As evenings go for a player acclimatising to European football and life at the centre of a back four, James Sands was not granted a quiet night on Tuesday as Rangers came back from 2-0 down in another classic at Ibrox.
If you were privy to Rangers’ march to the Europa League final last year, though, you will have known this was never going to be the case. Giovanni van Bronckhorst asks a lot of his centre-backs and his vision of making Ibrox a place where the opposition don’t have a minute’s rest means it can often necessitate living in the fast lane for 90 minutes.
With seven successful one-v-one duels and last-man tackles, four interceptions and only three misplaced passes against Union Saint-Gilloise, Sands put up a ratio that counts as a net success in anyone’s book.
After eight months bedding into a different style of football and a vastly different culture — after joining from New York City FC in January — Sands has improved on the fundamentals. He has been more aggressive in the challenge, perhaps learning he can get away with being more physical before going into a duel, and has improved his aerial ability.
He found it difficult to break into the team last season as Calvin Bassey formed an impressive partnership with Connor Goldson and John Lundstram became a major asset switching between a back three and back four.
His minutes tended to come later on in games so it was difficult to assess his value but during pre-season he admitted USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter warned he simply had to play more if he hoped to be included in the World Cup squad.
With new arrivals John Souttar and Ben Davies not available over the last fortnight, it meant he had the opportunity to start three games in the same position for the first time since moving to Glasgow.
FULL-TIME: Rangers 3-0 USG (Agg 3-2)
This is Ibrox 👊 pic.twitter.com/5thbslPOcZ
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) August 9, 2022
The importance of that cannot be underplayed. He has improved in that time and, with several last-ditch tackles and a match-defining lunge to help Rangers reach the Champions League play-off round, he may just have had his coming-of-age moment at Ibrox.
The Athletic has examined his performance against USG and where he has improved.
At 6ft 1in (185.4cm) he is not the world’s tallest centre-back but he is not small, either. Yet his inclusion in a four-man defence still causes some trepidation.
He looks to have put on muscle, though, and it was noticeable when he came on against Livingston that his leap and timing in the air looks to have developed.
From kick-off against USG he was tasked with winning a long ball. Below, rather than getting to the ball and then jumping, he arcs away from it so he has space for a run-up and to attack it at its highest point. He gets his left arm up to protect himself and is able to tower over Dante Vanzeir.
A noticeable improvement Sands has brought to the backline is the speed at which he shifts the ball. He is not an adventurous passer but while Goldson can often be guilty of playing square passes that trundle to his opposite centre-back, Sands keeps the tempo high.
Here, he scans the pitch as the ball is approaching so he has a full picture of the game in his head. He lets the ball come onto his back foot and almost kills it as he knows his next pass is to Tom Lawrence. By taking two quick touches he shifts the ball before USG can shuffle across.
He looked to play the ball in front of Goldson whenever possible so he could step into the game. But, in the example below, although Sands plays the optimal pass, Goldson is flat-footed; he has to rush onto the ball and then can’t get it under control.
Rangers have been looking to improve their build-up play and Sands shows a good understanding of how an extra couple of touches in a certain direction can create room against a low block.
Here, he could play the ball left to Borna Barisic straight away but he chooses to travel slowly towards Vanzeir as he knows he will eventually have to engage with him. Once he does, it is the trigger to release the ball, and there is space for Barisic to move into as Vanzeir can’t get across in time.
Similarly, under pressure, he tried to be positive. Under high press like this, the easy option is to turn back and go to the goalkeeper or to open up onto his right foot and clear, but he smartly chooses to chop the ball onto his left foot towards where it came from.
It buys him an extra second and then finds the gap into Lawrence where Rangers create an overload.
It wasn’t a flawless performance, though. Sands made three dangerous errors with the ball at his feet, some forced and some unforced. The first example came in the 19th minute when an awkward clearance arrived at his chest at a fast pace.
Wary of Vanzeir over his left shoulder, he chooses to take his touch inside and play a difficult ball to James Tavernier on the bounce but he scuffs it straight to Simon Adingra.
He made a similar mistake at 1-0. Here, it is the right decision to play first time into the gap but he seems to focus perhaps too much on what should be a simple execution.
Sands doesn’t possess the blistering pace of Bassey, which bailed Rangers out so many times last season, but he was exposed to the same rigors that come with playing such a high line.
Within four minutes, Rangers were opened up by a lay-off inside to Teddy Teuma, which opened up room for him to drive into and await the run of Vanzeir.
Sands immediately opens his body shape so he can see ball and man, widening his stance so he can shuffle backwards while maintaining balance.
Once Vanzeir starts to sprint into the space between Sands and Borna Barisic, the American turns and matches it. He has to be careful not to go to the ball too early as it would play him onside as Barisic hasn’t stepped up, but he hasn’t tucked round fully, either.
It would be easy for Sands to try to win the ball as Vanzeir runs across him, or inadvertently trip him up, but he adjusts his stride to avoid him and decides he is going wide enough that he can get back in.
He then slows down as he reads that Vanzeir was cutting inside.
He is then able to ease the Belgium international out of the way before emerging with the ball and starting the attack.
Sands’ reading of movement is perceptive so when Tuema breaks through again and he is left one-v-one with no cover he shows great positional awareness to close the gap Vanzeir is running into before matching his run stride for stride.
After stepping across to win the ball, though, he then almost loses it and ends up giving away a corner, which is an example of the learning he still has to do.
Here, he deals superbly with a long ball by plucking it from the air but then gets anxious in possession and underhits a simple pass to Tavernier.
There are high-stakes challenges throughout but Sands shows a ruthless streak by spotting that he was left two-v-two. After he realises he isn’t going to get to the ball first, he makes a cynical foul.
It is the definition of a good yellow card.
Before Rangers take the lead in the 45th minute, Ryan Kent loses possession in the left-back position and Vanzeir is clear to run at Sands with half the field bare.
Sands does brilliantly to slow play down by showing Vanzeir wide onto his right foot and buying time for Lundstram get back and cover. Once he has that security, he begins to close the space and eventually gets a foot in.
He wasn’t the only one guilty of a rush of blood on the ball. Kent, Lundstram, Goldson and, on this occasion Tavernier, all put him under big pressure but he reacts instantly to win the ball back.
Playing for so long on a yellow card is fraught with danger. Playing in such a chaotic game with as many turnovers as there were on Tuesday only heightens that. Here, when Jon McLaughlin is short with a back pass it forces Sands into a make-or-break decision.
Sands slides in and wins it perfectly. Ibrox gives a rousing reception but the referee blows for a foul and appears on the verge of sending him off. The linesman, however, intervenes and the call is corrected.
It is a huge turning point in the game and a reminder to Sands that he is walking a thin line. A minute later he is confronted out wide again but without even a hint of hesitation he steps in with one leg and takes the ball.
Van Bronckhorst took him off as a precautionary measure but Sands had already played his part in helping Rangers to recover from the first-leg defeat.
There may still be some reservations about him starting against PSV in the play-off but he has earned the jersey and now looks to have carved out a role rather than being seen as a utility man.
(Top Photo: Philippe Crohet/ Photonews via Getty Images)