Rangers' Tactical Report
Last season, Rangers improved their points tally and closed the gap to Celtic. This term they will be looking to go one step further and win their first league title since 2011. As Steven Gerrard enters his second year in charge of the club, they look well poised for a more consistent challenge.
The early signs are positive – as well as a good test in the recent 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers, comfortable 5-0 and 4-0 friendly wins over Oxford United and Marseille were coupled with a 10-0 aggregate win over St Joseph’s in Europa League qualifying. These games have given hints as to how Rangers will play.
Here, we look at Rangers’ shape, tactical principles, patterns of play, individual roles, and some issues they may need to consider as the 2019/20 Premiership campaign edges closer.
Gerrard began his tenure with a 4-3-3 formation. However, this system became highly focused on wing play, using positional rotations between the wingers, full-backs, and No.8s as ways of breaking down teams. Too often, Rangers were stifled by passive low defensive blocks and Alfredo Morelos was left isolated and frustrated.
Without real creativity in central midfield, Gerrard eventually switched to a 4-2-3-1 shape that saw Scott Arfield play behind Morelos. Having Arfield in a more advanced role made use of his incredible work rate and energy in high pressing, which came in handy against Celtic in the second Old Firm derby of last season where he essentially took Scott Brown out of the game. The more advanced role also emphasised the quality of Arfield’s movement off the ball offensively, as he could find space between the lines and link attacks.
The 4-2-3-1 was persisted with for a few months, though towards the end of the season Gerrard changed again to a 4-3-2-1 that saw two of Ryan Kent, Daniel Candeias and Arfield in more central positions supporting Morelos or Jermain Defoe up front. This appears to be the shape that Rangers will line up in to start this term. They have used it successfully in recent matches and, while Gerrard is open to experimentation, he is unlikely to try and fix something that isn’t broken.
In the 6-0 home win over St Joseph’s, the line-up featured Wes Foderingham in goals, with Matt Polster at right-back, Andy Halliday at left-back, and Connor Goldson partnering George Edmundson in central defence. The midfield trio was made up of Greg Docherty, Glen Kamara and Joe Aribo, while Morelos up front was supported by Greg Stewart and Jake Hastie.
There will certainly be changes to that line-up once league action commences, with Allan McGregor, James Tavernier, Filip Helander, Borna Barisic, Steven Davis, Ryan Jack, Arfield and Jordan Jones all in contention for starting roles. However, we will get into the individual roles within the system, as well as the options for each role and their unique traits, later in this article. For now, let’s break down Rangers’ 4-3-2-1 shape in more detail.
BASIC PRINCIPLES AND PATTERNS OF PLAY WITHIN THE 4-3-2-1
No matter the shape Rangers have lined up in under Gerrard, the underlying principles have generally remained the same.
They want to attack, so when they have the ball they look to play forwards and open up the opposition. Following this mentality, when they lose the ball they want to win it back as quickly as they can. And if they do win it back, they often try to counter-attack instantly to exploit the spaces in a disorganised opponent. If the opposition establish possession, Rangers will press and attempt to regain possession as high up the pitch as possible.
As a consequence of this attacking mentality combined with the greater quality of their players compared to the opposition, Gerrard’s side often end up with the majority of possession. Indeed, this can happen by default, as many domestic opponents prefer to give up the ball, sit back, prioritise defensive organisation and save their imagination for counter-attacking raids or set pieces. However, Rangers are not a team that want the ball for the sake of it. They aren’t a ‘possession-based’ team.
Now without further ado, let’s have a look at the way the above principles are implemented within the 4-3-2-1 system Gerrard currently prefers.
1. Purposeful possession
When Rangers build up in their 4-3-2-1, both full-backs take up high and wide positions. The two 8s stay deep on either side of the No.6, while the two attacking midfielders and the striker alternate their positions and movements between the opposition midfield and defence lines.
The build-up play is mixed. They either build out short with passes from the centre-backs to the central midfielders, out to the near-side full-back, or more vertically straight through to one of the front three between the lines. Alternately, they play long diagonals out to the far-side full-back. They do not, however, go long to a target man up front and rarely go long into areas for forwards to chase. Their direct play is almost entirely limited to diagonals out to the wings.
