Written by Daryl Dao
This article was originally featured in our special episode of ‘The Stats Show’, where we invited young analysts to present their work, including Daryl, which can be seen here: https://youtu.be/q3w8OUYWGV8
Under Tony Mowbray, in recent seasons, Blackburn Rovers have introduced many promising youngsters into the first team and allowed them to demonstrate their ability in the EFL Championship. This season is not an exception either, as the likes of Jacob Davenport, John Buckley and Tyrhys Dolan are stealing the spotlight. Along with that, many of the club’s key players are also relatively young as well, with captain Darragh Lenihan at the back, an in-form Adam Armstrong leading the line and being supported by Liverpool loanee Harvey Elliott are just a few to name.
Joe Rankin-Costello is also among the names who Mowbray introduces into the first team and has cemented a place in the manager’s lineup before suffered a hamstring injury against Luton Town in November. Originally signed from Manchester United academy, he spent four seasons in Blackburn’s under-23 team before being promoted to the first team last season.
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Mowbray has heaps of praises for him, especially for his versatility: “He has a smell of a goal and he gets inside the six-yard box, he’s got a natural strikers instinct to score a goal. He’s always round, he gets the ball in the box, he can run up and down and he’s physically strong. He can head it, what can’t Joe Rankin-Costello do?”
Indeed, given that his previous preferred position is an attacking midfielder while he can also play as a winger, it does not come as a surprise to see him showcase his goal-scoring instinct. But Mowbray’s decision of converting him into a wing-back this decision has proven to be a successful one. Amid his preferred foot is his right foot, he is also competent of using his left foot and this allows the English manager to use him on both flanks.
Having played as a right-back in five matches this season, he has contested Ryan Nyambe for a starting position and whenever he was given the chance, he took it by both hands. At the same time, he is also used as a left-back on three occasions and sees out the full match on all three occasions.
But with his severe hamstring injury history, Mowbray is forced to take a cautious approach when using him. “Every game he produces really high numbers, particularly when he plays full back, he’s doing a lot of high intensity running and a lot of thought will go into making this hopefully the last hamstring injury he has for a very long time,” said Mowbray in an interview in late November.
Rankin-Costello’s work rate is amazing and he is also determined both on and off the ball as well. Whenever the team have the ball, he prefers to overlap high up the pitch and attempts to find free space to position himself into. There, he anticipates the movement of the opposition’s defenders and looks to attack the space behind them, similar to the situation against Swansea below.
He also looks to dribble with the ball should he can spot a potential direction for him to progress the ball into the opposition’s final third. Against the pressure from the opposition’s player, he has good balance and a low centre of gravity to hold off the challenge. This makes up for the fact that he is not strong and, at times, can even be outpowered by strong defenders.
The same thing can be said when he defends as well as he always looks to get in front of the opposition’s attacker and shield the ball until he can clear it or make a back pass. This requires him to anticipate the situation and position himself well to not allow the attacker to control the ball while he approaches him. It is an intelligent approach given that he is not the strongest player on the field but also making sure that he can help the team to regain possession.
Two features of his anticipation include tracking passes being made into his area to intercept it and knowing where to stand to head the ball away. When the opposition attack down Blackburn’s left-hand side, they occasionally make long passes to encourage the attacker to move forward. But Rankin-Costello makes the most out of his anticipation and positioning to predict where the ball drops and intercept it either by a first touch or a header.
This season, according to Wyscout, he has won 31 defensive duels (lost 19) on the left flank and it is a result of him being able to anticipate the pass and intercept it. By average, he makes ten defensive duels per 90 minutes, the eighth-most in the league after 18 rounds, and has a decent completion rate of 59.09%. He also manages to make 6.59 recoveries and 5.31 per 90 minutes across all competitions this season. In his first season of playing as a wing-back, these numbers show his potential to be an excellent attacking wing-back and there are rooms for improvement as well.
On the other hand, one of the aspects of his play that he can look to improve is to be less active in defensive duels. Rankin-Costello tends to move out of his position to close down the ball carrier or a potential receiver, and this leaves space behind him for other attackers to capitalise. Similar to the situation below against Queens Park Rangers, he moved out of his position looking to close down Todd Kane, leaving Albert Adomah free to receive the ball from Dominic Ball after Kane passed to Ball.
Another point that can be taken from this situation is his trait of leaving his position can allow the opposition to overload the area behind him. Geoff Cameron, in this situation, also moved forward into the right half-space next to Adomah, creating a 2v1 situation against Blackburn’s Bradley Johnson down the home side’s left flank. While it did not lead up to a goal-scoring chance, but against a wing-oriented team, it can be possible for the opposition to capitalise it to score against Blackburn.
Another aspect of his that can be improved is his confidence on the ball. Blackburn prefer to pass the ball slightly quick while playing out from the back and this serves the intention of attacking down either flank. But when Rankin-Costello has the ball inside the opposition half and he cannot find a teammate to pass forward, he will look to make a back pass (he has made 10.33 back passes this season, according to Wyscout).
As shown in his pass sonars below, he sometimes makes high accuracy back passes towards the centre-backs and this occurs when he cannot progress the ball forward. It can sometimes disrupt the team’s attacking situation and allow the opposition to regroup from their pressing situation or covering up free space in between their defensive lines.
In terms of his injury problems, as Mowbray mentioned earlier, his work rate requires him to work harder and cover more ground to stay ahead of the opposition. His heatmap above also shows a similar thing as well as he spends more time hugging the touchline and usually overlaps. This puts a lot of pressure on his hamstring and increases the chance of him sustaining another long-term injury. He already missed two matches this season after suffered a similar injury back in September. And the current injury that he is recovering from has and will set him back for at least eight to ten weeks.
Although it has been a successful conversion to wing-back, it is also a risky decision for Mowbray to make since a long-term injury is always hovering above Rankin-Costello. But he also has Nyambe, who is always ready to step into the squad and rotate with the English youngster, along with Lenihan’s versatility which allows him to play on the right. This will allow Rankin-Costello to rest and decrease his injury risk before returning to Mowbray’s lineup fit and fresh.
Even though it would be tough for him to play regularly in Mowbray’s lineup due to his injuries history, Rankin-Costello is certainly a prospect to watch this season from Blackburn. He has started in nine matches this season and is showing that he can overcome his injury problems to reach the potential that he is destined to be at.
A bit more game time this season and a plan to develop his defensive abilities to a higher level than where they are at now will help Rankin-Costello to become a complete wing-back that fits modern football. At the age of 21, he is still young and can look to develop his versatility as well and also set his sight on becoming a Premier League player in the future.
You can find Daryl Dao on Twitter at @dgouilard.