Following on from last week’s article on Rangers' attacking options, this week it’s the turn of centre-backs to get the squad building treatment.  The idea of this article is to look at the age profile and ability of each current player in a specific position and identify any potential areas for improvement.  Should Rangers recruit a short-term new signing here to make an immediate impact? Or can they afford to bring in a longer-term player who may be a candidate to be sold for a bigger profit in the coming years? Are both realistic?

Centre-back is the most difficult position to scout for generally but even more so when you’re looking for one at Rangers. It’s an old cliche, but defending being classed as an art rather than a science generally rings true.  At the other end of the park, if you score or create lots of goals then you’re generally afforded a little bit of leeway by the fans. If you miss a chance (i.e. make a mistake) then there’s no real damage done at the moment.  As a defender? You could be flawless for months but making a single mistake that leads to a goal can completely transform a game or even an entire season. Allied to that, most successful centre-backs are judged on what they do without the ball, rather than with. 

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Positioning, concentration, organisation, character. These are the pillars of what makes a good centre-back in almost all football teams. And yet, judgements in these areas are subjective and at times can be based more on gut feel than actual evidence.

It’s also a role which varies wildly in terms of the skill set required for each team, making recruitment eminently more difficult. To put that into context, of the players in the Scottish Premiership who attempted the most passes last season, three of the top 7 were Old Firm centre-backs. Due to the squeezing of space and the increased tactical organisation of most teams, they have now become de-facto playmakers and must at least be an above-average passer of the ball.  But that alone isn’t anywhere enough. It may be in some leagues around the world but not in Scotland.

We still need our centre backs to be dominant physically both on the ground and in the air, they must be able to read the game well and have to have a decent turn of pace.  Concentration and adaptability are also huge for a Rangers centre-back as they may not be called into action very often domestically, but the shoe can easily be on the other foot on the European scene where the hunter can very quickly become the hunted. Something Rangers saw more often than we’d like in last season’s Champions League.

You need a centre-back who is good at absolutely everything you would expect a traditional one to be, but they also need to be comfortable carrying the ball forward, attempting line-breaking passes and switching between playing in a low block or being camped in the opposition half for the entire game - Levi Colwill come on down.

If it’s deemed unrealistic to buy several players who have all of these characteristics, then at the very least the combined Rangers centre-back partnership needs to have them all in their defensive arsenal.

To identify what the team needs, we need to look at what they currently have. As things stand, Rangers are fortunate enough to have Connor Goldson and John Souttar who arguably both fill as much of the above criteria as is realistically possible in Scotland. Question marks remain around Souttar’s injury record which - allied to the age of 19-year-old Leon King - mean that Rangers probably need to carry a fifth central defender to provide reassurance and cover should last season’s calamitous injury troubles rear their head again.

As you can see from the squad depth graphic, Ben Davies is the final option currently available to Rangers in the position. On paper, he ticks a lot of boxes as a partner to a more traditional teammate. He’s left-footed - a rarity that instantly makes them more in demand - and he’s very comfortable on the ball. Anyone who watched him during his time at Preston and Sheffield United would see a player more than capable of carrying the ball forwards to initiate the press or using his varied passing range to switch play and open up attacking opportunities for his team. 

The one thing that becomes obvious from any length of time watching Davies is his lack of physical dominance over defenders and his general weakness in the air. He reads the game well on the deck, but as soon as he has to deal with the physical/aerial battle, he can start to flounder. 

As I said above, those in this slot are mostly judged on the intangibles and perception is reality. For Davies, I don’t feel like he - or Rangers as a team - have done a good enough job of minimising his weaknesses and showcasing his strengths. His passing is good, but it’s not been anywhere near as good or varied enough during his time at Rangers for the tradeoff you get on his defensive weaknesses. 

Davies could become a good Rangers player in the future - his performances either side of Christmas when partnered with Connor Goldson are evidence of that - but at this point in time Rangers need to bring in a centre-back who ticks more boxes.  Ideally, the club’s finances would dictate that the club could afford to bring in a top centre back to the existing unit including Davies to guide us through a long, difficult season. Unfortunately, cash is king and it may be that Rangers look to move him on and recoup some of the outlay for reinvestment. 

