Rangers new boy Rabbi Matondo: The rapid winger ready to ignite World Cup dream – The Athletic

Posted By on July 31, 2022

When Rabbi Matondo sat down on the call with Ross Wilson, there was one question the Rangers sporting director had for the Wales winger.

Youre not going to reject me for a second time, are you? he asked.

It was a light-hearted jibe as in 2019, Wilson had wanted to sign Matondo for Southampton but the then-Manchester City winger opted for Bundesliga side Schalke instead.

Wilson has been a long-term admirer and he has finally got his man, now a 21-year-old starting to fulfil his potential rather than the 18-year-old whose trajectory was thought to be on the same path as Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden.

Matondo has been a name familiar to those within the game for such a long time that his youth can be flummoxing. He has experienced the high of an 11million ($13.3m) move to a German giant, the low of a turbulent time in a foreign country with a managerial merry-go-round that ended in an acrimonious relegation and, last year, the rebound at Cercle Bruges as he got his career back on track.

Rangers acquiring a player of Matondos potential for around 2.5million has surprised some observers.

He had Premier League interest, but meeting Giovanni van Bronckhorst at Rangers camp in Portugal had a big say in his decision. He was struck by how much the Rangers manager wants to develop young players, convincing him that Ibrox is the right place to push for his dream of playing in the World Cup this year.

A reputation built from such a young age like Matondos, who moved to Manchester City from Cardiff City at 16 in a deal worth 500,000 under competition from Liverpool and Manchester United, does not fade away after one misstep.

Thats why Wilson has retained a watchful eye on his progress and why sporting director Paul Mitchell played a role in his previous move to Belgium. Mitchell had tried to sign him when he was the strategist at RB Leipzig in 2019, but the plan was to send him to their sister club New York Red Bulls for the first season and, given Schalkes interest, he decided against the move.

Mitchell is now at Monaco, whose owners are also in charge of Cercle Bruges. The recruitment at both clubs overlaps in certain cases as they decide which side is best suited to each player, but the faith shown in him by Cercle sporting director Carlos Avina Ibarrola was crucial in persuading Matondo to move to Belgium.

He had been left out of Wales European Championship squad and had injured his knee on the last day of camp. His career trajectory wasnt going to plan, until his loan at Cercle, in which he registered nine goals and two assists in 26 games and was named in the top three young players in the division.

It was a long discussion that we had but Rabbi is a special story. Im super happy for him that he went to Rangers, it was just a pity he couldnt stay with us, Ibarrola tells The Athletic.

We first spoke to Rabbi in May last year but we only finalised the signing in August.

We had to get it right as he hadnt done pre-season and was working on an individual basis at home. We put together a special programme for him at home and his first game was in September. You could see he was a special talent.

I got a good feeling from the first minute I spoke to him. Hes a fantastic boy and he was important to our dressing room, so that is a big loss. There is a saying here in Belgium he is like the mayonnaise as he brings everything together, and that was definitely the case with him.

Matondo rose to prominence from an early age in the Cardiff youth set-up. His parents are from DR Congo but he grew up in the Welsh capital. He was playing at under-18 level from the age of 13 and, after scoring the winning goal as Wales won the Victory Shield in 2015, he was snapped up by Manchester City.

City were signing so many high potential players and Rabbi was one of them, says his former City under-23s coach Aaron Briggs.

Briggs is now at Wolfsburg, but he worked as head of methodology at Cercle from January until this summer and was pleased to see how his former protege had developed.

His upper body has definitely grown. He was light in the academy but hes not as easily pushed off the ball now and you can see the work he has put in at the gym.

He is willing to take on information so thats why, although he has had a dip, he has revived his career.

Every player City sign has the potential to make the first-team but pathways are never in a straight line Phil Foden is in the one per cent. Its a more complicated path into a Premier League team than it was 20 years ago as you need to go out on loan or go to another league.

Harry Kane had loans at four clubs before he broke through at Spurs, so its not always the first or second move that works.

Pace has always been Matondos strength, but learning to use it efficiently is the key for young players.

Its acceleration as well as top speed, says Briggs.

I saw him learn how to use his speed to his advantage. He had an eye for goal, too, but at 18, he was just putting those two together and had to learn the other parts of the game.

When Rabbi was in the academy, he was so quick he could just knock it and go but as you get older and your speed is not so much quicker than the rest, you have to find other ways. He had to find different ways to use his speed, like receiving to feet and then spinning in behind.

We were coaching him to let the pass beat the man. He wouldnt score the easy goals, hed always want the curlers from the left, but we were telling him to use his speed to break past the full-back at the back post for a tap-in.

One of Matondos most memorable moments in a City shirt is a bittersweet memory for Briggs, as it came in a UEFA Youth League defeat to Barcelona in 2018. They were trailing 5-2 at half-time but Matondos introduction changed the game and he scored a mazy goal from the halfway line that got them back to 5-4.

Playing so many levels above his age group helped him develop the streetwise aspect of his game, but it came at a cost. The first was that his slightness meant he was in for rough treatment and he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury, which kept him out for close to a year.

Matondo found himself at the top of Citys academy food chain not long after joining as a 16-year-old. Within six months, he was playing for the under-23s, leading to his full Wales debut in November 2018, aged 18. He had switched allegiance from England to Wales at under-17 level, but the call-up by Ryan Giggs was the catalyst for him leaving for Schalke.

City had offered a new contract but it was felt his debut was not coming any time soon with Riyad Mahrez joining for 60million, he also had Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus to compete with.

He had witnessed Sancho start to flourish after leaving for Borussia Dortmund and wanted the same. Former Schalke winger Sane, with whom he became friends at a camp in the US, and Schalkes manager Domenico Tedesco convinced him to move.

But he was signing for a team that was about to hit a period of turbulence. Tedesco was sacked and in one season there were five managers, two of whom barely spoke English.

He only managed 29 Bundesliga appearances in his three years as a player there. The club was relegated with just 16 points while Matondo was on loan at Stoke City, and it was felt another temporary spell away from the club was the best option for both parties for 2021-22.

Ibarrola knew he was going to be getting the fastest player in the Belgian league. He had heard he set a record at City as the quickest player on their books ahead of Kyle Walker, Sane and Sterling, but Matondo was too shy to admit it.

He said he couldnt really remember but you could tell in his eyes he was the fastest, says Ibarrola.

Cercle had extensive reports on him and, through their partnership with Skills Corner, knew his data was outstanding.

He looked like a player who needed a little bit of love and care, a little bit of confidence, he says.

Giving him the belief and saying to him, Listen, mate, you are the best player in the team, were relying on you and we want you to be free to play. After he scored his first goal, he kept going.

Rangers have signed him to primarily fill the right-wing position, but he is capable of playing across all three front positions. With pace his key strength, how Van Bronckhorst uses him compared to Cercle coach Dominik Thalhammer could be key to his success.

He is most comfortable coming inside off the left but he can adapt, says Ibarrola. If you are putting him on the right, you will expect him to reach the goal line and deliver crosses and cut-backs, but he can adapt.

When we were playing against the best teams, we used him as a No 9 to attack the spaces, as there arent too many players like him. He played a cheating role at times as he was allowed not to be the most aggressive so he was fresh for when we won possession.

He was grateful for us. We did a farewell meal with all the team at a restaurant. Even the people from the offices he had never met or didnt have a strong relationship with. I got the feeling he wanted to stay but he got other good options so, as we say in Spanish, he left through the big gates.

I dont think he will finish at Rangers, he will take another step to a top league.

(Top photo: Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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Rangers new boy Rabbi Matondo: The rapid winger ready to ignite World Cup dream - The Athletic

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