He's the right guy in the wrong movie. The leading man cast in a straight-up thriller, then sidelined by a new director intent on delivering something altogether more complex, nuanced and creatively challenging.
News that Rangers are looking to offload summer signing Antonio Colak, a penalty-box predator who scored 14 goals in his first 16 games for the Ibrox outfit, may strike some as odd. Clubs are not, as a rule, in such a rush to discard that sort of production potential.
But Rangers did more than just change gaffers when they brought in Michael Beale to replace Giovanni van Bronckhorst last November. From the moment they lured their former assistant manager back to Glasgow, they were signing off on a complete change in the team’s footballing philosophy. And Colak, as game and enthusiastic a professional as you’ll find, simply can’t deliver what Beale wants from his No. 9. Not to the levels required by a Rangers boss whose tactical approach places extreme demands on his front three.
So, sure, the stats might tell you that, by discarding the 29-year-old, Beale would be losing guaranteed goals. But that misses the point. Because a 20-goal man in one system can just as easily be an obstacle to progress in another.
Looking again at all 17 he’s scored for the club, a far from awful return in a season disrupted by injury, Colak’s prowess as a finisher – someone who will bang ’em in at a fair clip for AN Other Club, in due course – is clear.
It’s also obvious the Croat was especially suited to the more structured approach of Van Bronckhorst, who asked his centre forward to get in the box, get on the end of things and get in among the goals. Not nearly as simple as it sounds. But all standard enough, in terms of expectations on a central striker.
Look at the shot map (Source: Wyscout) from his time at Rangers and you’ll notice that, like a lot of elite forwards, he virtually lives in that area between the penalty spot and the six-yard box.
That worked very well within Van Bronckhorst’s more rigid system, which was possibly unfairly dismissed by critics as “U-bend football”, a reference to the frequency with which the ball would be moved from flank to flank via backwards and lateral passes to the central defenders. What is true is that it produced plenty of crosses for strikers to attack.
Beale’s intentions have always been more dynamic, with Colak made to understand very early on that he’d need to do more than score goals or even provide assists, if he was to nail down a starting place. Movement off the ball is crucial to the new coaching team, with the emphasis on players being more “connected with the game” – a phrase you’ll hear often in relation to a revamped Rangers.
It’s about much more than just getting into the right positions at the right time. If the bare minimum for Beale is finding a centre forward sufficiently switched on to avoid blocking up the lanes he wants left open for driving runs or incisive passes into the final third, the right man will also understand how to “sell” his decoy movements to defenders and know exactly where his support is needed most.
Look at this screen grab from the 5-2 win over St Mirren, on a day when Rangers eventually cut loose in the opposition final third, and you’ll see a pretty good snapshot of what the manager likes.
Todd Cantwell, cited at the weekend as a player who has created new possibilities in attack, ends up getting a goal from a phase of play that has seen Alfredo Morelos drop deep onto the right wing to link up with Malik Tillman. Beale’s attacking intent is built around many moving parts.
The next player entrusted with leading the line for Rangers, then, will have to be a link man capable of dropping short, a runner of channels willing to wander. Someone able to engage or even enrage his markers, constantly inviting defenders to choose between either being dragged out of their comfort zones – or giving up on the idea of close-quarters marking.
What they really need, of course, is a fit, functioning and – most importantly – fully interested Morelos. But that’s not going to happen.
Looking at some of the names linked with Rangers, you can see why Bordeaux’s Josh Maja is being mentioned in despatches; he has all the attributes needed to fit into Beale’s system from day one. Swansea City’s Joel Pirro is another whose link-up play suggests potential, while Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez looks a little less refined – but could become the best of the bunch.
Closer to home, plenty will tell you that Kevin van Veen or Lawrence Shankland would do a job for Beale. Maybe. As long as they understand exactly what the gig entails.
Beale doesn’t need just another striker capable of filling a jersey and playing well at the box office, but a specific type capable of grabbing the central role in season 2023-24. If Colak doesn’t fit the bill, what’s the point of keeping him on the payroll?