How can Rangers beat the low block?

Thursday night’s emphatic 4-2 victory away to FC Midtjylland in Denmark confirmed one thing that Rangers fans know very well. The bigger game, the more suited they are tactically to it.

When teams come out and attack, Rangers come into their own. For most of last season, they were a terrific counter attacking team more than happy to concede possession, soak up pressure and then hit ruthlessly on the counter attack. You only need to look at games like Spartak Moscow & Villarreal which evidence this but there are countless other examples littered throughout the season.

Whilst this is a useful tool to have in your arsenal, unfortunately Rangers play in Scotland. 90% of games are played against teams who are looking to do exactly the same thing to us, minus the counter attacking.

All too often last season, opposition teams were quite happy to counter the wide 4-3-3 formation with a 4-5-1 utilising an ultra low block, 11 men behind the ball in a compact shape and force us to play through them.

Rangers struggled continually with this due to a number of reasons, but I’ve highlighted what I feel are the 3 key areas below:

  1. Too much width.

    Two attacking full backs in Barisic & Tavernier and wingers like Candeias/Middleton who thrived on getting wide on the overlap and firing balls into the box. This plays into the hands of teams who sit deep and don’t want to attack.

  2. Conservative midfield.

    Consistency was an issue in the midfield three throughout last season due to a number of factors including form/injury/skillset however one constant was how conservative they seemed to be. Too often Rangers played two holding midfielders and were severely lacking in players able to break from deep and offer support to the lone striker.

  3. Lack of ball playing centre backs.

    Connor Goldson & Niko Katic were outstanding on the run to the Europa League group stages but as the season progressed, it became clear that this was due to their excellence at the more traditionally defensive aspects of the game. In domestic games against teams who sit deep, a little bit more quality on the ball was required to step out of defence and initiate attacks.

What can they do to change this?

Well they’re trying! This isn’t a new concept, teams have played this way against bigger teams for many many years. Liverpool - who most people agree our tactical set up is heavily influenced by - struggled badly with this during the early seasons of Klopps reign. Remember all those 0-0 draws at home to teams like Burnley? Huge possession stats, lots of attacking intent but no cutting edge.

So How Do You Beat The Low Block?

I’ve listed below a few areas that I believe Rangers need to improve in if they’re to have any chance of attempting to break defensive teams down effectively.

Spread The Love

Rangers tweaked their formation slightly from April onwards to more of a 4-3-2-1 with Arfield & Kent playing narrower and a lot closer to Jermaine Defoe. This helps vary attacking play centrally, whilst still allowing attacks down the wings due to the the width from the fullbacks. In my interview on Heart & Hand with Michael Beale, he mentioned the importance of having options like this when trying to break down compact teams. This formational change does allow Rangers to be less one dimensional and focus the play centrally, but is also heavily dependent on players who can play one touch football and have the vision and confidence to play passes through the lines.

The key thing lacking here for me is quite simple, output.

Since the formation change, Rangers have became less reliant on width and swinging balls into the box for Morelos, which is not his strong suit. Ryan Kent & Scott Arfield were predominantly used in the two attacking midfield positions towards the end of last season and delivered 6 goals and 1 assist between then in that time period (10 games). Over the season as a whole their total was 18 goals and 12 assists.

To make a comparison with Liverpool, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah racked up 53 goals and 11 assists between them. Now obviously, player quality is a huge factor there but this is the big difference for me. Rangers need their other attacking players to pick up the slack from Defoe & Morelos (and Tavernier) more and spread the goals out across the team.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not specifically comparing player quality between Rangers & Liverpool, however it’s a reasonable assumption to make that the level of domestic opposition is commensurate to each team’s quality.

Increasing goals in these areas is the primary focus - and a good way to do that would be by improving the teams fluidity when attacking. Most teams coming to Ibrox will utilise a basic man marking system instead of a zonal approach. The key to breaking this down is having your offensive players rotating and moving between the lines freely. This results in the defending team having to constantly decide whether they follow their man or stay in their compact defensive shape. This indecision is exactly what is needed to open up gaps to attack.

A good example of Rangers deploying this to great effect would be in Rangers 4 -2 victory against Aberdeen back in February. Ryan Kent is primarily positioned on the left of the defence and therefore being man marked by Shay Logan. For Morelos opener, Kent picks the ball up on the left of the box and runs across the entire length of the box before unleashing a shot at goal.

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You can see from the image above that Shay Logan (number 2) has followed him across the pitch and is now out of position. The rebound falls to Morelos, in the exact position Shay Logan should be covering and he buries it to give Rangers the opener.

This is the exception rather than the norm with Rangers attacking play, but if Rangers can improve on this aspect and utilise good positional rotating across the forward and midfield areas, we will add layers to the attack and be able to attack the space defences leave a lot more effectively.

The Midfield Conundrum

Long term listeners to my Tactics Talk podcast on Heart & Hand will know I haven’t been a massive fan of Rangers midfield set up over the last 18 months. It’s too conservative in most games, but especially in games where we struggle to break down opposition defences. There is improvement in this area but in the season opening 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock, they allowed some of the old issues to rear their head once again.

