps for the Nigerian national side and has made over 250 appearances at league level across different countries too.

Nigeria’s defender Leon Balogun (L) and Argentina’s forward Gonzalo Higuain compete for the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Nigeria and Argentina at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Saint Petersburg on June 26, 2018. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

The 32-year-old has been in and around the highest level of European football for a while now and saying that such experience will help this Rangers team develop would only act as an understatement. Despite the presence of talented players in their ranks, the recent injury to Jermain Defoe has drained a majority of the experience out of the side. Allan McGregor has been left as the only regular starter over the age of thirty, and the addition of a composed head like that of Balogun would certainly go a long way for the Ibrox club. His voice and leadership skills are sure to come into play in the coming months as well, meaning that the veteran defender could be a regular feature at the Ibrox for a long time to come.

How Can Balogun Address The Aforementioned Issues? 

The sheer fact that Steven Gerrard opted to start him in the first game of the season, ahead of George Edmundson who was mostly impressive all through pre-season, highlights the amount of quality that the Nigerian actually possesses. Despite having only been at the Ibrox for a few days, the defender has settled into life in Glasgow quite efficiently. He never looked fazed with the ball at his feet and was as composed as ever against one of the more dangerous teams in the league in Aberdeen.

Ability To Play Out From The Back

For starters, the former Brighton man is an excellent carrier of the ball, in that he’s got enough of a presence of mind to often make well-informed decisions. Capable of maintaining possession even under pressure, his dribbling skills were heavily on display against the Dons last weekend. As seen in the image, Balogun picks the ball up in his usual position at centre-half.

The arrow in the image above highlights the path that the player takes, rather than attempting to play the first pass that opens up his way. Not only does he maintain composure in a pressured situation, but he also has the collectedness to stride past a couple of Aberdeen challenges like they’re not even there. A simple mistake from the centre-half at this moment could’ve cost the Gers dearly, but the Nigerian kept his wits about him.

Not only does Balogun manage to successfully stride away from trouble, but he also shows the vision and awareness to pass the ball away from the defenders he attracted, thereby opening up space in the core of the team. His pass into Aribo takes four Dons defenders out of the game, and that ability could prove to be extremely vital in their more important games of the season.

Strong Vision And Composed Passing

Balogun tends to be a strong passer of the ball, even when put under pressure by the opposition attackers. He boasts a strong sense of positioning and is usually aware of exactly where his teammates are at all times. Although the Nigerian’s passing accuracy isn’t the most inspiring, the fact remains that he plays very few high-risk passes, and often tends to take the safe route out – the best agenda if the player in question is a central defender.

As displayed in the image attached above, Balogun is seen walking forward with the ball at his feet but is met by a couple of Aberdeen attackers pressing in an attempt to win the ball back. While one of them applies direct pressure on the 32-year-old, the other Aberdeen players can be seen trying to cover the only pass that seems to be open to Balogun in this situation.

Instead of turning around and passing back or smashing the ball forward, Balogun ensures to keep the ball close to his body and opens up the angle. He takes one strong touch to take the ball away from the closest Aberdeen, one-touch to pivot on the desired direction, and then another final touch to pick out Kamara dropping into the midfield space vacated by the pressuring Dons’ striker. The defender was aware of which player he was being marked by and knew that his position on the pitch would be left vacant, thereby taking full advantage using his passing skills and general awareness.

Covers The Right Areas

The ability to be aware of which areas need to be covered first is a true gift in a defender, and Balogun tends to be a prime example of that in action. Not only does the Nigerian position himself efficiently, but he also tries to keep himself updated with regard to the positions of the opposition attackers. An adept reader of the ball, Balogun’s hefty frame helps him cover larger areas of the pitch in small durations as well.

In the above image, the Aberdeen defender can be seen clearing the ball long, knowing full well that the Dons’ strikers are still positioned well up the pitch. Even though it started as a move of desperation, the pass actually turned out to be a half-decent and threatening one.

Even before the Aberdeen man releases the ball, Balogun is already turned on and running back to get into the defensive slot. Although it starts off looking like the striker is in a better position, Balogun’s awareness allows him a couple of seconds’ head-start, and that turned out to be the difference in this situation. Not only does he have the pace required to get back and offer cover, but he also possesses the upper body strength to keep any of the attackers’ challenges in check.

Balogun shows the strength and speed required to take the Aberdeen man completely out of the race, and instead of risking things by playing a back pass, he also uses his intelligence to head the ball back to allow the goalkeeper an easy collection. The only reason the Dons weren’t allowed to get an equaliser in this position was because of Balogun’s ability to read where the ball was going to be played, and what kind of run the forward was going to make.

In the image below, the Nigerian can be seen tracking back as the Aberdeen striker tries to create a hole through the middle of the Gers’ back-line. Goldson on the other side does seem to be better equipped to catching up with the forward, but the sheer desire that Balogun displays to get back into position is commendable, to say the least.

The former Brighton man was able to read the direction and flight of the pass quite early into the attack, and this allowed him the time to run into the perfect position. Not only does the Nigerian successfully get in front of the Aberdeen forward, but he also shows the composure required to take a good touch to move the ball out and play a simple pass to eradicate the pressure completely. Even in this situation, the defender’s biggest strength – the ability to read the play and cover the right areas, took centre stage.

Does Balogun Have What It Takes To Fix Rangers’ Defensive Issues?

One of the biggest problems that Steven Gerrard has had to deal with over the last couple of seasons is the severe inconsistency that seems to haunt all of the Gers’ defenders. Connor Goldson has been one of the more dependable names on the list for a while now, but it’s worth conceding that even the Englishman has his off-days.

BRISTOL, ENGLAND – AUGUST 27: Leon Balogun of Brighton and Hove Albion in action during the Carabao Cup Second Round match between Bristol Rovers and Brighton & Hove Albion at Memorial Stadium on August 27, 2019 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

The injury to Nikola Katic is probably one of the main reasons why Balogun is now a Rangers player, as the Croatian giant tends to offer a fairly composed presence at the back too. George Edmundson is the man who spent the pre-season tour in the central defender’s position, only to be dropped to the bench for the opening game of the season, presumably being rested for their European commitments.

Filip Helander is another option at centre-half, but his lack of consistency and rather erratic nature makes the 27-year-old an unnecessarily risky option. This internal battle for the two defensive spots is sure to get quite heated up in the second half of the season when Gerrard would be forced to choose between Katic and Balogun.

With that said though, considering the sheer amount of experience that Balogun has, it might not be the smartest move to bet against him retaining his place in the heart of the defence for the rest of the season. The Gers are undoubtedly aiming to challenge Celtic for the title all the way this term, and as things stand, the acquisition of Balogun could be one of the key factors to Gerrard’s men achieving just that at the end of the road.

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