Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They…
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No not Christmas, the time of year where inane transfer rumours dominate the Scottish football media. It really is in full swing and if reports are to be believed new Rangers boss Steven Gerrard’s team will be lining up next season full of current and ex-Liverpool players.
Joking aside, Rangers have already been relatively busy in the transfer window. Not only have they signed a new manager but they’ve also confirmed the return of goalkeeper Allan McGregor and have captured midfielder Scott Arfield. The latter arrives from Burnley having played in the English Premier League for the last two seasons.
Rangers Director of Football Mark Allen has already stated that the signing of the Canadian international is a statement of intent. However, you’d forgive any Rangers fan who has greeted Arfield’s arrival with an air of caution. After all, the same rhetoric was spouted last year when Premier League star and marquee signing Graham Dorrans arrived in Govan. Sure he’s been injured, but he’s endured an extremely disappointing season. You could also point to the example of one Joseph Barton as evidence that Arfield’s time in England’s top flight does not guarantee success in Scotland.
That said, Arfield has all the tools as a player to succeed at Ibrox. Many seem to view him as a central midfielder, but the 29-year-old is extremely versatile. Former manager John Hughes has sung his praises saying: “Scott can play left wing, right wing, No.10, central midfield, right-back.”
Similarly, Lee Clarke stated: “He’s very much a modern-day midfield player in terms of being box to box. His energy levels are ridiculous because he’s got tremendous fitness.” High praise indeed. If he lives up to what his former managers think then it’s obviously good news for Rangers. However, what will he bring to Gerrard’s side? And where is he most likely to be deployed? Let’s take a closer look.
On paper, Rangers appear to have an abundance of quality in the middle of the park. However, when it comes to big games they have been found wanting and completely overrun; most noticeably against Celtic. We don’t know what system Gerrard will play and consequently, we don’t know if the plan is for Arfield to play as a central midfielder or a winger. Although it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the priority for Gerrard has to be the spine of this squad, particularly the centre of defence and midfield.
Arfield fits the bill for what Rangers need in the middle of the park. He’s experienced, shows composure with the ball at his feet but also has energy and a decent defensive element to his game. In essence, a player that can be effective in both the defensive and final third. If this is where he’s going to play he’ll have to hit the ground running. He’s been out with a calf injury since February. Moreover, the majority of his appearances in the last three seasons have come on the wing. He’s played some games for Canada in centre-midfield, but at club level, he was mostly used on the left-hand side by Sean Dyche.
So what would he bring to the centre of Rangers midfield? For the purposes of this article, we’ve decided to focus on Arfield’s last season in the English Championship (2015/16). This is because he was playing for a team near the top of the table chasing promotion. Burnley during this period of time are a significantly better comparison to Rangers than Burnley in the Premier League — even if they did finish an impressive seventh this season.
The graphs above show Arfield’s passing stats for the season in question. They certainly highlight that Arfield makes a significant contribution in terms of passing. He was in the top five for each of the metrics we looked at. What’s particularly noticeable is that he played the most overall through passes (63) and also had the highest average per 90 minutes (1.29). Similarly, he performed nine key passes that season (passes that lead to shots on goal); only Andre Gray (11) and George Boyd (16) played more.
It suggests that Rangers are getting a player that can create. His key pass rate is decent and he isn’t scared to play through balls. That said, he’s fifth when it comes to the number of passes played into the final third both overall (258) and on average per 90 minutes (5.29). Perhaps one striking stat is that in many of these metrics Arfield falls behind former Rangers player Barton.
Barton moved to Rangers the following season and struggled to make an impact in Scotland. It reinforces the point that just because Arfield was effective for Burnley, like Barton, doesn’t mean he will succeed in Govan. Conversely, there’s also an argument to say that the areas in which Barton bests Arfield could be due to the fact that the former played a more central role. Simply put, Barton was likely to see more of the ball than Arfield who played the majority of his games out wide.
So he’s got the passing ability that could help Rangers tick and move forward, but what about the defensive part of his game?
Arfield’s defensive stats show that he can be classed as an all-round midfielder of sorts. Yes he plays a decent number of key passes and through balls, but he was also in 355 defensive duels; only Barton is above him (363). That also averages out to 7.28 duels per game, again only second to Barton with 8.9. This is particularly impressive when you take into consideration that he was primarily a winger this season.
The 29-year-old’s interceptions aren’t as impressive. However, he still makes the top five when it comes to the overall number of interceptions that season (196). These number suggests that Arfield could be effective in the centre of Gerrard’s midfield this season. His stats seem to back up that he has the ability and fitness to play box to box. If he were to play in there with Ross McCrorie, Ryan Jack and/or Greg Docherty there’s a chance Rangers could have the energy needed to press and get at teams that they sorely lacked this season.
If a deal for Jamie Murphy doesn’t materialise and Josh Windass leaves the club, then Rangers could very well have a ready-made replacement on the left wing in Arfield. As stated previously, this is the position he’s played most over the past few campaigns. During Burnley’s 2015/16 Championship campaign Arfield chipped in with eight goals and six assists. All of these, apart from one assist, came from when he was playing as a winger.
Rangers’ newest signing likes to take on players with the ball at his feet. Arfield averaged 3.02 dribbles per match and is second overall in this metric with 147. Conversely, his crossing numbers aren’t particularly impressive. There were seven other players who provided more overall crosses than him. Moreover, it’s not like he had a good average per match, he provided less than one cross per 90 minutes (0.88).
The heat map above shows that Arfield isn’t the type of winger that gets to the byline and delivers crosses. Rather he is much more likely to drift into the central area and support his attacking teammates. Whether that will be effective in Gerrard’s setup remains to be seen.
Rangers have had significant success down their right flank this season with the partnership of Daniel Candeias and James Tavernier proving very fruitful. Arfield could potentially give them another attacking outlet down the left wing. That said, if Murphy were to stay at the club you’d presume he’d be the first choice at left-wing. To be fair to him he was the most effective of Rangers’ January signings. Furthermore, this would also mean that Arfield would perhaps be more use to Gerard and co. in a central position. Although wherever he is deployed, Arfield will have to buck the trend in recent years and prove that he isn’t just another Dorrans or Barton.