“As soon as I saw the name Rabbi Matondo…”

Cercle Brugge manager Miron Muslic interjects at the start of a phone call with the Rangers Review, regarding a player he knows all too well. It’s clear in his tone during this welcomed interruption that discussing Matondo is always a pleasure and never a chore. Even after a long, double-session day of high-intensity training, the 40-year-old is brimming with enthusiasm discussing a player he shared the 2021/22 season with. In a world where monotone, media-proof, memorised answers so often roll out, talking football with Muslic proves an entirely refreshing experience.

Matondo, fresh from a recall to the Wales squad, looks to be back on the right career path after a tumultuous first season at Rangers. He’s offered glimpses of positivity, a novelty so far this season, and while still to show the consistency that merits true levels of committed excitement, has finally provided moments and impacts that demonstrate why he was recruited in the first instance. 

“I’m looking right now at Rabbi’s picture. In my office, the tactics board has players' pictures and numbers and Rabbi’s is the only one remaining from the 21/22 season,” he continues, referencing a breakthrough loan in Belgium from Schalke the season before a permanent transfer to Ibrox.

“The reason why he performed for us? He felt welcome in the dressing room. He had the full trust of his teammates and the whole staff. I think if you can give Rabbi this feeling off the pitch, his reaction will show on it.”

Then the assistant manager and now in charge himself, Muslic worked closely with Matondo at Cercle Brugge during the 21/22 campaign and the the pair remain in touch to this day. It was at Brugge that Matondo played the best football of his senior career to date, tapping into the potential that earned him a multi-million move to the Bundesliga as a teenager.

With this in mind, the Rangers Review posed Muslic a simple question: How do you get the best out of Rabbi Matondo?

Before talking about any of Matondo’s footballing attributes, Muslic’s instinct is to discuss the person and individual, something he does enthusiastically. The pair formed a close bond as the winger found a home within the Cercle dressing room, even travelling back to visit the team for the final game of last season with Westerlo.

“First of all, he’s a fantastic human being. What a good guy. He fitted perfectly into our project and locker room. Always with a smile on his face, always ready for a joke but ready to work at the right time,” Muslic says.

“He needs confidence, he needs to play in an environment where he feels comfortable. He is 23, still a young profile and is ready to perfectly shine. If you can give him confidence and trust at Rangers, he showed in the PSV tie what he can do. With his weapon of pace, it’s a f****** nightmare for centre-backs. If you have Rabbi Matondo with confidence on the pitch, that for me is a Premier League profile.

“Imagine you have a lead and put him on for the last 15/20 minute, with one action he can kill teams. I have the best memories of him and we remain in contact, he was here two and a half months ago when we had our last game against Westerlo. He was in my office and the locker room, he was celebrating with us after the game. He left Cercle but is still with us in heart.”

Arriving at Cercle in 2021, Matondo had long been a player waiting for an environment that would allow him to burst into life. Having moved to Manchester City from Cardiff as a 16-year-old his potential has never been a secret. A trajectory that seemed set in one direction was confirmed by a multi-million move to Bundesliga outfit Schalke but a sustained impact, not helped by a club in turmoil, never arrived. Rangers signed him in the summer of 2022 following his excellent season in Belgium but only 10.2 90 minutes in the league would follow the promise demonstrated in pre-season. 

The attacker was frequently utilised on the right by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, appearing uncomfortable unable to operate from his favoured left flank and chop onto his stronger right foot. Up against set defences and not afforded the transitional room he’d thrived upon the season prior, the pace of the game didn’t feel suited to his best quality, pace in transition. When Michael Beale brought Matondo off the bench to provide just that late on away at Ross County last year he fluffed a late one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Afterwards, Beale admitted this was a player suffering from a "crisis of confidence".

Fast forward nine months and although the end result against PSV in Rangers’ Champions League play-off somewhat clouds Matondo’s impact in the first leg, it was a night of announcement. A few weeks of promising substitute appearances saw Beale turn to the attacker with the game tied and the visitors sacrificing space in search of a second. This time, bearing down on goal having made up 15 yards to overtake his direct defender Jordan Teze, the talent Muslic refers to arrived at the right moment.

Unquestionably, sheer pace and ball-carrying at speed remain Matondo’s prime assets but a 20-yard volley that whistled over the bar near full-time in the home leg against PSV was one of many moments this season that points to a different individual, playing closer to the edge of confidence as opposed to inside his shell.

