Rangers FC: Reviewing 17/18 and Preparing for 18/19
Written By: Dougie Wright
Who’d have guessed it?
Another turbulent year at Ibrox.
Three managers, a Europa League exit at the hands of Luxembourg’s (fourth) finest, seven home defeats, fifty league goals conceded and an aggregate scoreline of 14-2 against Celtic.
This season, Rangers were a bit like a man trying to escape a straitjacket. As much as they thrashed around, changing managers, players and board members, they ended up more or a less where they left off.
What’s the root of this inertia? Is it as bad as it seems? And how can they get better?
Managing a game
There are few things as frustrating in football as when you see a lead turn into a defeat.
That’s happened four times to Rangers this season - as much as the rest of the top six combined.
It happened against Hibs in their home opener, twice in eight December days against St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, then finally against an injury ravaged Celtic side in March.
Combined with draws against Partick Thistle and Killie (again), the Ibrox side lost a total of 16 points from winning positions this season.
The first “bad thing” this season for Rangers is clear: an inability to see games out after taking the lead.
How do you remedy that?
By learning how to keep a clean sheet…
If I asked you if you would rather have a guaranteed two goal lead at the start of the game, or a guaranteed clean sheet, which would you pick?
Rangers have kept eleven clean sheets this season.
On the other hand, they’ve also scored twice in twenty five games.
Doing some quick calculations shows that Rangers won 84% of all available points whenever they scored twice, but 88% of all points when they kept a clean sheet. Keeping a clean sheet is more valuable than scoring two goals.
Rangers may have finished as the league’s top scorers, but the fact that they finished 7th in the table for goals conceded shows where their problems truly lie.
Why so porous?
Watching Rangers attack, the full backs will tend to push up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The two midfielders usually join in attacks too, pushing far into the opposition half when possible. While this often creates overloads in the final third, you can probably guess what happens when the opposition breaks quickly:
There’s space behind the full backs, as well as a huge gap between the midfielders and the centre backs. Teams can exploit this time and time again.
Here’s a map showing where on the pitch the goals Rangers concede are set up from:
Six from Rangers’ right side, eleven from their left and twenty two from the middle. Rangers’ soft centre is failing them.
Two things will change this: a better system and better players. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
A proposed system
There have been a few situations this season where you could accurately accuse Rangers of being too tactically pedestrian. This was underlined in the 3-2 defeat at Ibrox against Celtic where the home side had no idea how to play against an opponent who had just gone down to 10 men.
It therefore might suit Steven Gerrard to have two formations he can easily switch between during matches:
The 3-4-3 allows Tavernier and John to bomb forward, safe in the knowledge that there are three defenders sitting back to mop up counter attacks.
With the full backs turned wingers able to combine with the wide attackers, it means that Rangers can dominate either flank very quickly.
However, this still leaves the Ibrox side with just two midfielders in the centre of the park.
This is fine if your midfield isn’t being pressed, your opponents don’t like to counter through the middle, or they are only going with two centre midfielders themselves.
Otherwise, the two midfielders will simply be unable to control the game through the centre, and risk being overwhelmed in this key area of the pitch.
Should this happen, Rangers can switch to this 4-3-3:
All you do is pull Tavernier and John further back, and push a defender forward into a holding role. This is significant enough to affect the game, but it’s not like the players are constantly switching between two wildly different systems.
There are several benefits to the 4-3-3:
Three central midfielders mean Rangers should control the middle of the park.
Playing a guy between the defence and midfield means that you can bring on more creative midfielders to play in front of him.
You still have three up top: they can go wide, stay narrow, drop deep, switch position…it just depends on how the opposition is set up.
In either formation, your defensive block remains the same:
So rather than having one formation and reverting to a 4-4-2 when you go a goal down, you now have this fluid system that you can adapt to the state of the game.
The crux of this lies in having a player who can operate both as a centre back and a defensive midfielder.
Luckily, Ross McCrorie’s excelled in both positions this season. While he sometimes makes positional mistakes as a defender, being in a three gives him a margin for error, while still allowing him to break up play from deep.
That tactic may solve some of Rangers’ problems, but there are still areas of the side that need strengthened. Let’s look at where these weaknesses lie and who Rangers could bring in to remedy them.
If you’re looking at Rangers squad, there are some clear deficiencies:
No cover for either Declan John or James Tavernier. Lee Wallace has reportedly been told he has no future at the club, while Rangers have conceded 12 goals in the 392 minutes Lee Hodson has been on the park (a goal every half hour).
With David Bates and Russell Martin departing this summer, Rangers will only have three senior centre backs next month: Bruno Alves who hasn’t managed more than three consecutive starts since Pedro Caixinha departed, Fabio Cardoso who last started a league match since October and Ross McCrorie.
There is no suitable replacement if Daniel Candeias gets injured. Furthermore, there is daily speculation that fellow attacking midfielder Josh Windass is on the verge of a move away from the club.
