Rangers are now 18 games unbeaten this season both domestically and in Europe, and James Tavernier has been the emblematic player of that sumptuous opening run.
The Rangers captain took centre stage once again on Sunday, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Kilmarnock to consolidate his side’s position at the top of the Scottish Premiership, and keep the distance between themselves and Glasgow rivals Celtic to nine points (albeit having played two games more than their eternal rivals).
It was a hard-fought battle at Rugby Park, but Tavernier kept his nerve to fire home from the spot and bring up double digits for the campaign, an amazing feat for any player in these early stages, but truly astonishing for a defender.
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Steven Gerrard’s skipper has now racked up an impressive 16 direct contributions (10 goals, six assists), making him the club’s current leading scorer and third-highest creator. He has some way to go yet before he matches his impressive 2018/19 outlay of 37 direct contributions, but Tavernier is certainly on the right path.
As designated penalty taker the 29-year-old is naturally going to accumulate impressive scoring metrics for a full-back, but it should be noted that four of his 10 strikes this season have come either from open play or that curling free-kick produced against the Lincoln Red Imps in the Europa League qualifiers.
It was a wonder strike straight from Gerrard’s playbook and would have sat proudly in the former Liverpool captain’s ‘best bits’ from his paying days. Indeed, from the full-back position Tavernier has simultaneously become the attacking fulcrum of Rangers and the consummate leader at the back.
In some senses, he has mirrored the exploits of Trent Alexander-Arnold and made the right-back-playmaker role his own. That hybrid, popularised by Dani Alves and Maicon in the modern game (who took on the mantle from Cafu) has become en vogue in recent seasons, but few players possess the traits to pull it off.
Tavernier is one such player and is adding a considerable number of goals to his game, where his predecessors would operate primarily as defensive creators. They would offer explosive overlaps, crossing virtuosity and bundles of energy, but goals were never the direct source of their prowess.
For Tavernier it’s a different story. Granted, the Rangers full-back is operating at an inferior level to Alexander-Arnold (not to mention Alves and Maicon), but 16 direct contributions in just 18 games for a defender is not to be sniffed at across any level of the game.
Goals and assists in that time have come against Celtic, Galatasaray and Standard Liege, so Tavernier is certainly no flat-track bully. It’s not quite bamboozling an entire Barcelona defence from a corner, or becoming the first defender in Premier League history to provide 13 assists in a single season, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Tavernier wasn’t quite able to fashion a top career for himself in the English game, but he comes from good stock and has pedigree having hailed from the Leeds academy and plied his trade on Tyneside with Newcastle United.
Could he now genuinely be considered as an alternative option for Gareth Southgate in England’s seemingly endless roll call of attacking right-backs? Perhaps Tavernier needs to take a leaf out of Alexander-Arnold’s teammate, Virgil van Dijk’s book, and swap Scotland for Premier League football to truly enter that conversation.
But for now, he will be determined to dethrone an all-conquering Celtic after nine straight years of green and white ribbons adorning the Scottish Premiership trophy, and if Gerrard is to pull it off, he will need his defensive protege to keep producing the goods, both from dead-ball scenarios and in open-play attacking transitions.