Decision time for Rangers – the ‘false nine’ debate as club tries to find solution to striking crisis ahead of Leipzig

Joe Aribo celebrates after Rangers scored their second goal in the 4-2 win over Borussia Dortmund in Germany on February 17. (Photo by Martin Rose / Getty Images)

As the Rangers manager stands on the cusp of a truly remarkable achievement, he is entitled to curse the ill fortune which has deprived him of the services of Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe, the Ibrox club’s two leading strikers.

While still hopeful Roofe may recover from his knee injury in time to feature in next week’s second leg at Ibrox, van Bronckhorst faces a test of both his coaching nous and the depth of his squad as he ponders the best way to ensure Rangers go into that game with favorable odds of reaching the Europa League final in Seville on May 18.

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There has been much debate over whether the Dutchman should deploy a ‘false nine’ at the Red Bull Arena. With Fashion Sakala having failed to impress when he was tried in the central striking role in the first leg of the quarter-final away to Braga, many feel van Bronckhorst may need to test the adaptability of either winger Ryan Kent or midfielder Joe Aribo in a less conventional formation.

Winger Ryan Kent, pictured getting the better of Braga’s Fabiano at Ibrox earlier this month, has been a key performer in Rangers’ run to the Europa League semi-finals. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Former Rangers striker Kris Boyd concurs that Zambian international Sakala does not possess the necessary tools to operate through the middle and sympathises with the predicament van Bronckhorst must wrestle with on such a momentous occasion.

“The loss of Morelos was already a big blow but then losing Roofe is an even bigger blow for me,” says Boyd.

“You had Roofe to replace Morelos but there’s no one really to replace Roofe.

“I know Sakala played against Motherwell on Saturday but you’ve got to look at the European game in Braga and that wasn’t his best performance.

Former Rangers striker Kris Boyd, now a Sky Sports pundit, expects his old club to ‘do Scottish football proud’ when they face RB Leipzig in their Europa League semi-final. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

“You know what you’re going to get from Sakala but I still think he’s better coming off the wing.

“Whether that then moves Kent into a central position, you put Sakala out there or Joe Aribo comes into it.

“But I think you could possibly see Rangers playing with that false nine as such.

“Listen, it has its strengths. If it’s a midfielder or winger, you come and start looking for the ball.

Fashion Sakala is all smiles at the end of Rangers’ 3-1 win against Motherwell at Fir Park on Saturday. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

“If that’s the case you need someone to stretch the play because you can’t just camp in, defending and hoping for a counter attack but you can’t have everyone coming to the ball.

“You need people to run away from it. I know it sounds simple but sometimes when you go away from home in Europe everyone wants on the ball because you do seem to get more time on it.

“I think it’s important that whoever plays through the middle stretches the game and allows Rangers the opportunity to get up the field.

“As I say, Sakala gives you more from the wide areas than what he does through the middle.

“You’ve obviously got to then ask does he give you more than Kent from the wide areas? Probably not. So you are then probably weakening two positions if you put Kent through the middle as such.

“It’s finding that balance. In the past you could see Rangers were 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. I don’t think they are that rigid any more in terms of ‘that’s the way they play’.

“There’s flexibility with the forward players drifting into areas.

“Maybe it was just a one off with Sakala in Braga but you could see the players were frustrated with him as well.

“He might well start on the right and Kent might stay in his position. Scott Wright is there, Joe Aribo could play as a false nine. So there are plenty of options.

“Because there’s that striker missing, you have to fill that void with someone else.

“It could be Aribo or Scott Arfield going that one further up. Then there’s a case for Steven Davis to come in and play as part of a tight three in midfield.

“Wright has done himself no harm recently, coming on against Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final and then with his display at Motherwell.

“He’ll be saying ‘I’m in with a chance of starting’. So Rangers are in a good place, albeit without a recognized out-and-out striker.

“But there will be plenty of confidence there. As a winger you won’t like playing with your back to goal but sometimes it might suit with the counter attack.

“Wingers like getting the ball down and running at people. Kent, I wouldn’t say he has played as a striker but he’s kind of adapted that role behind a striker in Europe.

“It might be him. So there might be a chance for Davis to come in, but it depends on what Giovanni does at the top end of the pitch. “

Boyd was a member of the Rangers squad which reached the UEFA Cup final in 2008 and especially cherishes memories of the penalty shoot-out win over Fiorentina in the last four.

“It’s more or less a blur until the wee man (Nacho Novo) stood there and put that winning penalty away,” he says.

“When you saw the celebrations, it was a fantastic achievement. I’ve said it before – did I ever think that any side in Scottish football would ever get back to a semi-final? No.

“Rangers have done that with an opportunity to get to the final. It’s a special occasion for everybody. I think Scottish football gets battered from pillar to post from other nations and pundits who talk us down and expect Rangers to just roll over and for the teams from the big nations to beat them.

“But it won’t be a roll over against Leipzig. I’d imagine Rangers will put in a performance that Scottish football can be proud of. “

* Kris Boyd was speaking at his annual Charity Golf Event at Turnberry to help raise awareness for Mental Health.

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