Their ‘2-3’ build-up shape of two centre-backs with three midfielders in front ensures the centre-backs have multiple short options to utilise when playing out. For example, Goldson on the right has a number of potential short options if he comes under pressure:
Short diagonal out to the near-side 8 (say, Jack).
Short diagonal in to the 6 (Davis).
(Slightly less) short diagonal to the far-side 8 (say, Aribo).
Sideways to the other centre-back.
With four possible short options for each centre-back (none of which are simple passes wide to a full-Back who could then be isolated near the touchline) it is difficult for the opposition to press them high without over-committing players and leaving space centrally for Rangers’ front three or out wide for Rangers’ advanced full-backs to exploit.
The central midfielders are dynamic and move to create passing lanes, exploit gaps in opposition pressing, and combine with one another. They are consistently the first pass for the centre-backs, and these passes can be played in a number of different ways and for different reasons (feeling out opposition pressing triggers, drawing opposition in to make space wide or behind, or just to get more technically competent players on the ball).
Here are some combinations used:
6 picks up ball to side of centre-backs and nearest 8 moves up to receive in higher position.
8 receives from centre-backs before passing back to 6 who has better view of the pitch.
8 drops deeper to get ball and 6 moves up inside of him to receive behind pressure.
8 receives under pressure and switches to the free far-side 8.
Centre-back plays 1-2 with 8, who draws pressure, and attacking mid drops into space vacated by opponent to receive from centre-back.
Same as above, only with the opposition drawn in towards the ball, the centre-back switches play to the free full-back on the far side.
When looking to be a bit more progressive when building out from the back, Rangers make use of combination play between their 8s, attacking midfielders and full-backs.
These players often form triangles and offer variety in their interplay, including the below patterns:
Attacking mid receives through pass then lays off wide to full-back.
Attacking mid receives through pass then lays off to 8.
Full-back receives out wide then plays diagonally inside to feet of attacking mid.
Full-back receives and plays ball in channel for attacking mid to run onto.
Full-back receives then lays off to 8, who plays through to attacking mid.
1-2s between full-back and 8 or attacking mid to release one player into space in wider areas.
Of course the aim is to progress or penetrate where possible, so if the 8 can ball-carry into space, or the full-back can attack the flank, or the attacking mid can turn and drive at the opposition back line or combine with Morelos, then they will do so. Passes aren’t played to rack up the statistics.
One of the benefits of Rangers’ 4-3-2-1 shape is the numbers it gives them in central areas. The striker and two attacking midfielders all operate primarily in the central and inside channels; so too do the three central midfielders. That’s six players – some in front of the opposition midfield line; some behind – which often causes the opposition to pull in their wingers. If they don’t do that, Rangers could break the midfield line through multiple options. If they do, Rangers’ full-backs are free on the touchline to receive.
The full-backs often have options when they receive the ball high up the pitch. One is that they can draw out the opposite full-back and start to stretch the opponent’s defensive line. A run behind the full-back could be made by the attacking midfielder which then draws out the nearest centre-back. All of a sudden, the opposition back line is disjointed.
Another option for the full-back, having drawn out their opposite man, is to cross in to the box early for Morelos and one or two others to attack in the air against a defensive line one man short and with the channels between defenders opening up. Alternately, Morelos can make the run on the last line, drag the centre-backs deep, and create space between the lines and in the opening centre-back/full-back channel for the nearby attacking midfielder to receive in.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes Rangers will switch play to the far side. These passes aren’t just about avoiding pressure, but can be used to stretch the opposition defensive block apart. Particularly in the second half against a tired St Joseph’s side, these passes worked well as the opposition were drawn to one side and then couldn’t recover their shape quickly enough to block the receiving full-back’s passing options. Often after these switches a run is made inside the full-back by the nearest 8 either to receive a pass or drag a defender with them and create space inside.
We have also seen these diagonal switch options used as decoys for more vertical and sometimes direct passes through the lines or over the top of an unsuspecting defence. Jack’s pass against Marseille saw him open up his body as if to play diagonally out to Tavernier, then instead play a ball over the top for Candeias to run onto.
In the final third, Rangers’ central numbers allow for quick combination play around the opposition penalty box between the striker, the two attacking midfielders plus the onrushing 8s, while the full-backs can continue their runs down the flank to offer an option around the outside before crossing or cutting back from the by-line.
