With the ever exciting Under 21 European Championships just around the corner Rangers' very own Nikola Katic gained a well deserved call up to represent his country in what will be his last opportunity at youth level. With Joe Worrall returning to Nottingham Forest and Gareth McAuley out of contract Rangers are in need of central defenders. Despite the need for two central defenders Katic's form should put him in first place to partner Connor Goldson at the back for Rangers no matter who the club sign.
Katic had a mixed first year at Rangers after signing from Croatian side Slaven Belupo for a reported £2million deal. The 22 year old had a fast start to his Ibrox career and was quickly thrown into the deep end in big European qualifiers. Katic did not look out of place and played just about every game between July and September. Between September and February Katic was rarely seen apart from a few games here or there and nobody could quite put their finger on why he wasn't in the side. Many thought Manager Steven Gerrard preferred highly-rated loanee Worrall, there were discussions about personal issues or it may just have been a lot of games for a guy who was a long way from home and is living in a completely different culture from his own.
Katic got himself back into the side slowly but surely by taking his chance when Goldson or Worrall were out. Once the big Croat got up and running it looked as if he'd never been away and the partnership between he and Goldson seemed to pick up where it left up from.
With Gerrard laying down the foundations in season 2018/19 many believe season 19/20 is where Rangers need to take off and of course bringing in two centre backs to compliment Goldson and Katic is very important. However, Katic does deserve to be first choice alongside Goldson when the new bodies are brought in and there are a few reasons why this should be the case.
Statistically it would be very hard to compare Katic to any potential centre back signings (George Edmundson for example) due to these players playing in different leagues, at different levels with different players and at clubs with different ambitions. Though if we compare Katic to Worrall it'll give us an idea how important Katic could've been last season and how important he can be next season.
The most important statistic when it comes to Rangers in any situation is did Rangers win? With Katic in the side Rangers won 12 out of his 17 starts in the league (71% win rate) compared to Rangers starting with Worrall when Rangers only won 11 out of 20 games (55% win rate). Now of course it isn't completely Worrall's fault that Rangers didn't secure more victories especially when considering some of the misfiring up front at times. However, in the league, Worrall only played in one 0-0 and played in four 1-1s and the argument could be made that if there was a more structured back line a couple of those 1-1s could have been 1-0s. If you take the two win rates with these two players over 38 games it works out as a difference of 6 wins. 27 with Katic and 21 with Worrall. Of course winning football games comes down to more than one change but to put it into perspective 27 wins adds up to 81 points with 11 games extra. This season Rangers scored 79 points.
With Katic in the side alongside Goldson, Rangers win more and naturally this will mean that Rangers lose less and this bears fruit again. In the league with Worrall starting Rangers have lost 4 of his 20 starts (20% loss rate) compared to the 1 loss in Katic's 17 league starts (6% loss rate) we can see that Rangers are not as easy to pushover when Katic is in the side. Again if we total this over 38 games with Worrall in the side Rangers lose up to 8 games compared to only 2 with Katic. In fact in Katic's 28 starts in all competitions this season Rangers have only lost 2 games compared to Worrall's 6 losses. The first game was the 1-0 defeat at Parkhead to Celtic 3 days after a 9 man draw against UFA in Russia which took Rangers in the Europa League group stages. The second was a 4-3 defeat to Spartak Moscow which was Katic's second match in six weeks and as we've seen recently at the very top level a long lay off can make players rusty.
It's not just basic win and loss rates that show how improved the team can be with Katic in the side but Rangers are much more efficient with the Croat in the side. Firstly, goals against. Another simple stat but one that shows how important Katic can be. In the league when Worrall started Rangers conceded 16 goals in 20 games (0.8 goals conceded per game) which isn't actually bad in comparison to the last two seasons in the Premiership. However, with Katic in the side Rangers have conceded 11 in his 17 starts in the league (0.65 GCPG). Now it doesn't seem that much of a difference but it's certainly the difference of turning a 1-1 draw into a 1-0 victory and not the other way.
Secondly, clean sheets and getting them is an area where Rangers look more comfortable with Katic in the side. With Worrall starting Rangers claimed 8 clean sheets in 20 matches (40% of the time) compared to when Katic started when Rangers claimed 8 clean sheets in 17 matches (47% of the time). This is another area where we can see having a player like Katic in side can help see the team over the line and it can be the difference between a draw or a victory.
Finally, two or more goals conceded. This breaks down how consistent and efficient the team have been with Katic starting. In his 28 starts this season Rangers have only conceded two or more goals twice. The 3-3 at Motherwell and the 4-3 defeat in Moscow. In Worrall's 30 starts Rangers have conceded two or more goals six times, five of them domestically and one in Europe. If we played this over 38 games Rangers would conceded twice or more on 3 occasions times with Katic compared to 8 times with Worrall starting.
Now there's been quite a bit of Worrall bashing here which is unfair because there is no doubt that he would have walked into that Rangers defence over the two years previous and as shown here, while making a case for Katic, is an improvement on the likes of Danny Wilson, Russel Martin (hell, I could), Rob Kiernan, Fabio Cardoso, David Bates & Bruno Alves. It's not that Worrall is a bad player it's just that the side, as proven here, are much more effective with Katic in the back line which is only a good sign for Rangers going forward.
Stats can say one thing and not reflect what's actually on the park but with Katic the stats just reflect what we see on the park. Katic out with a couple of games (Hamilton & Spartak spring to mind) has always played well and done the basics before anything else. When he and Goldson play together it's as if they'd been playing together for years. There doesn't seem to be much communication but one backs up the others move and and they seem to be on the same wave length when playing together. It's something that hasn't been seen at Ibrox since the partnership of Davie Weir and Madjid Bougherra which is a great compliment to the current two central defenders but also highlights how long Rangers have suffered in that position for nearly a decade now.
The same goes for when Worrall played over Katic. Rather than a partnership it looked as if Goldson was there to mind Worrall rather than defend Rangers' goal. The Kenny Miller goal for Dundee at Dens Park in the 1-1 draw is the perfect example of that. Katic is by no means perfect but he and Goldson look like a team which at the centre of defence is just as important as the quality of player playing there. This is something Gerrard has to be wary of when bringing in new central defenders and trying to bring them into the first eleven. As we've seen up top with Alfredo Morelos and Jermain Defoe just sticking two good players together doesn't mean they'll both end up being a good partnership.
Katic also deserves to start alongside Goldson because of the attitude he has shown not just on the park but off it. A lot of players (some still at Ibrox) can become sloppy and unprofessional while being left out of the side. Katic has shown the complete opposite. During interviews he comes across as a level headed guy who thinks a lot about improving himself and where he has gone wrong. This has even been exhibited in the well documented meetings with Rangers Legend Richard Gough who has been guiding Katic on what's been right and wrong in his time at Rangers. It's great to see important players in Rangers' history help out a player needing it as it's great to see a young player like Katic be so willing to seek and take in advice from someone like Gough.
There is no doubt Rangers will be bringing in central defenders this season but Niko Katic has deserved his chance after a fantastic start to his Rangers career combined with a solid end to the season. His stats show that the side suffered without him and with him in the side all things defensively improve. On the eye it is obvious he and Connor Goldson have a connection and it is also visible that Katic is getting used to the Scottish game with his second run in the side. Katic has had an up and down year at Ibrox but any player coming in during the summer will have to fight for Katic's place that he's now made his own with a good run of performances and a superb attitude.