Rangers must find a solution to the Nathan Patterson conundrum
Steven Gerrard was entitled to the chuckle with which he greeted news of Everton’s £5million bid for Nathan Patterson.
But if the impudent offer for the 19-year-old right-back certainly merited both the immediate rejection it received from the Rangers board and the scornful reaction of the manager, finding a pathway for Patterson to fulfil his huge potential with the Ibrox club is no laughing matter.
As it stands, one of the brightest talents to emerge in Scottish football for some time is spending most of his match days cooling his heels on the substitutes’ bench.
It’s clearly not a desirable or sustainable situation for Patterson if he is to properly advance a career which saw him excel in his first team appearances for Rangers in the second half of last season and deservedly force his way into the Scotland squad for the Euro 2020 finals.
Based on the assumption that Rangers have absolutely no desire to sell or even send Patterson out on loan during the current transfer window, then the amount of game-time he will get in the coming months is likely to remain limited.
Unless, of course, Gerrard and his coaching staff can come up with a system which allows them to accommodate both James Tavernier and Patterson in the same starting line-up on a fairly regular basis.
Tavernier’s status as one of the first picks – if not the first – on Gerrard’s team sheet certainly isn’t going to change any time soon. While the club captain was among those who didn’t hit their straps immediately in the early weeks of this season, he was back to something approaching his best in Sunday’s 4-2 Premiership victory at Ross County.
Tavernier has already contributed four assists for Rangers since the start of the campaign as he looks to maintain the remarkable numbers he posted last season when he was the club’s top scorer with 19 goals plus 16 assists.
Even allowing for the fact Tavernier is Rangers’ nominated penalty taker, those are outstanding stats for a right-back and underline why it would be so difficult for Patterson to oust him.
But Gerrard has already suggested he is prepared to consider an alternative position in his side for Tavernier, as well as a switch away from his preferred 4-3-3 formation, which would allow Patterson to step in at right-back.
It was attempted briefly during the pre-season friendly against Arsenal at Ibrox. At half-time, Tavernier was moved to a wide-right position in midfield with Patterson coming on to play directly behind him.
“If we use this system, it will be more in a back three or a 4-1-4-1 where James is more out wide, where he is more used to being where he is when he plays right back,” said Gerrard. “There will be times when it will suit us. There will be times when I don’t need it, but it is something that is on my mind and it is something we are going to experiment with.
“They (Tavernier and Patterson) are two fantastic players, so I can’t have one of them on the bench for every game of the season.
“We’re going to consider it because they’re two really good players, but it’s not going to happen at the flick of a switch. It is something we’re going to have to work on in training – we’ll have to get them used to it.”
The benefit to Patterson in learning the intricacies of the modern full-back position from Tavernier, who has effectively been his mentor at the training ground for the past couple of years, is obvious.
When Tavernier was sidelined by injury in February, Patterson hit the ground running with a sequence of assured, athletic and technically outstanding performances as his deputy.
While the teenager has still only made 17 first team appearances for Rangers, it’s already easy to make comparisons with the two other exceptional full-backs Scottish football has produced in recent years.
Patterson certainly appears destined to follow in the footsteps of both Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney by finding himself performing in the English Premier League one day. Everton are not the only club who have been monitoring his progress.
But it’s crucial, from both the player and Rangers’ perspective, to ensure that progress is not stunted.
Patterson is expected to retain his place in Steve Clarke’s squad, to be named on Tuesday, for next month’s World Cup qualifying triple-header against Denmark, Moldova and Austria. He has the potential to establish himself as Scotland’s first choice right-back for many years to come.
Yet if he does not play more often for Rangers this season – his only competitive appearance so far was in the Premier Sports Cup tie against Dunfermline on August 13 – then it would be difficult for Scotland manager Clarke to select him ahead of those turning out every week for their club sides.
There is no suggestion that Patterson is growing frustrated by his restricted first team opportunities. He has a strong relationship with Gerrard and his trust in the club’s plan for his development convinced him to sign a new contract in January which runs until the summer of 2024.
Rangers are all Patterson has ever known, growing up as a supporter of the club and joining their academy set-up at the age of eight.
The conundrum for Gerrard to solve now is how to ensure Patterson spends less time sitting beside him in the technical area and is instead showcasing his rare talent up and down the right flank in front of him.