There are plenty of players in close proximity to one another for 1-2s, lay-offs, and third-man runs (Arfield is excellent at these). All of this aims to confuse or open up the opposition back line before playing through or around it to create shooting opportunities. The numbers around the ball and multiple layers also helps Rangers to keep possession in the final third, or win it back quickly and recycle it after deflections, blocks, interceptions or tackles.
2. Winning the ball back quickly, then counter-attacking
Rangers’ attacking mindset continues into the defensive transition, where they try to win the ball back quickly after losing it. One of the side benefits of their 4-3-2-1 shape and the numbers it gives them centrally is that they often have plenty of players around the ball to apply pressure in transition.
Often what happens is they have the nearest player press the ball, while another comes in from the opposite direction and a third player stays in position in front of the opponent to stop them from dribbling forward. Effectively, the opponent is pressured from three different directions, which takes away their time and space and reduces their exit routes.
One thing Rangers have had from last season to this is robust midfielders who have the energy, work ethic and strength to cause problems in these situations. Arfield is outstanding because his instinct is to press and he never switches off in transition moments. Jack also helps because he’s strong and wants to get stuck in, while last term Lassana Coulibaly and Ross McCrorie both possessed qualities to help out.
This term Aribo looks to have the physicality and mentality to help out, as does Docherty. Kamara has the benefit of six months preparation having joined last January. This trio should ensure Rangers continue to press aggressively in transition to win the ball back as quickly as possible and then counter-attack.
Once the ball is turned over in Rangers’ favour, they generally look to attack the spaces available.
Whether that be a pass out to the full-back in space near the touchline, or a pass behind the opposition back line for an attacker to run onto, they keep the ball moving and get forward as quickly as they can to exploit any disorganisation in the opposition in transition. Gerrard’s side won’t sit on the ball and try to establish controlled possession if there is a gap to exploit – they will attack instantly if the opportunity presents itself.
3. Aggressive pressing
Rangers generally set up in a 4-3-3 mid-block without the ball, with their wingers staying narrow on the same line as Morelos rather than dropping back into midfield or tracking the opposition full-backs.
This narrow front three don’t press opposition centre-backs initially, but they naturally congest the centre and discourage or flat-out deny passes through the central or inside channels.
Essentially, their defensive shape is now the one they used last season whenever Morelos was sent off, only with Morelos at the front of it. When down to 10 men, they went to a narrow 4-3-2 shape and were able to force opposition possession wide. Adding a workaholic like Morelos at the front of that shape only makes it tougher for opponents to play through.
Triggers for high pressing include sideways balls along the back line, backwards passes to the centre-backs and sometimes the goalkeeper, as well as bad touches or poor receiving positions by defenders. Gerrard’s side are quick to step up when the opportunity arises. A high press is only really as good as its first line, and in Morelos, Jones, Arfield and Candeias they have hard workers who are also positionally intelligent to angle their run to cover behind them, mobile enough to get to the ball quickly, and durable enough to do all of this for 90 minutes.
If the opposition try to play through Rangers’ narrow first line of pressing, the nearest central midfielder will step up and press the receiver from behind, while the front three press backwards and help to increase pressure around the ball. If the opposition go wide, the nearest member of Rangers’ front three goes out to press the receiver while the near-side 8 and full-back support and the rest of the attackers and midfielders shift across.
If the opposition go long, Rangers have solid central defenders who can win the first ball. Nikola Katic makes up for a lack of ambition on the ball with aerial dominance, while Goldson is also good in such situations. New arrivals Edmundson (6ft 3in) and Helander (6ft 4in) also appear comfortable dealing with long balls. And once the first ball is won, Rangers have a set of midfielders with good reactions and physical qualities to compete for the second ball.
All of this can have the effect of hemming the opposition in their own half. If they try to play through, the passes are intercepted or quickly pressured from multiple directions. If they go around, the nearest Rangers player will move out to press while others shift across to cover. And, if they go over, Rangers’ defenders are able to snap up first balls.
IMPROVEMENTS PLAYING THROUGH MIDFIELD
Last season, Rangers’ possession was heavily focused on positional rotations between the full-backs, 8s and wingers to progress out wide and create crossing opportunities. This approach worked well to exploit man-marking, which is still commonly used in the Scottish Premiership. However, it wasn’t quite so effective against zonal defences that weren’t easily pulled apart by off-the-ball movements (cough, Kilmarnock).