Moving on to the squad-building theme, Davies will be 28 in August and will start to see his value drop quite significantly. This makes his departure a possible option that suits all parties if it allows Rangers to bring in a player who may be more suited to the task and ideally be a number of years younger.  With Connor Goldson now on the wrong side of 30 and John Souttar in his peak years at 26, it's clear that Rangers could do with bringing in a centre-back or two who are closer to Leon King’s age but still with the level of experience that would deem them first team ready.

There have been three players linked with Rangers who are of an ideal age profile and are all capable of playing as a left-sided partner of Goldson or Souttar. 

Jonathan Panzo 

Panzo is the player that Rangers appear to have the most concrete interest in. The 22-year-old has been fair travelled already in his career, making almost 100 appearances during a combination of loans and transfers with Chelsea, Monaco, Dijon, Circle Brugge, Nottingham Forest and Coventry. 

It was his season on loan at the Ricoh Arena last term that has been his most productive to date, playing a key role early on in a very promising Coventry team narrowly lost out in the Championship play-offs.

Watching Panzo play, it’s hard not to be reminded of the qualities that Calvin Bassey displayed during his time at Rangers. Both players can look a little unorthodox at times and neither seem really dominant in the air for a player of their size and physical attributes.  Panzo does seem to enjoy a tackle, and whilst he can definitely read the game well, he’s also adept at using his pace to get out of any sticky situations that may arise. Like Bassey, Panzo loves to get on the ball and build play from deep, whether that’s by carrying it forward himself or using his decent passing range. Having a player who can do both of these is ideal.

At a mooted fee of £2.5m, the expectation may be that Panzo could join as more of a rotation option who could grow into the position throughout the next couple of years. I could see Panzo comfortably slotting into a back three with Rangers should they decide to use that more often this season than last. Intriguingly, I think his best position in a Michael Beale team right now could be as a left-back, which may open up another sensible transfer of its own with Borna Barisic's contract expiring in the summer 2024.

The flexibility and profile Panzo has would definitely be a welcome addition to a team desperately in need of some pace and youthful exuberance at that end of the field.

Austin Trusty

Arsenal’s US international centre-back Austin Trusty seems to be gathering an almost Jardel-like cult following amongst Rangers fans, with most seemingly preferring him to Panzo. Trusty won Player of the Year at Birmingham City last season as the club finished 17th in the league. 

Trusty is a left-footed centre-back, which always leads you to think he probably will be good on the ball. As you can see below, he actually ranks very low on number of passes attempted in relation to players playing at a similarly ranked league around Europe and beyond. This is where context needs to be added for central defender data scouting, as this is much more likely to do with the style of play at Birmingham than his overall quality on the ball. 

Watching him play, he actually looks quite composed without it being his stand-out strength. He could be seen as a more traditional defender with all the physical attributes and defensive strength that you would expect, very strong in the tackle and willing to put his body on the line for a clean sheet. 

One thing Trusty definitely seems to have in his favour is his strength at attacking set pieces, scoring four goals and consistently being a threat in the opposition box. This is something Rangers have been lacking since Leon Balogun and Filip Helander departed and would tie in nicely with the huge uptick in Rangers' set-piece success since Michael Beale rejoined the club.

Trusty is 25 in August so would come in as a player expected to be at his peak or reaching it almost immediately and as such his value would probably reflect that. Rumours of £2m seem fanciful unless Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is feeling generous to his old team. It may be that this is a transfer that could only conceivably happen should Rangers sell Davies or successfully move on some of the squad players perhaps deemed surplus to requirements.   

Charlie Cresswell

Charlie Cresswell is one of those unique cases where age and ability seem to marry up perfectly.  Despite not yet being 21, he is the youngest linked so far (another August birthday bizarrely),  but there’s an argument that he may be the most well-rounded of the three.

Cresswell spent last season on loan from Leeds to Millwall so is another player with Championship experience under his belt. He is currently off on international duty with England, as the young Lions light up the Euro U21 tournament reaching this weekend’s final against Spain. Whilst he’s not yet a first pick at that level, he has seen some minutes despite being firmly behind Levi Colwill and Man City’s Taylor Harwood-Bellis in the pecking order. 

