Ryan Jack - the Rangers 'water carrier'

By Foreign Rangers Fan | Guest Contributor

In 1996, Eric Cantona infamously said of Didier Deschamps: “He gets by because he always gives 100 per cent, but he is nothing more than a 'Water Carrier' – you can find players like him on every street corner.”

This is the curse of the 'Porteur D’eau', to never be appreciated in your time. Their role in the team is almost subliminal. To place them in a modern context, they don’t stand out as a ball-winning N'Golo Kante who is relentless.

They don’t have the tricks and skills of an Eden Hazard nor the box to box power of a Paul Pogba. The trait of the 'Water Carrier' is to almost possess a bird’s eye view of the game – knowing where to intercept, where to tackle (sometimes even foul) and especially where to relieve pressure and recycle possession. 

In teams that look to dominate the ball and take the game by the throat, the 'Water Carrier' is indispensable. Players like Michael Carrick, Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo are underrated as they don’t appear to contribute particularly to the defensive phase of play, nor the attacking – so what do they do? Specifically for Rangers, what does Ryan Jack do?

 *Statistics accurate up to Ross County 1-3 Rangers*

*Statistics accurate up to Ross County 1-3 Rangers*

At three tackles a game and 1.75 interceptions per game, he does break up opposition play quite effectively – however his largest contribution is in his passes. Jack makes more passes p/90 than any other Rangers player. He is the engine of the team, the fulcrum from which attacks begin.

This is often unnoticed because these players don’t pick up a lot of goals or assists, rather they make the pass before the pass for the goal – or even the pass before that! The primary job of Jack in this Rangers team is to recycle possession. This most commonly happens when pressure is placed on Bruno Alves and Fabio Cardoso by opposition attackers:

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Opposition teams already know we prefer option one, which is to play out directly from our centre backs through our fullbacks and up the flanks to our wingers, and they look to cut off this option immediately. In these scenarios we turn to option two. This is where Jack can drop into the hole between defence and midfield and offer an alternative to beat the opposition press.

He can also stay higher up, allowing our fullbacks to begin their runs before he plays into them, letting them build momentum, or even turn and run with it himself, playing off Graham Dorrans. As you might expect, over a third (37 per cent) of his passes are lateral (or square) passes. Another third are forward passes and only 28 per cent are back passes, meaning he is constantly cycling and recycling possession.

While we tend to play with a midfield diamond, Jack typically plays on the right half of the pitch, opening more opportunities for James Tavernier, with Dorrans more often working with Lee Wallace. Interestingly, the opposite is true further up the pitch, where Jack often comes across to the left wing to help overload the opposition fullback. You can see this by the proportion of the passes Jack makes to player roles in our team.

The right wing is the least connected with as Candeias tends to sit very high up the pitch, beyond Jack’s usual deep lying role. He only makes three final third passes a match on average, clearly his role is not to pierce the opposition backline.

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Jack also serves to relieve pressure off our wingers and wingbacks in the offensive zone:

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In these scenarios, our fullback and winger can become isolated. Jack moves in quickly to offer a second option and switch play without requiring a striker to drop out of the box and decrease the threat we pose. This rebuilds momentum as we look to pry open weaknesses through the middle or on the opposite flank while our strikers remain a constant distraction.

The only team to effectively deal with this was Hearts, who sat so deep as to create ‘congestion zones’ where Jack was shut off from the wings and prevented from relieving pressure. However, Hearts managed to do this all over the park very effectively. We will need to work on a new strategy for breaking down higher quality teams that sit deep.

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Where the purple lines indicate where Hearts broke up our channels of play, and the highlighted zones indicate where our play regularly got bogged down. It was also during the Hearts game where Pedro deployed Jack in a very interesting position for about half an hour:

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Where Jack headed the midfield diamond, looking to force errors in the opposition defence and midfield who were packed in very compactly. The hope being that the lost ball would be picked up by Dorrans who had a wide range to charge into, immediately initiating an attack. Unfortunately, this did not work as the Hearts back line was not looking to pass the ball around and retain possession.

Rather, they hoofed the ball up the pitch, cutting Jack out in the process and leaving Dorrans under increased pressure by their forwards charging down the ball. I would like Pedro to try this tactic again, it’s a very interesting structure to put the opposition under increased pressure. It just won’t work on opponents who look to sit deep and soak up pressure and then play long. Away to the two Edinburgh teams and Aberdeen would be a better testing ground.

Kenny Miller also likes to try and drop deep to perform a role similar to Jack’s, looking to pick up the ball and play it square. However, this has a negative impact on our momentum – when Jack is pushing forwards and receives the ball, he carries the ball (and the team) forwards. When Kenny drops deep, he’s bringing everyone further back and congests our play. We need to stretch the opponent, not pack our own midfield with excess bodies.

The weakest we’ve ever appeared with Jack in the team was in the second half against Ross County. This was mainly because the team became frantic after conceding and started playing a lot of pointless long balls that lost possession. Instead of using them to try and slice through the opposition defence (as Cardoso and Alves usually do) that puts the opposition backline under pressure, these were immediately controlled and brought back to us – putting us under excess pressure. We need to utilise Jack properly in these scenarios. He has a cool head and helps transfer pressure off our backline and onto theirs.

As you can see, the ‘Water Carrier’ is all about ball retention. Jack dictates the speed at which our matches are played and while he isn’t to the standard of a Michael Carrick or an Andrea Pirlo, he clearly has the ability to run the game. He also puts himself about aggressively and doesn’t back down as we saw against Hibs. I personally think he fancies himself as a future Rangers captain. To be honest, so do I. I would just like him to bulk up and shout a little more. 

People may not like Jack because he signifies a distinct style of play, one in which we slowly choke the opponent out as we dominate the match. As a style, it is renowned as being very continental, which makes sense given our new manager. It’s certainly one that works – Manchester United won the Champions League with it.

It’s just arguably less exciting than the way Real Madrid currently do things – though they did play a very similar way with Xabi Alonso a few years back. We are neither of those teams, however, and I appreciate the relative artistry that comes with Jack’s ability to almost never misplace a pass. It means that a crucial stage of every attack’s build up never fails. One where, if it did, would immediately put pressure on our relatively fragile defence.

To conclude Deschamps, the original 'Water Carrier', won the Champions League twice, the World Cup and the European Championship - all as captain - and remains the sixth most ever capped player by France.

Either way, if you inexplicably aren’t a fan of Jack, you must admit that at the end of the day, he does more than justify his signing fee of nothing and for that we must thank Aberdeen for cultivating such a player for us over the course of 17 years. Players like him are not on every street corner, as much as clubs wish they were.

If you enjoyed this and would like to see more in-depth analysis of the World's Most Successful Club™, you can find me on Wordpress here, Facebook there and @KylEnsign on Twitter - where I do weekly coverage of Rangers matches in excruciating detail. You'll love it.