Joey Barton’s arrival in Scotland and alleged declarations of intent to immediately mark himself out as the best player in the country hasn’t exactly gone to plan so far. Although he’s probably not at 100% fitness, he’s hardly stood out as a player of superior technical quality, and has been largely mediocre in Rangers’ midfield during our shoogly start to the season.
The media have now been kind enough to notice this, and the suggestion from some unkind persons is that Barton has his place in the team through his name rather than his performances (Celtic fans telling a player of Roman Catholic descent he’s only playing for Rangers because of his name? How strange the times we live in really are.)
So, does Barton deserve to be on the bench for the upcoming showdown at Parkhead? Some journalists seem to think so. The same ones who spent the whole summer talking up the prospect of the man in an Old Firm game, if you’ll recall, but we’ll let that go. There’s an argument to be made, certainly.
Firstly, Barton brings experience and, to some degree, a level head. He’s made few rash challenges this season, despite being on the end of a leg-breaker in pretty much every game. He’d be fitter, too, having had a break before to get himself up to speed. And it’s away at Parkhead, so even if two defensive midfielders isn’t great to watch when we’re trying to wallop some diddies like Hamilton or Dundee, this is probably the one occasion where it might be worthwhile. As the 10bet football odds confirm, we are very much not favourites for this one.
Perhaps the question, then, is how well he fits the current system. Joey Barton and Jordan Rossiter might look a wee bit as though they’re struggling to play together, but it’s actually difficult to figure out. Rossiter’s crisp short passing between the lines has made him perhaps look a more well-rounded player than he actually is - his advances into the final third usually end in dispossession and disaster. Despite that, Barton usually starts the furthest back of the two.
There are a few reasons why this shouldn’t be the case. Firstly, he’s got a better shot and pass on him than Rossiter has, so offers at least something in the final third. Secondly, he is extremely slow, and offers nothing in a purely defensive role since it’s too easy for players to sprint past him (remember Dougie Imrie looking like Gareth Bale up against him? Jeeso.) Further up the pitch, he can use his excellent timing of the tackle to get stuck in and actually win the ball.
The evidence backs all this up. Barton has pushed further forwards in the second half in all of our league games except Dundee, when we’ve been chasing the game. We have played far better in the second half of all our league games except Dundee. The equaliser against Hamilton and the winner vs Motherwell both started with Joey Barton winning the ball with a well-timed tackle or interception having been given more freedom.
It’s too early to say now that Barton and Rossiter can’t play together. An impending must-not-lose Old Firm game at Parkhead is enough to bring out a conservative instinct in any manager, but that could be one of two things in Mark Warburton - continuing his defensive football, or returning to his basic principles and unleashing the midfield properly. We’d prefer the latter.