It’s more than just the intangibles...Rangers stifled by St Johnstone
Written by: Jordan Campbell (@JordanC1107)
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard said there were no “Rangers performances” against St Johnstone after his side drew 0-0 at Ibrox on Saturday.
Gerrard was one of the best Premier League midfielders of his generation, but what has often seen him considered ahead of his rivals were the intangibles: the drive, the heart, the passion, all adjectives commonly used in Scottish football, but which remain difficult to quantify.
What is a ‘Rangers performance’? At the embryonic stages of his managerial career Gerrard described what he intended ‘it’ to look like, with ‘it’ being a gameplan based on high intensity football.
But there appears to have been a move away from counter-pressing against lesser sides, while carving open teams that sit deep is becoming a regular problem.
It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be remedied in-game either. Rangers have failed to score in the first-half of nine domestic games, and only twice have they gone on to break the deadlock after the break.
The phrase ‘the victory of champions’ is banded around a lot, but Celtic seem to problem solve or produce the decisive moment when they are struggling. Celtic have failed to score in the first-half on thirteen occasions but, crucially, they’ve gone on to win eight of them (five of them by a 1-0 scoreline).
That ability to change draws into wins has been one of the most pivotal differences this season. If the scored remained the same in the eleven league games they hadn’t scored at the interval they would have picked up eight points. Instead, they collected 20, a swing of 12 points. Whereas Rangers would have been due four points at the break, they only improved that total by another four.
That’s an overall difference of eight points, the exact number Rangers trail the leaders by.
The failure to beat St Johnstone may end up being the result that all but confirmed the end of the title race, and Tommy Wright’s side were worthy of a point.
St Johnstone set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation and did a great job of frustrating Rangers, rendering most of the home side’s possession ineffective through a mixture of zonal and man-marking.
One of the most obvious ploys by St Johnstone was to allow Connor Goldson time in possession. He often looks uncomfortable when he has space to drive into, almost becoming paralysed when there are no obvious passes available to him.
Chris Kane allowed him to stride up to halfway before applying pressure from the centre. Goldson becomes inflicted with a serious bout of tunnel vision when he is in a full-back position, sending the ball aimlessly down the channel rather than delaying for movement to appear or continue forward with the ball.
Of the 40 forward passes he attempted, 12 of them were unsuccessful. It can be noted how Goldson struggled when playing long, especially from a wider position.
Swamping the central areas was something St Johnstone did well as they often starved the player in possession of passing options. Rangers really struggled to play forward, regularly being forced to start again after a period of turgid possession.
The positioning of David Wotherspoon on the right side of midfield worked well. He was placed higher and narrower when Rangers had the ball on the right flank in an attempt to constrain Rangers’ ability to work the ball out and to the other side. Matty Kennedy did a disciplined job on Tavernier, ensuring his first touch was back towards his own goal, and this was the trigger for Wotherspoon to leave Barisic and push up higher as it put pressure on Tavernier’s usual ‘escape’ ball to Worrall when he drives inside.
Rangers were missing Ryan Jack at the base of midfield who is a more natural orchestrator than Ross McCrorie. However, Rangers have struggled to get their deepest midfielder on the ball in recent weeks regardless of personnel and the problem continued. Murray Davidson shadowed him and Kane made sure he covered the ball into his feet when he pressed the centre-backs.
Former Rangers midfielder Sean Goss was positioned as the spare midfielder behind Liam Craig and Murray Davidson. He was tasked with screening the ball from deep into Defoe’s feet, which rarely happened.
Elsewhere, Scott Tanser and Richard Foster did man-marking jobs on Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent. Both wingers took up central positions as they looked to receive the ball behind the St Johnstone midfield, but they were stymied by St Johnstone’s control of central spaces.
Rangers tried to use rotation to disrupt their shape, with Steven Davis and Glen Kamara both running beyond when Kent and Candeias dropped deep. The St Johnstone full-backs would track them but when the ball went backwards they would retreat to their position and shadow whoever was there, be that Davis or Candeias.
Candeias arrived at Rangers as a bit of a throwback to traditional wingers of old and formed a strong understanding with Tavernier in combining to work space for crosses. Graeme Murty added some variety to his movement and that has only increased this season, with Candeias having a lot more freedom to roam on Saturday.
Rangers trialled Candeias on the right of a midfield three early in the season, which was never revisited. Sceptical over whether he possesses the spatial awareness to thrive in that role, he has undoubtedly become subtler in those central pockets of space, but the issue remains that he is not comfortable enough with his back to goal.
Kent has developed into a terrific signing for Rangers in recent months, using his pace in a more direct manner. He has been having success of late peeling off the line and receiving as he drives inwards where he can dribble across the park. That only happened once or twice on the counter on Saturday, with St Johnstone ensuring they could contain him through sheer number of bodies. Jason Kerr would step up in anticipation of Kent running if he had no one to mark, while the right central midfielder would shuffle across to provide cover against Kent dribbling inside.
Rangers looked to get their width from full-backs Tavernier and Borna Barisic, but neither had a successful day. Barisic has yet to replicate the displays he put in for Osijek against Rangers and made negative decisions all game.
He possesses great crossing technique but for some reason he is putting in deliveries from a standing start. He doesn’t shift the ball out from his feet, which means he is restricted to the angle parallel to him. Crossing from this sort of position is never going to create an opportunity for the likes of Jermain Defoe as, although he can still generate a freakish amount of pace on the ball, it is still not enough for the striker just to guide the ball.
Defoe struggled to have any impact, with his hold up play lacking. Joe Shaughnessy and Kerr marshalled him well but Alfredo Morelos’ presence was sorely lacking for Rangers. He only completed five passes and only two of his fourteen duels were successful.
Defoe is able to get his body in between the man and the ball but seems reluctant to lay it off quickly and can be eased off it too easily. That has never been his strength, however, so it may be harsh to criticise him for that but it seems he required a partner who can link up for him to make an impact.
St Johnstone had success on the counter against Rangers, not for the first time at Ibrox. Matthew Kennedy was impressive from the left wing and he broke into the space left by Tavernier several times.
The Rangers back four were guilty of an inconsistent approach to the offside trap. Goldson dropped too deep in comparison to the rest of his defensive line several times, and this did not aid Rangers in their attempts to cover the flanks when in defensive transition. Worrall was the most aggressive in maintaining a high line but it was often disjointed as Kane got in behind three times throughout the match, and Alston nearly scored the winner when he ran through from deep.
Glen Kamara had a solid debut and was played higher up than he did for Dundee. He dropped deeper in the second half to help control the build-up but there are still questions about the balance of the midfield.
The fact Rangers only had two shots on target from inside the box the whole game tells its own story, especially when both were from centre-backs at corners.
Gerrard is right to criticise individual performances but when a pattern is emerging as it is the onus is on the coaching staff to construct alternative approaches rather than the cross-heavy tactics when chasing a win.