FILIP Helander’s match-winning headed goal against Celtic, prior to the international break, was one of the few times the big Swede has stolen the headlines during his spell at Ibrox.

Mostly, his performances have gone under the radar.

Unlike his centre-back partner Connor Goldson, he doesn’t have the hallmarks of a ‘modern’ defender. Helander doesn’t score as consistently from set pieces as Goldson does. He rarely gives the ball away, but he doesn’t possess the same passing range as his teammate. And while he isn’t slow, he isn’t specifically quick.

It’s difficult to concisely summarise exactly what it is that makes Helander so good. But then again, good defending doesn’t always catch the eye. In fact, quite a lot of it goes on away from the ball, away from the cameras, and away from the attention of most onlookers.

For many footballers, the primary aim in each game is to do something positive. For defenders, it’s often more about not doing something negative. It’s pre-emptive risk mitigation. This is Helander’s forte.

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Consider this hypothetical. A team is defending. The opponent’s striker makes a run behind. If the defender is in the right position, the run isn’t found. Nobody notices, the world keeps on turning, the defender receives zero credit. But if the defender is in the wrong position, the striker is played through on goal and scores. Everybody notices and the defender is singled out for criticism.

For defenders, not standing out can be a good sign. Helander is this sort of defender. He’s the quiet but effective type.

A 1-0 win away to Hibs in January led to Helander receiving praise. It was one of those rare occasions when he was simply impossible to ignore. The subtle qualities he brings to the table were on show too often, his impact was clear. In post-match analysis for Sky Sports, Kris Boyd compared the 28-year-old to a Rangers legend.

“David Weir wasn’t blessed with blistering pace but always found himself in the right place,” Boyd said. “I see similarities with Filip Helander. He very rarely, in terms of pace down the channels, gets done with it.”

Weir epitomised that old football saying about wily players – the first few yards were in his head. Helander is in the same vein. He isn’t an exceptional athlete, but he is exceptional mentally. This can be broken down into three categories.

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  1.  Anticipation. (Reading the play and neutralising problems before they arise.)
  2.  Positioning. (Getting to the right place at the right time to stop attacks.)
  3. Commitment. (Being willing to put your body on the line for the team.)

Obviously, those of us watching the game can’t see precisely what Helander sees, but the mental skills above do manifest themselves on the pitch in different ways, whether it be through well-timed tackles, headers won, opponents marked, shots blocked, or passes intercepted.

Just before the half-time whistle during the first Old Firm game of this season, Goldson made a mistake. Attempting to intercept a direct pass towards Odsonne Edouard, he failed to control the ball properly. Edouard got in behind, but Helander was well-prepared to cover for his teammate.

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Getting between Edouard and the goal, he delayed the striker before timing his tackle to perfection. A corner kick was given away but had Helander not read the play correctly the situation could have been far worse.

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Later in the same game, Celtic worked an overload down the right and got into position to cross the ball. But by the time the cross was played, Helander had adjusted position to defend his front post and clear the danger.

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Rangers like to get pressure on their opponents in transition, to stop counter-attacks at source. The centre-backs are heavily involved in this. Below, Helander gets tight to Christian Doidge as Hibs try to break away. He denies space and prevents Doidge from turning to face the goal, forcing his opponent backwards and slowing down the counter.

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Some defenders are tall, but they play small. Helander doesn’t. When the opponent has a free shot at goal, he uses as much of his 6ft 4in stature he possibly can to get in the way. Away to Livingston in March, Rangers won 1-0 to maintain their unbeaten run and stay on course for the title. But they might not have gotten the win had it not been for Helander’s mentality inside his own penalty box.

On the half-hour mark, the ball was cut back to Jason Holt, lining up a shot on the edge of the Rangers penalty area. Nobody was near enough to obstruct him from doing so, but Helander stood in front of his goalkeeper and let the shot bounce off him to safety.

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Vincent Kompany is regarded as one of the greatest defenders the world has seen in the last few decades. In an interview for Grant Wahl’s book, Football 2.0, the Belgian talked about the importance of subtle skills like positioning.

“On any long ball, people try to out-jump each other,” Kompany said.

“I don’t mind a big jump, but to be honest, the only thing you have to do is fight for the spot where the ball is going to land. If you own that zone, it’s going on your head, and you don’t even need to jump.”

Helander may not have the playmaking skills or athleticism of other centre-backs, but he has the knowledge Kompany refers to. He anticipates danger, he knows where he needs to be, and he loves getting in the opponent’s way.