How did Rangers get the better of Aberdeen in a thriller?

Artwork by @chapulana.

Aberdeen and Rangers clash at Pittodrie in another 2nd v 3rd battle in the SPFL Ladbrokes Premiership. After Saturday’s 2-1 win over Hibs, Aberdeen knew that a victory would put them a point clear of Rangers into second place. Rangers are six points behind Celtic and would want to make sure they did not fall further behind at Pittodrie.


Aberdeen Rangers Scottish Premiership Tactical Analysis Statistics


Aberdeen started in a 4–2–3–1, out of possession, they favoured a man-for-man set-up. With Max Lowe and Shay Logan matching up against Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent, Greg Stewart would drop in to Pick up Ross McCrorie and Graeme Shinnie locking onto Ryan Jack. However, this did not allow them to control the central area, in fact, it gives Rangers the initiative to move them around and create openings. Rangers’ wide players, Candeias and Kent, would move from out to in to bring their marker with them. This would allow Morelos or the full-back to go into the space. This was the situation at the opening goal.

In possession, Aberdeen do not have an apparent playmaker, most of the time bypassing the midfield and relying on their ability to win second balls. They focus all their ball-playing efforts in the final third and it is that individual quality that has seen them dominate against the bottom-six clubs in the past four years, rather than well-constructed build-up.

Shinnie and Ferguson are not midfielders who can control a game or who are gifted passers of the ball, but they are both very physical, athletic and strong at anticipating knockdowns. After Stewart’s spell at Kilmarnock, McInnes has also recognised that he needs the freedom to roam to be at his best.

Rangers played 4-4-2 diamond against Kilmarnock and lost. They played 4-3-3 against Livingston and won. Against St Mirren a 4-4-2 diamond again and won. The arrival of Jermain Defoe and Steven Davis has given Gerrard more options. However, this time, it was 4-2-3-1, back to the formula that was successful against Celtic, with Barisic returning from injury to replace Halliday from that lineup.

Out of possession, Rangers were effectively 4-5-1, they defended with nine players. Morelos stayed forward and all other players were in their half. When they won the ball, they wanted a quick transition to create a chance.

Kent, Arfield and Candeias getting forward at pace with Morelos providing plenty of movement.

Battle of the Goalscorers

With Morelos and Cosgrove first and second in the Premiership league goals chart, the first 50 minutes became a head-to-head contest.

Aberdeen 0 Rangers 1

Logan locked onto Kent in the central channel.

Aberdeen Rangers Scottish Premiership Tactical Analysis Statistics

Kent brought Logan into the central area, then while in possession took him even further to the other side leaving space for Morelos.  Lewis failed to deal effectively with the Kent shot and Morelos was on hand to finish.

Aberdeen Rangers Scottish Premiership Tactical Analysis Statistics

Aberdeen 1 Rangers 1

After Stewart crossed into the Rangers box, Tavernier headed clear as far as Ferguson whose shot ricocheted off Tavernier against Goldson and Cosgrove was on hand to finish.

Aberdeen 1 Rangers 2

With Aberdeen matching up, Kent went into the inside channel tracked by Hoban and laid off to Jack. But Hoban obviously was uncomfortable stepping out, and went back to his defensive position allowing Jack to play a one-two with Kent to break the line. Driving forward he played it to Kent, with good movement from Morelos, he played to Morelos who made a very difficult finish look easy.

Aberdeen Rangers Scottish Premiership Tactical Analysis Statistics

Aberdeen 2 Rangers 3

From a corner-kick, Tavernier is suckered into tangling with Ferguson and gives away a penalty which Cosgrove dispatched.

The major talking point

Morelos and McKenna clashed, Morelos dangled a leg, McKenna kicked out, two red cards. In three Premiership league games against Aberdeen, this season Morelos has been red carded three times, one later rescinded.

Now it was down to which team could adapt better to playing with a man down. Aberdeen immediately shaped up 4-4-1. Considine moving into left-centre-back and Max Lowe to left-back, a midfield-four of Stewart, Ferguson, Shinnie and MacKay, with Cosgrove up top. Rangers opted for 4-2-3 with Candeias and Kent getting forward on the counter, out of possession they offered a mid-block 4-2-3 which at times went to a 4-1-4 with Jack stepping forward. This restricted Aberdeen to easy back four possession and long balls.

However, on 64 minutes, McInnes reacted, taking off Logan bring on James Wilson and changing to 3-4-1-1. Wilson was working between the lines and linking to Cosgrove and as Rangers had no out-ball to a striker they could not get out. Aberdeen were now beginning to dominate.

With space in the wide areas of the Aberdeen back-three, the Gerrard response was to go 4-4-1. Defoe came on as the lone striker and Candeias went off leaving a midfield four of Arfield, McCrorie, Jack and Kent. With time running out for Aberdeen who were dominating possession. Gerrard again re-shaped his team, Kent off and Katic on, leaving a back five of Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Katic and Barisic. Arfield, McCrorie and Jack in midfield with Defoe up to working down the sides of the centre-backs.

The last throw of the dice for McInnes was to bring on Niall McGinn, Aberdeen now had MacKay-Stevens, Stewart, Wilson, Cosgrove and McGinn all on the park.

Battle Royale

In the contest between two Scottish giants with a history, to such an extent that Aberdeen displayed photographs of their recent semi-final victory on the walls leading to the away dressing room, there were many individual battles. In the battle for league points, Rangers secured all three. In the joust of the strikers, Morelos just edges with two excellent finishes. In the tactical battle between the managers, McInnes was the more proactive and Gerrard, reactive. In the physical battle between McKenna and Morelos, both were red carded. In the battle of 10 v 10, there is no doubt that the loss of Morelos to Rangers had a greater negative effect to Rangers than Aberdeen’s loss of McKenna.


In a game of goals, red cards, non-red cards, yellow cards, non-yellow cards and reckless tackles, there was also quality on display. In particular, the finishing of Alfredo Morelos, however, he remains a quandary 23 goals for the season but also four red cards.  However, it was his goals that enabled Rangers to be able to hang on to their lead until a late Defoe strike settled it for Rangers.

Aberdeen have shown a rigid faith in their man-marking system which most of the time is successful but the better teams in the league is now bringing flexibility and solutions to the problem. It was this flexibility that enabled to Rangers to prosper.

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