Given Kilmarnock are always going to play very defensive football, it makes no sense for Ryan Jack, Steven Davis & Joe Aribo to all drop deep when our central defenders have the ball. This happened on numerous occasions in this game, playing straight into the oppositions hands. Joe Aribo's starting position when in possession needs to be a lot further forward, so that we can see more contributions like Thursday night’s terrific showing in Denmark.

The comparisons to Liverpool don’t go away here, as many people believe that again we are trying to mimic their hard working, industrious midfield 3 of Fabinho, Henderson and either Keita or Wijnaldum.

This is true to an extent, Rangers do want the midfield 3 to be a solid base which protects the centre halves and allows the full backs to attack at will (again another similarity with Liverpool). They key difference lies in a statistical comparison between Liverpool & Rangers midfield 3.

As a rough comparison, lets use the midfielders who featured the most in both team’s last 10 games or so of last season - when Rangers tactical switch to 4-3-2-1 occurred.

Data: Wyscout

Data: Wyscout

As you can see from the above, Steven Davis is the most effective offensive midfielder but positionally is usually the deepest lying of the three. Therein lies the problem!

If you compare the four box to box midfielders - Henderson, Keita, Jack & Kamara - you can see that Naby Keita is far and away the most dangerous offensively closely followed by Jordan Henderson.

The Rangers pair fall short on key metrics such as final third/through passing accuracy, dribbles per 90 minutes and touches in the box per 90.

This suggests that whilst Rangers do attempt offensive passes, the success rate is poor - perhaps due to the players being ill suited to this.

Similarly, dribbles & touches in the box being so low for Jack & Kamara suggests they lack the dynamism and attacking intent of their Liverpool counterparts. This could be something Rangers look to rectify to help break down stubborn defences by having our midfielders advance from deep and provide variation in attack.

The big difference here of course is the addition of Joe Aribo into the Rangers central midfield this season. Below are his numbers for last season at Charlton Athletic.

Data: Wyscout

Data: Wyscout

As you can see from the comparison above with Naby Keita, Joe Aribo offers a significant upgrade to the Rangers midfield in an offensive capacity. The dribble rate and touches in the box per 90 will be no surprise; we’ve already seen this to great effect with his excellent return of 3 goals in his first 7 competitive appearances. If Aribo continues with this trajectory then these numbers - allied by his excellent first touch and spatial awareness when on the ball - should make a significant difference to the attacking output of the Rangers midfield.

Can The Centre Backs Help?

Any good modern attacking team relies on centre backs who can bring the ball out from defence, draw in the oppositions first line of pressure and play a ball through the lines to get them turning.

As mentioned at the top of the article, this is an area Rangers really struggled in last year. The centre backs frequently had the most touches of the ball in the entire team and you would regularly see teams happily sitting off, letting Connor Goldson bring the ball out cautiously and inevitably launch it upfield to no avail.

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The above example is Joe Worrall’s infamous ‘howler’ against Kilmarnock in February. Now, obviously this is an error by Worrall but as you can see, he’s so limited in passing options in this phase of play. Ryan Jack is standing next to him marked by 3 men, Jones is covering the ball out to Tav and Gareth McAuley is too deep to offer any useful option. All Worrall can feasibly do here is punt it upfield or go back to the goalkeeper. He should have done one of those in this situation, however the point is that he should have 2 or 3 midfield options moving and making space for him to play the ball past Brophy and break that line of press.

Again to use the Liverpool comparison, this is something they have utilised to great effect - it does help when you have a £75m defender - and the below table shows the differences between the regular centre backs in the last calendar year.

Data: Wyscout

Data: Wyscout

The Rangers players actually hold their own here to an extent but there are a few key areas which might make a difference.

Connor Goldson passing accuracy isn’t terrible for a centre half (85%) but he attempts a higher number of passes to the final third with a 63% success rate. What we don’t see here is what type of passes they are but we know from watching Rangers play that the majority of these are long balls upfield with no purpose or intent.

Van Dijk on the other hand, has better passing accuracy (92%) and passes to the final third accuracy (73%). We can possibly conclude here that Van Dijk is more purposeful in his possession and again we know from the eye that Liverpool tend to play the ball on the deck a lot more which obviously increases the success rate of their long passing.

Forward passing is the key metric here for me in terms of building the play from the back and once again Van Dijk tops the list with 83% accuracy compared to Goldson with 75%.

So, I think we can deduce that Rangers centre halves could make better use of the ball when building play from the back. This is obviously heavily reliant on passing options which is where players like Ryan Jack, Scott Arfield, Steven Davis & James Tavernier need to come into their own. It is their responsibility to rotate across the pitch and give their centre backs multiple passing options to target and then once they receive the ball, they need to keep it moving through the lines at speed to break down stubborn defences.

It remains to be seen whether the arrival of George Edmundson and Filip Helander will aid this cause any but the former certainly looked impressive with his distribution in pre-season friendlies. Similarly to the midfield, if Rangers can find a way to utilise these skills to great effect, this should make a significant difference to the ability to break down teams who look to sit it and spoil and make Rangers play through them.

Alternatively, keep firing corners to Katic and he’ll break down defences all by himself!I