Cresswell has a lot of similar attributes to Trusty, at 6ft3 he is unsurprisingly dominant in the air and he appears to favour bringing the ball out from the back more than the American. From the footage I’ve watched, he doesn’t appear to be the quickest but positions himself well in transition to allow himself the best opportunity to defend against pacey forwards. 

Again, this may be a style of play quirk but on the evidence so far, that’s a key positive in his pros column for joining a Rangers team. The only disadvantage Cresswell has over Panzo and Trusty is that he’s right-footed and predominantly plays on the right, but did fill in as left centre-back on several occasions last season at Millwall and looked fairly comfortable.

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With Leeds relegation to the Championship, the expectation amongst their fans has been that Cresswell would become a first choice centre back at Elland Road this summer. However, given the scale of work needed under new manager Daniel Farke it may be that surprising decisions are taken for the overall benefit of the team. Middlesborough had a January bid of around £4m rejected for Cresswell, but rumours of a relegation release clause may make this signing realistic for Rangers. 

If Rangers need two centre-back options - or use a back three very frequently - then they may have to look further afield into Europe to get more bang for their buck. With that in mind, two centre-backs popped out as being interesting options that may help to round out the defensive unit. These are my suggestions and as far as I’m aware, have not been linked with Rangers at any stage in this window or any previous windows.

Alexander Djiku 

First up is Alexander Djiku, who is available on a free transfer after leaving RC Strasbourg this summer where he was their captain. Djiku is garnering interest from a certain Premier League club in Nottingham, so it’s within reason that a post-it with his name on it could be found somewhere within the walls of Auchenhowie or Ibrox.

He has a modern centre-back’s skillset, dominant in the defensive sense but also very comfortable on the ball as you would expect from a player playing in a top five league in Europe. He can be a real threat in the air as well, given he isn’t tall for a centre half at just 6ft. The timing of his jumps are crucial here, as he certainly doesn’t come off second best in many battles in the air. Djiku is right-footed but has played extensively on the left for Strasbourg and Ghana and looks more than comfortable passing on either side.

Djiku was signed in 2019 for around 4m and was one of Strasbourg’s best players throughout his time in France, making his debut with Ghana during this time. He is now a regular in the Black Cats squads and will be hopeful of a starting slot at the African Cup of Nations in 2023 should Ghana qualify.

Another August birthday, he will be 29 next month so would come in as an experienced option that may allow Rangers to focus the bulk of their centre-back cash on someone like Cresswell or Trusty. 

Given Rangers' propensity this summer for targets who either play in or have recently played in the Eredivisie, it’s only natural to look to this market again for a centre-back. 

Mike Eerdhuijzen

Mike Eerdhuijzen is a 22 year old Sparta Rotterdam defender that could well fit the bill as a young, ball-playing centre-back who crucially may be within Rangers' financial reach. Similarly to Cresswell, this is another well-rounded skillset and it’s noticeable to see that Eerdhuijzen spends a lot of time on the ball. He is equally adept at bringing the ball forward or using his range of passing to progress the team further up the pitch. 

Defensively there are no obvious weaknesses, he is physically imposing at 6ft5 but also shows a good turn of pace should it be required. His reading of the game seems well developed for someone so young and while the obvious differences between Eredivisie and SPFL style of play will always be there, he definitely appears to have the skillset to handle that transition.

From speaking to experts who know the Dutch market better than me, it’s possibly a surprise that Eerdhuijzen either hasn’t moved to a traditionally bigger Eredivisie club or even further afield yet by this stage of his career. His value on Transfermarkt can never be taken as accurate but it is around 750k so as a guide, he looks to be a bit of a steal based on his current quality and attributes.

Rangers' defensive squad building needs one or two additions to the team to help the unit become much more solid than it has been in the past two seasons. Given the age profile of the three current starting centre backs, an experienced younger option would obviously be the most sensible approach here but as always finances dictate whether that is actually possible.  It will be interesting to see if the club are able to marry up that ‘win now’ centre-back requirement with some future planning in this summer transfer window.