Rangers midfield struggles

Written by; Jordan Campbell (@JordanC1107)

Rangers suffered their second defeat to Derek McInnes’ absolute man marking on Wednesday after Steven Gerrard experienced another failure to break down a team content with defending deep.

Despite going into the game at the top of the league in December for the first time in seven years, Rangers put in a meek performance which belied the celebrations at Tynecastle just three days earlier.

Far be it a lack of will to win, this was a lack of imagination that hampered Rangers. Despite having the unusual situation of a man advantage for just over half an hour, they struggled to carve out opportunities.

The balance of Rangers’ midfield has been a topic of debate recently, and it is clear they require a greater diversity of skill set in that department. The lack of incision against Aberdeen mirrored the earlier performances away to Livingston and St Mirren, at home to Kilmarnock and Spartak Moscow, and at Hampden in the semi-final defeat to Aberdeen.

To highlight the difficulty Rangers had in penetrating Aberdeen, Lassana Couliably made four forward passes in 52 minutes while Ovie Ejaria made seven in 94.

It is no coincidence that Rangers have thrived in the European arena, and when down to ten men. Rangers looks far more comfortable counter attacking superior teams than they do when handed possession against inferior sides in Scotland.

Personnel combinations and tentative pass selection are major factors but there are structural changes that could help resolve these problems.

Balance

Let’s start with the dynamics of the midfield three. Ryan Jack, Coulibaly and Ejaria all started on Wednesday, which is a balance that has a solidity to it but lacks an attacking threat.

Coulibaly is not a holding midfielder, he is someone who is at his best when he can burst into space in transition. When Rangers dominate possession, he adds little when positioned forward one to the right of Jack. He has yet to complete a pass which has led to a shot this season.

Jack is very strong at reading the game and maintaining shape in the middle of the pitch, but while he is comfortable receiving the ball from the defence, he is not a natural orchestrator. Pedro Caixinha, who signed him on a free from Aberdeen, said:

“I like the way he sees the game… and gives the out ball in the build-up. He gives a balance to the team when it’s attacking.

”(He brings aggression to midfield) especially at moments when you need balance. Players can be released in attack when they know other players are giving them cover.”
— - Perdo Caixinha

He has certainly proved efficient in that regard, recovering possession 7.7 times a game, while winning 88.9% of his tackles. He doesn’t lose the ball often either – just 21 times in 746 minutes, or every 35 minutes. But the lack of creativity has rather harshly been partly attributed to him in recent weeks, citing a hesitance to play forward and needlessly delaying the play.

Scott Arfield’s absence against Aberdeen highlighted the glaring lack of attacking prowess in the centre of the park. The former Burnley midfielder was more functional than a creative hub under Sean Dyche when playing off the left, but at Rangers he epitomises the style that is being implemented. If Michael Beale is the supposed brains behind the operation, then Arfield is his surrogate on the pitch.

He and Morelos have struck up an intuitive relationship. Arfield’s intelligence and awareness of space has made his first-time flicks ‘around the corner’ a central aspect of Rangers’ attacking play. Morelos has dropped deeper to receive the ball this season with the intention of creating space for Arfield to run into and thus stretch the opposition.

These quick combinations, particularly in wide areas, have characterised each impressive display this season, but the midfield is too often ponderous and devoid of ingenuity.

Pass selection

Gerrard and the new crop of players will have become used to groans meeting backwards passes, which is symptomatic of the lack of patience in Scottish football for possession football.

Celtic and Rangers play the lowest percentage of their passes forward in the whole league – 27.9% and 35%. That may surprise some, but it is simply a case of teams setting up differently against the Old Firm, therefor making it more difficult to find space. Motherwell play marginally under half of theirs forward but that is not because they are a superior footballing side, it is because that they have a direct style and bypass the midfield.

There does need to be a greater appreciation that the ball cannot always go forward if a team is committed to playing a ground-based style, but Rangers are experiencing problems working the ball through the centre of midfield.

It was a criticism levelled at Celtic earlier in the season but the inclusion of Callum McGregor at the base of midfield has improved their fluency. He was able to dictate from deep and play quicker through the lines. Jack doesn’t see the picture as clearly as he does, but that could be overlooked if there were two midfielders with the verve to compensate for that. Alas, there are not.

Against Aberdeen the lessons of the semi-final did not seem to be heeded. It is well known by now that Aberdeen’s players follow their opposite number literally anywhere unless it takes them into a seriously uncomfortable position. This should make it possible to manipulate their shape by dragging players wide to open up central passing channels, but Rangers didn’t show the intuition to take advantage.

Connor Goldson’s struggles at bringing the ball out from defence have been commented on before, but he seems reluctant to take the ball out of defence. Aberdeen offered up the opportunity on a consistent basis – perhaps a deliberate ploy – but he never indulged, preferring to play square to Jon Flanagan or Gareth McAuley. Allan McGregor can routinely be seen remonstrating with his defenders to drive forward the ball.

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Rangers’ midfielders infrequently came towards the ball too, only serving to crowd the space for the centre backs. When they did receive the ball, the passes were usually returned to the central defender without pause. A lack of confidence is evidently to blame for the cautious decision-making but there is a technical reason too for the difficulty to progress play forward.