Another issue was that Rangers lacked the players in midfield to make something happen even when the rotations left them in space or 1v1. Jack has always been a conservative passing/ball-winning midfielder, Coulibaly was dynamic but not a great passer, McCrorie is committed but lacks precision on the ball, and Arfield is more influential off the ball in higher areas – through his movement and awareness – than he is on it in deeper areas. Three of this quartet usually populated Gerrard’s midfield within the 4-3-3, and none of them could be called playmakers or dribbling specialists.
These issues, however, have been alleviated by two things:
Rangers now have more suitable, and better, midfielders.
Their 4-3-2-1 shape gives them more chances to play through the opposition.
The arrivals of Davis and Kamara significantly boosted the creativity and 1v1 ability in Rangers’ midfield three. The former is an outstanding passer with great dynamism in build-up to make himself available, while the latter is highly press resistant thanks to his quick feet and composure. Aribo appears able to shrug off pressure with a mix of skill and strength and brings ball progression similar to Mousa Dembélé (the ex-Tottenham one) – simply by driving forward and using his body to hold off challengers physically without losing control of the ball.
Throw the above personnel improvements in with the change of shape ensuring at least three options moving between the lines (Morelos plus two others, as opposed to the Morelos +1 often seen last term), and Rangers have more ways to play through midfield this season.
SYSTEM, ROLES, AND OPTIONS
Certain positions within Rangers’ 4-3-2-1 are all but nailed down. McGregor will be the goalkeeper and Morelos the striker, albeit with good backup from Foderingham and Defoe respectively. Goldson will be the right-sided centre-back, Tavernier will be at right-back, and Arfield is likely to take one of the attacking midfield spots. Elsewhere, however, there is debate to be had as to who should start.
There are three candidates to partner Goldson in central defence. Katic is aerially dominant and has the advantage of one year’s experience of Scottish football already. He is used to handling long ball bombardment and physical target men, though he isn’t particularly effective with the ball or on his left foot. Edmundson and Helander both appear strong and good in the air, but Scottish football will test these traits like no other league. Edmundson looks to be a brilliant long-range passer capable of switching accurately or breaking the lines, though Helander cost more money, is more experienced and is comfortable on his left foot, which may give him the nod at left centre-back to start the season.
While Halliday and Jon Flanagan stood in well at left-back last term, the time has come for Barisic to prove himself a consistent force down the left-hand side. He is better than the other two in terms of pace, forward runs, dribbling and crossing, and that’s what Rangers need from an advanced full-back.
Halliday is a good stand-in with his mentality, energy and deliveries from dead balls, but Flanagan’s instinct to cut in onto his stronger right foot makes him the weakest option as an advanced left-back.
The central midfield three is yet to definitively work itself out, but it’s a good headache for Gerrard.
Davis doesn’t have the legs to play box-to-box as he did in his first spell as a wide or central midfielder, but his control and passing range make him a fit for the 6 role. His main competition there should come from Kamara, who may also be needed elsewhere.
One criticism of the Finnish international is that he sometimes loses his concentration and gives the ball away unnecessarily in his own third, but he is excellent under pressure and can break the lines with his passing. He may well rotate between starting as an 8 and being a stand-in for Davis at 6 to keep Davis fresh over the course of a 50+ game season.
Aribo, Jack and Docherty will also fight for the 8 roles. Like Kamara, Jack can also be used at 6. For those rare games where Rangers don’t have the majority of possession, his defensive coverage and grit may be preferred at the base of midfield. Otherwise his energy and defensive qualities will offer balance to a three also featuring Kamara and Davis. Aribo and Docherty are more progressive 8s.
Aribo’s dribbling and strength means he can be used to carry the ball forward single-handedly, while Docherty wants to face goal and drive forward into available space.
Alongside Arfield in attacking midfield are a variety of options bringing unique skillsets. Jones could be the new Kent – a freestyler who, wherever he receives the ball, looks to take on his man and disrupt the opposition defence without putting up great numbers for goals or assists. The returning Jamie Murphy could benefit from playing in a less physically taxing, more central role than his old left wing position, while youngster Josh McPake shows promise as a sort of Jones/Murphy hybrid.
Sheyi Ojo offers more directness with his desire to receive on the half turn, dribble at pace and get shots off.
