It's been a busy old summer at Tynecastle. No fewer than 13 new faces have…
Both Rangers and Hearts are undergoing significant upheaval this summer. Between them, the two clubs have signed no fewer than 23 players and moved on a further 22. Both sides looked to have unearthed some real talent in the market but, unlike the previous 45 transfers conducted this summer, this one involves a player moving from one club to the other.
Kyle Lafferty shone in an otherwise blunt attack for Hearts last season and has been drawing admiring glances from Glasgow’s south side. Rangers tabled an initial bid, believed to be around the £200,000 mark, but the Edinburgh club knocked it back and are reportedly holding out for half a million.
Critics have questioned whether or not Lafferty is worth the kind of fee that Hearts are demanding, but this misses the point. If he fits into Steven Gerrard’s system as a second-choice striker, then £500,000 seems like a fair price. But if he doesn’t, then any outlay, no matter how low, is certainly an overspend. We’ve ran the numbers to see what the well-travelled striker could bring to this Rangers side.
It’s widely assumed that Lafferty will provide cover for Alfredo Morelos in Rangers’ attack, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that if the Northern Irishman puts a string of impressive performances that he could possibly leapfrog Morelos in Gerrard’s pecking order, should the Colombian go through a dry spell in front of goal. Apart from the 22-year-old, Gerrard can only rely on the as-yet-untested Umar Sadiq. Bringing in a reliable forward like Lafferty, especially coming off the back of an eye-catching year in the capital, could help ease worries that the club may have problems in attack this season.
When Morelos and Lafferty’s stats for the 2017/18 season are compared, there can be little debate over who the club’s first-choice striker would be. Morelos bests Lafferty by almost all the relevant metrics and would surely be Gerrard’s first pick in attack. But what truly separates the two players is their playing styles; while Morelos harries opposition defenders and applies pressure from the front, Lafferty operates as more of a traditional centre forward and has a fairly extensive catalogue of getting into promising positions at the right time. Two different styles of forward, but both proved to be very effective for their respective teams last season.
These differences would give Gerrard what every manager craves: game-changing alternatives. By having two strikers who are so separate and distinct in their playing styles, it forces the opposition defence to suddenly change the way they prevent shots on goal from what’s been working until that point. It’s a move in which a coach gains the initiative, often to great effect. Having an effective Plan B can win matches and, on the surface at least, it looks like that’s what Lafferty would represent for Rangers.
Lafferty’s stats for the 2017/18 season are undoubtedly impressive, but this perhaps isn’t necessarily a fair representation of what the 30-year-old could achieve coming off the bench at Ibrox. Last season, Lafferty started in all but three of his 35 Premiership appearances. He knew he was guaranteed gametime as he was easily the best striker at the club and gained momentum from playing week in, week out. In order to get a better idea of how Lafferty performs coming off the bench, we’re going to have to look elsewhere in his career.
Before moving to Edinburgh, Lafferty was playing for Norwich City in the English Championship. In truth, the ex-Rangers striker was no more than a bit-part player in the squad. Matches in the starting eleven were hard to come by for Lafferty and the vast majority of those appearances came from off the bench. It’s these games that can tell us what the Northern Ireland international is like when asked to perform as an impact sub.
At Norwich, Lafferty started just once with the rest of his appearances coming via the subs bench. This is what he’s like when he isn’t playing regularly and it makes for grim reading for Rangers fans. Only one shot, which did admittedly end up going in, in 173 minutes – almost two entire matches. Lafferty generally dribbles more when coming on as a sub, as you would reasonably expect, but does so with a higher rate of failure. His success rate drops 12%, meaning an extra failed attempt out of every eight. That might not sound like a lot but over the course of a season, these things add up.
It’s not all bad news, however. The striker’s average number of touches in the opposition box increases from 2.36 to 3.12, as do the number of attacking duels he attempts. Lafferty makes his presence felt, in other words, and plays a little more directly than he does when he’s in the starting eleven.
So should Lafferty eventually sign for Gerrard’s new-look Rangers, fans should be wary of the forward’s tendency to fail to influence a game without a run of matches under his belt. In some ways, coming off the bench adds to his game but goals might not be as easy to come by this season should the transfer go ahead.
It’s a win-win for Hearts. Yes, Lafferty’s contract is up at the end of the season so cashing in now is advisable but holding out for a larger fee makes sense. Rangers desperately need more additions in attack for the upcoming campaign and Lafferty represents a relatively safe option for Gerrard’s squad in a position where consistency is in short supply. Right now, the Northern Irishman is simply worth more to Rangers than he is to Hearts. If the recent performances by Steven Maclean, Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith are anything to go by, the club’s top scorer last season wouldn’t even be too sorely missed.
Should they hold on to Lafferty, then Craig Levein keeps a hold of one of the league’s most effective strikers last year for another season at least, in an environment that seems to be getting the best out of his talents. Levein knows how to use Lafferty and has deployed him to great effect so far – another strong season doesn’t seem out of the question given his performances in his debut one. No matter what happens, it looks like Hearts will benefit.