Nathan Oduwa is coming home. Spurs' 19-year old English winger, on loan in Scotland for the first half of the season, is returning to White Hart Lane after apparently opting to end his loan at Rangers early.
This may come as a bit of a shock to many Spurs fans. We wrote a lot, especially in the early part of the season, about Oduwa's time at Rangers, specifically after his flashy moves earned plaudits from Rangers fans but ire from Rangers opponents. We openly questioned whether the Scottish second division was too far below his ability. But Oduwa was left off the match day 18 entirely in the last two Rangers matches, and manager Mark Warburton seems content to let him return home.
Meanwhile, fellow Spurs loanee Dominic Ball is still at 'Gers and quietly having a very good loan as a starting defender for Rangers, and appears to be content to see out the full duration of his year-long loan.
So what happened? Why is Oduwa coming home after such a seemingly bright start to life at Ibrox? What's going on with Ball? We asked Callum Hamilton, Rangers fan and Managing Editor of SB Nation's newest blog Got the Battle Fever On, about it.
CFC: Oduwa had a hot start with Rangers but cooled off towards the end of the year. Initial reports were this was a one-year loan, and early in the season his performances were seemingly so good some fans wanted to keep him permanently. Why didn't it work out? Was Scotland just not a good fit for him?
CH: A number of reasons. The biggest reason is simply that he initially lost his place in the team. The position on the left wing was taken up by Barrie McKay, who has been better and better all season and is a more productive player - he has the skill and pace to beat a man, but is a far better passer and gives the ball away a lot less than Oduwa does. The place on the other flank was taken up by Martyn Waghorn, our top scorer, moving out to that flank and Kenny Miller moving into the centre. Oduwa wasn't able to take his more limited chances when they came, after that, and soon we were bringing Nicky Clark on as our regular attacking substitute (a pacy but unsophisticated striker signed by Ally McCoist after a one-season-wonder in the third tier.) He has scored and assisted goals off the bench, however, which Oduwa didn't. That was then followed by by the signing of Harry Forrester, and now we're about to complete the signing of another winger/forward for £500k from St. Johnstone (serious money to a club in our position.) In short, once he'd lost his place in the team, he very quickly lost it in the squad.
CFC: A lot's been written, on Cartilage Free Captain and elsewhere, about Oduwa's showboating – the "rainbow flick," nutmegs of opposition players, and how he was subsequently targeted by opposition defenders. It also seemed like other players in the division genuinely hated him. Was it really as bad as what it looked like from a distance?
CH: Not quite that bad. The thing is, Rangers have a huge support but as a proportion of the country they play in, it's totally ridiculous. And then most of the rest of the country absolutely hates them. That means there's a lot of column inches to fill about Rangers every day. Something that would be a minor incident elsewhere, even if it was about Manchester United, becomes a huge controversy here purely because the papers and radio stations have to be talking about Rangers or Celtic all day every day. Scottish players, especially, in the lower leagues, are also a lot less... uh, professional. It's normal to see them diving in to abuse opposition fans on Twitter, and in general managers and players come out with controversial statements more often than in England. It was a bit of a storm in a teacup, in all honesty. It could easily have happened in League One in England, it just wouldn't have gotten the same coverage.
CFC: As a follow-up, despite public support for him in the media, did Mark Warburton have a problem with Oduwa's overly-flashy moves? Did his teammates? Did Oduwa show signs of progression as a footballer, or was he seen mostly as a "street ball" player?
CH: It's possible, but probably not the main factor. Warburton likes his teams to keep the ball - we don't even put it into the box for corners - but you can hardly call a manager whose fullbacks have scored 15 goals this season risk-averse. The problem with Oduwa was that his skills often worked when there was space and we were playing on the counter, but in most of our games the opposition is in their area for the entire game hoping they don't lose by more than four goals. In that situation, you'd expect your attackers to rack up goals and assists, but Oduwa just couldn't do it in tight spaces, whether he was on the end of a pass or cross or trying to put one in himself. He'd give the ball away a lot in doing so. In that sense, this hasn't been the right fit for him - he'd be better off learning his trade in a team at the bottom of their division who wants to use him as an outlet or a mid-table one where the games will be more to-and-fro.
