Steven Gerrard got his Rangers reign off to a good start recently, leading his side to a 2-0 win over Macedonian outfit Shkupi in Europa League qualifying. Leading the line, rather unsurprisingly given the lack of striking alternatives, was Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian was the club’s top scorer in his debut season at Ibrox and, despite transfer rumours to the contrary, Gerrard has already hinted that he will have a key role for the team going forward.
“We love the player,” Gerrard said in an interview with Radio Clyde. “He’s a goal scorer. We know what he can add to this team and squad. If you’re asking me if his head has been turned that’s a question you’d have to ask the player himself. But where we stand right now he’s a Rangers player and I’m delighted to have him.”
A brief viewing of Gerrard’s first Rangers game showcased why Morelos is so appreciated by his new manager. Both in and out of possession, he brings the sort of hard-headed, direct approach that Gerrard intends to implement. “We will be aggressive,” the former Liverpool man stated when asked about his philosophy. “We need to be organised out of possession, difficult to play and people need to feel Rangers when they play against them now.”
While at HJK Helsinki, Morelos earned the nickname ‘The Buffalo’ for his strength and tenacity on the pitch. Few other individuals within the current Rangers setup seem so obviously suited to Gerrard’s ideas. However, love for the striker is far from unanimous within the club.
After a fast start last term that saw the 22-year-old score six goals in his first six Scottish Premiership outings, a sudden decline in form left him goalless in eight consecutive appearances. And, while he scored eight in his last 17 league games, big misses against fierce rivals Celtic cost him dearly. The most startling sitter came in a 3-2 derby defeat in March, where, with an open goal in front of him, he hit the post from close range, missing the chance to equalise late on in the process.
Squandering opportunities in such important matches is no way for a player to endear himself to the Ibrox faithful, and Morelos’ reputation took an expected hit. He became known not for his work ethic, his all-round play and good scoring record, but for the occasional big chance he didn’t convert. But, as a young striker who shouldered more than his fair share of responsibility last season and has plenty of potential left to fulfil, he deserves more leeway. Fortunately, with Gerrard in charge it looks like he’ll get it.
This season may see Morelos win over the remaining doubters. His first competitive showing under Gerrard saw him fail to score, but his attacking and defensive play was crucial to the team’s effectiveness. As the sole striker within Rangers’ new 4-1-4-1 system, he often instigated their pressing high up the pitch. He also moved deep and across the pitch to combine with teammates, showing willingness and ability in building attacking moves, even if he was unable to finish one.
Morelos’ aggression without the ball was instilled during his time in Finland. His former HJK coach, Mika Lehkosuo, told the Daily Record that: “At HJK we have tried to work on an aggressive style after we lose possession…It was daily work with [Morelos] to get the message over. We had to make sure that training drills didn’t end when he scored and we would get another ball in play to get him to react.”
Evidently, the training ground work had an impact, as Rangers benefitted frequently from the player’s defensive work ethic last term. Against Ross County, having failed to tackle the opposition goalkeeper, Morelos went back and applied more pressure rather than simply giving up. Dispossessing his opponent, he then scored into an open goal.
Rangers must ignore the reported interest in their striker this summer. A willing runner who offers genuine aerial threat, can hold the ball up, connects attacking moves, and is comfortable leading a high press, Morelos will make life easier for Gerrard as he embeds his philosophy at Ibrox. With this in mind, 2018/19 may be the year of The Buffalo.
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Also published on Medium.