There can be no doubt that domestically, two draws aside, Rangers have been completely imperious this season. While the side faltered in Europe, the SPL has been, to coin a phrase the young ‘uns use these days, ‘owned’ by the Light Blues. Only Hearts and St Mirren have been able to prise points from the Gers, a feat owing much to a robust formation and system, alongside a number of key players excelling over the course of the first period of the campaign. The defence has been resolute with Bocanegra and Goian striking up a fine partnership, while the full back positions have seen the improving Whittaker and the ever dependable Papac supported by the willing Wallace. Midfield has been productive with Edu looking sharper than previous, and Davis generating a great deal of industry. Jelavic and Lafferty have also contributed a fair bit, and while the former arguably is not exactly ‘on fire’, he has still produced the goods, and the latter has continued his excellent post split displays.
However, the crux of the system has centred around one player in particular, and his multitasking ability to cover several key roles. This player is of course Steven Naismith, and he was literally the fullcrum of the entire attack – the link between midfield and up front and the player who was not only top scorer, but capable of creating and interchanging in the middle. Of course, I say ‘was’, because thanks to an awkward challenge at Aberdeen, Naismith is now out for the rest of the season and arguably won’t be back at his best until 2013, such is the time cruciate ligament injuries take to heal, both physically and mentally.
|Naismith in action pre-injury.
What does this loss mean for the side and specifically Ally McCoist? The first problem the manager has is whether to replace the player, or the system. With Naismith in tow, a uniform 4-4-2 was used with the Scottish international on the right wing, but bursting forward to generate a pseudo 4-3-3. This yielded plenty of goals, and players who knew what their role was and how it fitted in. Naismith could drive down the right, cut in the middle, attack as a full blown striker plus help defend the right flank when need be – this meant it did not have to remain rigidly 4-4-2 and could adapt to the flow of a game. Simply put his displays and the system were crucial to each other. Does McCoist now replace him with another player, such as Bedoya, Fleck, McKay, Ortiz or possibly Wylde, and try to retain the shape of 4-4-2, or does he attempt a different system to accommodate the players at his disposal?
In the first post-Naismith match, the side managed a relatively comfortable 3-1 home victory over the struggling Arabs, but the initial formation seemed a little strange with McKay supporting Jelavic and Papac on the left wing again. This is the test – while this slightly prototypical formation ran out solid winners, it was not until McKay’s clinical cross for Jelavic’s opening goal that a collective sigh of relief could be heard, such was the ineffectiveness of the opening 20 minutes. Will this kind of adaptation work long term for McCoist? Can he rely on moments of quality to continue to charge the team forward?
He has to decide whether to appoint a permanent right winger to slot in the vacant position or adjust the whole team. Going by what he did against the Tangerine Terrors, his solution is the latter.
It worked on that occasion, but whether Rangers can keep up this level of form long term without Naismith is something only time can tell.