However, Hastie may struggle to pin down a starting spot. At Motherwell he thrived as a right winger who could attack space on the counter, cut in from wide and shoot. But his goalscoring form of last term is unsustainable and it’s unclear if he has the technical qualities to play in congested central areas where he will receive with an opponent breathing down his neck.
Stewart, on the other hand, is much more suited as a link player. His touch allows him to receive in tight areas with his back to goal, keep the ball under pressure and lay off to a teammate. His poor form for Aberdeen was less an individual problem and more an issue of Aberdeen not playing to his strengths by having him chase second balls or play out near the touchline. Underlining this point was how well he played for Kilmarnock, a team that let him drift behind a striker, find pockets of space and receive between the lines.
Here’s how Rangers might line up when everyone is fully fit (backup options are in brackets):
SOME ISSUES TO WORK ON
Not everything is perfect for Rangers going into the new campaign. Firstly, they struggled defending set pieces against St Joseph’s at Ibrox. On one occasion an obvious movement wide by an opposing forward to receive to feet from a free kick was not tracked. They also reacted slowly to one corner kick where St Joseph’s used a simple routine of one player coming short, working a 2v1 and a free cross into the box from a better angle. Finally, on another corner they would have conceded were it not for a goal-line clearance from Halliday after Aribo lost his man momentarily.
In isolation, these instances could be glossed over. But the fact all three happened in the same game is problematic. It suggests a lack of organisation when defending set pieces. It could, of course, be complacency in a tie that was already won through a 4-0 away first leg victory, but that won’t comfort Gerrard.
Another issue comes from open play, where Marseille worked 2v1 situations down the flanks through switches of play to the far-side overlapping full-back on a number of occasions in their recent friendly.
Rangers’ 4-3-2-1 system comes with many benefits, but one drawback is it can leave the full-backs exposed defensively. Had Marseille been more decisive they could have scored from one of these situations, and opponents like Aberdeen, Hibs and Motherwell will be looking to get their biggest threats (fast, tricky wide men like Niall McGinn, Daryl Horgan and Jermaine Hylton) into 1v1 situations with long diagonal switches.
Blackburn presented the greatest test of Rangers’ build-up play yet, and caused some problems with their high pressing. It forced McGregor to have more touches on the ball than he perhaps enjoys, and the goalie made some errors with his decision-making and kicking. Blackburn’s pressing also led Rangers to play some risky passes around their own penalty box, one of which led to a giveaway and the opponent’s equalising goal.
High pressing isn’t something Rangers will face often domestically, but when they do, fantasy passes deep in their own third are something worth reconsidering. The obvious benefit is that, if they work, the opposition have been sucked up the pitch and space is behind for the attackers to exploit once pressure is bypassed. But the risk is potentially conceding the ball in dangerous areas. The reality is these passes can only be attempted with the right player profile at centre-back and defensive midfield.
Katic is shaky on the ball, so asking him to play short passes to feet in or around his own box under pressure would be silly. Helander is more assured, but seems to be a safe passer who prefers to play the ball to the nearest available teammate even when he has time and space. Meanwhile, Jack as a 6 is more conservative in his positioning and passing. He often drops between the centre-backs to face forward and have a clearer view of proceedings, as opposed to receiving higher with his back to goal.
When the league season begins and the stakes are higher, Rangers might be wise to play the percentages more and clear the ball in highly pressured situations deep in their own half. And if they do intend on imitating Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in these instances, they had better not try to do so with Katic, Helander and Jack as their centre-back and 6 selections.
Firstly, dear reader, thank you for making it this far. I like to think it’s been rewarding in an analytical sense, but there is also the slight chance that some of it has represented the ramblings of a maniac who wishes the Scottish football season would skip pre-season breaks altogether.
The reason for the length of this article stems primarily from the uniqueness of Rangers system. This may be of interest to the other 11 Premiership sides, many of whom will need to adapt their defensive strategy when they play Rangers. Matching up man-for-man isn’t so easy when players start appearing in strange positions, while more zonal teams will need to find a way to account for Rangers’ high full-backs and switches of play.
Gerrard changed shape several times last season, so he may well do so again this term. But for the time being, the 4-3-2-1 looks like it is here to stay. And judging by the way Rangers are playing within the system, they can rightly aim to break Celtic’s domestic dominance in 2020.