James Tavernier, the Trent of the Europa League with sights set on final glory

By Sports Desk May 17, 2022

James Tavernier's first Europa League run appeared likely to be his last.

The right-back finally got his chance at Newcastle United in 2012-13 as Alan Pardew's first-team squad was stretched to breaking point.

However, Tavernier's chance equated to just eight appearances and five starts in all competitions, utilised right across the defence. He played 301 minutes in Europe (including qualifiers) but looked a little out of his depth.

By the time Newcastle reached the quarter-finals of the competition, Tavernier had played his last game for the club.

The following season brought the fifth and sixth loan moves of his career – all to League One or below. A permanent transfer to Wigan Athletic followed, but Tavernier was soon back out on loan again – to League One again.

This underwhelming sequence of temporary moves to the third tier for a player once seen as a potential Premier League starter was interrupted then by Rangers. Heading to the Scottish Championship, it would have taken incredible foresight to even imagine how Tavernier's career might be transformed.

Newcastle may not have had another European campaign in the past nine years, but Tavernier has enjoyed five – and now, in Seville, a final.

The right-back goal machine

Rangers hoped for goals when they struck a deal with Wigan to bring Martyn Waghorn and Tavernier to Ibrox in 2015. Waghorn delivered in the club's promotion campaign, scoring 28 times in all competitions, but Rangers surely could not have anticipated Tavernier would also chip in with 15.

While Waghorn is long gone, having not performed at quite the same level on Rangers' return to the top tier, Tavernier has since maintained his staggering standard. In 345 Rangers appearances, the defender has scored 83 goals.

This season, Tavernier has scored 18 goals and assisted a further 16 for 34 goal involvements.

Having either scored or assisted every 147 minutes on average in 2021-22, Tavernier is operating in the same sort of range as Rafael Leao (141), Dejan Kulusevski (144), Luis Suarez (153) and, incredibly, Sadio Mane (157).

Nahuel Molina, the highest-scoring defender in Europe's top five leagues, has scored just eight times, while even Trent Alexander-Arnold's leading goal involvements tally of 20 is dwarfed by the man playing north of the border.

Tavernier's status as Rangers' penalty taker boosts his numbers, of course, but he still has six goals and 22 goal involvements discounting his dozen efforts from 12 yards.

The standard of the competition in Scotland might also be counted against Tavernier, yet his 16 European appearances alone have yielded seven goals (three non-penalty goals), three assists and 10 goal involvements – again at a rate of one every 147 minutes.

Top marksman with Morelos missing

Tavernier's first goal involvement of this European campaign saw the Rangers captain lift a pass in behind the Alashkert defence for Alfredo Morelos to score what proved to be the decisive goal of their Europa League play-off, getting the then Scottish champions back on track after Champions League qualifying heartbreak.

Wednesday's final against Eintracht Frankfurt would not have been possible without that August example of this most effective assister-scorer combination.

Unfortunately, Rangers will not be able to rely on that link-up again this week, with Morelos ruled out for the season when he underwent thigh surgery last month, seemingly dealing a sizeable blow to his side's hopes of European glory.

Morelos, with 29 goals, is Rangers' all-time leading European marksman, while he this season also became their top scorer discounting qualifiers as he brought his total to 15.

"It is a big blow to us, because he is our striker and we now don't have him any more this season, so we are disappointed," manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst said.

"But we know what the problem is, how long he's out, and we have to move on. That's the only thing we have to do now."

Tavernier has since ensured the talismanic forward has not been missed. His seven goals are the most ever by a Rangers player in a European campaign (excluding qualifiers) – Morelos in 2019-20 had a share of the previous record of six – and remarkably make him the leading scorer in this season's Europa League.

The man for the big occasion, each of Tavernier's goals have come in the knockout stage, including opening the scoring in each of Rangers' four home legs.

When Kemar Roofe joined Morelos on the sidelines against RB Leipzig in the semi-finals, it was Tavernier who appeared in the centre-forward position to level the tie in Glasgow with his 15th European goal (10 excluding qualifiers).

Trent of the Europa League

The first of Tavernier's European goals came back in July 2018, by which point Alexander-Arnold had already played in a Champions League final for Liverpool.

Alexander-Arnold might be seven years Tavernier's junior, but he has been a source of inspiration in recent seasons for the Rangers skipper, who named him alongside Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson and Brazil greats Dani Alves, Marcelo and Cafu in October 2020 as a standard-bearer in the full-back role.

And comparisons between the pair, both of whom are preparing for European finals, come easily.

Alexander-Arnold has created 19 chances in the Champions League this season, just behind Tavernier's 20 in the Europa League, with the pair each highly influential both in open play and from set-pieces.

Tavernier makes a long list of English right-backs who remain uncapped at international level due to the incredible competition in Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad, and former Rangers captain Lorenzo Amoruso tells Stats Perform: "I showcased him in Italy, but nobody cared because, of course, it happened to me, too: the best player in Scotland, thanks to some unbelievable performances, but never a call for the national team.

"I think I deserved it – at least as a reward or out of curiosity. This Amoruso, as a defender, becomes the best player in Scotland... it is not something that happens every day. The same applies to Tavernier."

Yet even Alexander-Arnold has only turned out 16 times for England, clearly behind Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and now Reece James in the pecking order.

The explanations for Alexander-Arnold's limited opportunities often focus on his defensive shortcomings – the same attributes for which Tavernier has come under scrutiny.

However, neither have committed an error leading to a shot, let alone a goal, in the Champions League or Europa League this season, and Tavernier actually measures favourably next to Alexander-Arnold by several defensive metrics.

Alexander-Arnold has made 1.9 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per 90 minutes to Tavernier's 1.6 tackles and 1.2 interceptions, but the Liverpool man has been dribbled past every 54 minutes on average and won only 48.2 per cent of his duels. Tavernier has been dribbled past every 150 minutes and won 56.3 per cent of his duels.

Those numbers will perhaps regress a little next season if Tavernier is playing in the Champions League, but he has to get there first by beating Frankfurt. And Rangers will likely be more concerned by their right-back's attacking output on Wednesday than his work going the other way.

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