CFC: Do you think he can make it as a Premier League footballer, either with Spurs or elsewhere?
CH: He certainly has the talent, although it's debatable. He has some very big things to add to his game, like his awareness and composure, which are difficult to teach. Sometimes they don't click until you're in your mid-twenties. I do think if he can sort that out, he'll be a very good player - he'll be a player for a top half side or in the lower reaches of the Championship in a few years time, I'd guess, although I couldn't say which.
CFC: Meanwhile, Dominic Ball seems to have quietly had the more successful loan between the two. What's your assessment of Ball's contributions to Rangers this year?
CH: Ball has been a lot better, yes, although you could make the case that it's because he's one of only three centre-backs. Warburton has, for a man who rarely changes his side, been oddly strict with his centrebacks - pretty much every game, the one who was the worst in the previous match gets dropped. First Danny Wilson played badly, so he got dropped, Ball came in, and we improved. Then Rob Kiernan started playing badly, so Danny Wilson came back in. Then Ball had a couple of poor games, so Kiernan's come back in. It's an ever-rotating cycle and whether it's working or denying us the opportunity of forming a solid unit at the back is very questionable. The team doesn't have a lot of defending to do, but is in general pretty bad at it. But we play such an insanely attacking system that the defence is exposed to a ridiculous degree - it's honestly very hard to judge how good he's been because of that. I'd say he can sometimes look a bit shaky about dealing with direct, aerial balls, which he can get caught under, but otherwise he's been very solid.
CFC: What's Ball's actual position? Is he a LB, CB, RB, or is he a utility defender? Is there a position where you think he performs best?
CH: We have very little depth in defence and I'm sure Ball was signed because of his versatility, although we've had hardly any injuries all season so he's not been needed to fill in elsewhere. Personally, I'd have given him a shot at DM at some point because we don't have a natural one, and that's cost us at times - our current one is a converted winger - but we're probably about to sign Toumani Diagouraga, so that's unlikely to happen. Ball really needs to be better in the air and more assertive physically, but it could be a simple confidence issue. I suspect his future may lie in midfield.
CFC: In your opinion as someone who's watched Ball more than almost any Spurs fan, what's his ceiling? Can he make it in the Premier League eventually?
CH: Quite possibly, although for Spurs, I doubt it. His positional sense is good, and a move to defensive midfield would vastly negate his weaknesses, but he doesn't have enough to shine there to really look like a standout player, I don't think.
CFC: Do you see Rangers possibly making an attempt to sign either Oduwa or Ball this summer?
CH: Nathan Oduwa, no. Our best youngster and most in-form player is being played on the left, our player of the season up til now is an attacking midfielder, our top scorer is a right-winger and we're about to spend £500k on another forward. We'll probably buy another attacker in summer too, assuming we go up, and there are a lot of talented youngsters coming through who are attackers or strikers. I don't think he'd get the gametime, and I don't think we'd take him on as a long-term project when we have players like Ryan Hardie (yours for 200k, FM16 fans) who are scoring for fun at youth level for club and country.
Ball, I'd definitely make a move to sign if he leaves Spurs in summer. I wouldn't want to see us go into next season with him as a starting centre-back, but his versatility will mean we can operate a smaller squad, have more youth players on the bench, and he'd get plenty of game time, get to figure out his best role, and hopefully develop into a much better player.
Many thanks to Callum for answering our questions. Got the Battle Fever On is SB Nation's Rangers FC blog, and the newest addition to the SB Nation soccer family. Check it out for your Rangers needs, and give Callum a follow on Twitter: @BattleFeverOn and @Callum_TH