There is no box to box midfielder in the squad.
That gives us the following shopping list:
A full back capable of covering both the left and right side.
At least two centre backs.
An attacker capable of playing across the front three.
A box to box midfielder.
The first one has an obvious solution: Alan Hutton had a stellar season as Aston Villa finished in the playoff places. At the age of 33, his contract’s up at the end of the season. While making a name for himself at right back, Hutton has actually spent most of this season on the left of Villa’s back four.
Hutton hasn’t had any serious injuries in the last 10 years and is still fit and competitive enough to push Declan John and James Tavernier for their positions in the squad.
It might be boring, but it’s sensible.
Moving onto the centre backs, Rangers have had ten different centre back partnership this season:
It’s clear they need stability in this area of the park. That means they should looking for players who are robust and have played in a similarly physical league before.
Liam Lindsay has enjoyed a stellar season in the Championship. Aside from his Barnsley side being ultimately relegated, Lindsay earned plaudits for consistent, disciplined performances. Looking at Barnsley’s games from last season, he does the boring stuff well.
He’s always in the right position, he usually passes into the midfield and he communicates well with the rest of the team. Furthermore, in his last season at Partick Thistle, he scored six goals from set pieces. Rangers have only one goal from 223 corners so far this season…
Andreas Maxsø is an interesting prospect if Rangers want to look further afield. Having captained Nordsjælland in his native Denmark, the 24 year old moved to Turkish side Osmanlispor at the start of the season. However, he was scapegoated for a 5-1 December defeat to Besiktas and lost his place to veteran Yalcin Ayhan.
He’s hit a career bump in Turkey, but he ticks pretty much every box for Rangers. He’s two footed, athletic, passes the ball out of defence really well, has thrived in a league similar to Scotland and has had no serious injuries before. He also captained Nordsjælland before his Turkish adventure, and if you watch him in a game you can see why.
The technical fit is there, the cultural fit is there, the mental fit is there. This would be a no brainer for Rangers.
Other targets for this position could be Martin Skrtel, Michael Lüftner and Jack Baird.
Next on the list is an attacking midfielder. Ideally we want this player to be able to play on either the left or the right, to press aggressively and to be capable of contributing to goalscoring.
Enter Joe Paintsil.
The Ghanaian 20 year old is coming to the end of his first season in European football at Hungarian side Ferencváros and it’s been pretty successful.
8 goals, 6 assists in 1784 minutes (just under 20 full games).
He contributes to around 4 shots a game, he wins the ball back around 3 times a game and he’s played on the left, on the right and through the middle.
Paintsil may only be under 5’5”, but what he lacks in height he makes up in power. His acceleration’s great, he happily bullies bigger players off the ball and he’s barely ever substituted. Speed, strength and stamina.
Yet it would be a disservice to ignore his technical ability. Capable of striking the ball well with either foot from distance, Paintsil is only ever a couple of touches away from a goal in the final third.
His aggressive style of play means that he fouls a lot (four yellows and a red in twenty two appearances this season), and he could be slightly less selfish on the ball. However, the raw materials of a great player are there.
A box to box midfielder is therefore the final piece of the puzzle. As mentioned earlier, a good box to box midfielder will contribute defensively and offensively.
There’s one standout for this position.
Ryan Thomas is a 23 year old midfielder from New Zealand currently playing for a Zwolle side that have surprised everyone in the Netherlands this season with a top half finish. Thomas has been a pretty central part of that achievement.
In an attacking sense, he’s a confident dribbler and can accurately pass off both feet over however long a range you want (top 10 for accurate long distance passing in the league). His understanding of the game means that he’s always driving his team forward, looking for gaps out wide, off the ball runs he can make in the middle or even just dribbling it himself.
He contributes off the ball as well. No midfielder in the Eredivisie gets more interceptions than Thomas (over 2 a games), and only three have more tackles (again, over 2 a game). He’s always scanning, predicting passing lanes. His burst of pace over short distances makes him a bit of a nightmare to try to pass through.
In a nutshell, Ryan Thomas is controlled aggression.
The player has publicly announced he wants to leave Zwolle at the end of this season. He doesn’t want to play in the English Premiership, but wants a stepping stone where he can become physically stronger. Ibrox would be a good move for both parties: pair him in midfield next to Ryan Jack, and let him go wild.
2017/18 has undoubtedly been pretty unstable for Rangers. With derby thrashings, player revolts and two manager sackings, this will probably not be a season to remember for fans of the Ibrox side.
In truth, it’s been the same tactical problems costing them goals time and time again.
Yet the good news is the problems are obvious. Not only obvious, but fixable.
If they can sort out how to defend as a team and get the right players in, there’s no doubt they can gain an extra 10-15 points over the course of next season. Time will tell if Steven Gerrard can figure this out.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.