Very rarely do Rangers midfielders receive the ball facing the opposition goal, or even on the half turn. This is due to their tendency to approach the man in possession in a straight line rather than at an angle, which would open up the game for them. Hence, the default action is to take a touch back to where it came from, return the ball and spin away.

Ejaria is often mocked for the ‘pirouette’ movement he routinely makes in his own half, widely deemed as being superfluous, but the twists and turns are an attempt to work space to play forward.

The functionality of Ejaria has been questioned. He’s not an instinctive goalscoring midfielder and he’s not imposing enough to sacrifice a defensive midfielder for him to dictate from deep. His best work comes from his close control where he can link up in tight areas, but those events are happening too far from the opposition goal to have an impact.

Rangers should look to use him in a more advanced position just as Liverpool’s under-23s did at the tip of a diamond. There, he would have the freedom to express himself and his dribbling ability could be further utilised. A good reference point is Tom Rogic. He plays in a similarly languid style withan unerringly deft touch and rapid footwork. Ejaria can glide past players too but he is only dribbling an average of 3.69 times per 90 minutes compared to Rogic who averages 8.15.

Ejaria is a naturally positive player but he only plays 25% of his passes forward - averaging nine a game. One in four seems low, however, when you compare his teammates’ output and the nature of Celtic’s midfield distribution, there is not a great difference. Olivier Ntcham is the outlier as he averages 23 a game.

So, it cannot be deducted from these numbers that more forward passes from midfield will improve Rangers’ potency, but the context can explain why their pass selection can appear conservative.

Rangers don’t have any players who consistently offer an option in behind the opposition defence which makes it hard for midfielders to showcase what vision they have, while Morelos is often a sole target due to players falling behind the line of the ball.

Creating more opportunities to play into Morelos’ feet around the penalty area is the single most beneficial change Rangers could make to their play. He is exceptional at pinning defenders, either to act as a bounce pass for when the player continues his run, or to roll the defender when they get too tight. But there is scope to utilise his hold up play to a greater extent.

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Under Graeme Murty, Rangers used diagonal passes from Taverner to exploit this but there remains a hesitancy to play into Morelos’ feet even when he has the defender touch tight on the edge of the box without a player blocking the pass.

Combination play is a central tenet under Gerrard but in recent weeks there has been a notable decline in the regularity of such examples. Too often the direction of play is predictable sideways. This is where a midfielder with the ability to disguise passes into the striker’s feet by giving defenders the eyes is sorely lacking. Ejaria is capable of it but the movement in front of him limits his opportunities to do so, or he is either dissuaded because of the lack of players around Morelos.

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Ryan Kent’s absence is partly responsible, as he and Scott Arfield were particularly good at ensuring close proximity to Morelos as the ball was being played into him. Kent’s goal against Dundee highlighted how effective these combinations can be as there is very few things more difficult to defend against than when a player plays a pass from a standing start and continues their run beyond you in search of the return. Whereas Glenn Middleton hogs the touchline, whereas Kent roamed into central areas where he could link up.

Goal v Dundee

This is where Tavernier’s athletic superiority can be further made use of. He has attempted the most crosses of any player in the league – averaging 4.52 per 90 minutes – but he could commit defenders more often than he does. Gerrard has attempted to give Tavernier an increased sense of security by implementing a clearly defined rotation when he gets possession in the opposition half. Candeias moves inside a lot more regularly than he used to, which sees Coulibaly drop into right back to give a passing option and protect the space vacated.

Aberdeen full-back Max Lowe presented an interesting duel as he is one of few players in Scotland who possesses the physical attributes to match Tavernier’s power and acceleration from a standing start. Tavernier favoured going down the outside but considering the number of times space is presented for him to drive inwards, it is not capitalised on nearly enough.

Having Morelos make a late run across the front of the nearest centre back would give him an option to play into his feet and make a diagonal run inwards where he could make full use of his pace.

There is an over-reliance on Morelos. Lafferty is inferior to Morelos when it comes to acting as a focal point of the attack. His natural inclination is to peel to the back post in anticipation of a cross rather than offer an option into feet, which left Tavernier frustrated on Wednesday.

Rangers are over reliant on Tavernier and Candeias as a source of chance creation. When their attacks lose impetus, instead of reworking the ball to find a new angle of attack, Rangers can be guilty of forcing crosses from deep without sufficient bodies in the box to warrant a delivery.

It is one of the major differences between Celtic and Rangers: their ability to sustain attacks for longer periods. The most recent figures (November 4th) show Celtic’s goal scoring chances come after an average of 42 seconds of possession, compared to Rangers’ 29.2 seconds. Brendan Rodgers spoke about his defenders condensing the game as being crucial to their improvements and it is something Rangers could do with replicating as by stepping into he game Goldson and co could offer an out ball to recirculate possession.

Who can solve it?

There will be options further afield who represent value for money but from the Scottish market Glen Kamara represents someone who has the tools to add increase the dynamism in the Rangers midfield. He plays as the deepest one of three for Dundee but is equally capable of playing as a box to box midfielder as his assist for Kenny Miller’s first goal against Hamilton proved.

The Finland international put in a stellar performance at Ibrox last year where his composure with his back to his won goal and ability to drive with the ball at his feet impressed.