“As a football player, he has a major weapon, his pace. That is a game changer. This guy is so fast. We measured him once here over 38 metres and I think he was one of the fastest strikers in Europe, close to Aubameyang,” Muslic adds.

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“That was his major weapon and we tried to use him in transition moments after we regained the ball high on the pitch. In transition moments if you have a high regain, regardless of where it is on the pitch, and you can put the ball into the spaces for Rabbi and get him one-on-one in a sprint with a centre-back or full-back, it’s a clear mismatch.”

Cercle recorded the highest number of high-intensity sprints in the league last season, utilising a concept known as “minimal width” by negating the wide channels to play a narrow game. By Muslic’s own admission, they are a “pressing team” who thrive in space and transition, allowing players like Matondo with room to manoeuvre. 

The risk in Rangers signing Matondo was always, and is, going to be: how do you translate those qualities when opponents leave no space behind to exploit or don’t commit sufficient numbers forward to concede transitions?

“To be fair he’s also very smooth with the ball,  he's perfectly able to play in the pockets and between the lines, receiving between the defence and midfield,” adds Muslic.

“His best position? He needs to play in the left half-space because he is perfect at cutting inside. If you can get him receiving on that side with a full-back ready to cover him defensively but then also overlap, he will kill the full-back or centre-back. Rabbi is very agile not only over distance but also in these short one-on-ones over two to three metres because he’s so explosive.

“He is at his most comfortable cutting inside and has a very good finish on the inside of his right foot that we worked on at Cercle. I called it the Thierry Henry finish, finding the far pocket instead of aiming for the top corner."

Arriving from the bench away in Dingwall recently the winger consistently took his side forwards under pressure. Although he should’ve squared the ball to Abdallah Sima for a simple tap-in, the comparison between this substitute appearance and his last against Ross County was so very stark. At home against Livingston before that tie, his running power into space was again evidenced as the visitors chased a goal. Crucially on that day, Matondo also provided an end product to assist Kieran Dowell’s strike.

As Muslic alludes to, and as has been witnessed in moments this season, Matondo thrives in space, something that normally only arrives late on in games for Rangers domestically. However, this season with a greater level of confidence to take on his man and an improving end product, can his impact come as a strater and not just a substitute?

Pace is required in every game. Against low blocks, the need for ball carriers capable of working and weaving their way beyond defences, becoming block-breakers, is crucial. Promising signs in a home tie against Morton, where Rangers’ change of shape enabled Matondo to pick the ball up in space on the left and create numerous dangerous moments playing from the start, suggests Matondo's decision-making is maturing. Only the width of the post stopped this individual effort, and perhaps a humbling end scoreline, away in Eindhoven. 

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In modern football, the need for 'finishers' in a match is no secret and the game state Cercle plays each week, which allowed Matondo to shine, isn’t one Rangers face often. Muslic believes that for the winger to evolve from impact substitute to certain starter, he needs a run of consistent matches in his favoured position.

“Maybe he needs games in a row to find his gears and then he will go one way, I’m not worried about that at all. I know him, he’s capable, he can be a game changer for Rangers this season," he says.

It was a derby game against Club Brugge on Boxing Day in 2021 that showed Muslic the full extent of Matondo’s ‘game-changing’ abilities. Although no goal arrived for the Welshman, the tie's four-minute package may as well be a Matondo highlight reel in which he demonstrates a variety of threats; turning players with his back to goal, playing the correct final ball and outplaying one-on-one.

“Rabbi dominated, he destroyed Club Brugge on his own to be fair,” Muslic says enthusiastically.

“Offensively he was a threat from minute one until the end. He didn’t score the goal but assisted the second, taking out three or four opposition players beforehand. For me, in that game, he demonstrated a profile worth 10/15million. It was the moment when we said as a coaching staff, ‘We aren’t going to be able to keep this guy here for long’. He was the best player on the pitch."

Matondo has started his redemption arc at Ibrox and demonstrated what he’s capable of. As Muslic testifies to and previous transfer fees demonstrate, it’s never been a question of what the player is capable of, but what he can do with those capabilities.

Can Rangers get the best out of Rabbi Matondo and unlock the version that came to the fore in Belgium? Can he find the consistency needed under pressure at this club to show it? Because the start of this particular story will only count for something if followed up and built upon.