Rangers against Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership was one of the picks of the week. The only team Rangers have failed to beat this season. The three previous league encounters all ended in draws. Paul Heckingbottom arrived at Ibrox with an unbeaten record in the Scottish Premiership. On the other hand, Steven Gerrard is looking to win five consecutive Scottish Premiership matches for the first time. This tactical analysis will dissect the game to show how Rangers beat Hibernian.
Whilst the Premiership League title belongs to Celtic. Rangers are secure in second place. Hibernian, arithmetically, are still in the race for the top four and subsequently a place in Europe. However, three wins from the final three games are required.
Starting XI: McGregor – Tavernier, Goldson, Katić, Flanagan – Jack, Davis, Kamara – Arfield, Defoe, Kent
Bench: Foderingham (GK), Worrall, Halliday, McCrorie 79′, Candeias 46’, Morelos 74′, Barišić
Coach: Steven Gerrard
Starting XI: Marciano – Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson – Mallan, Milligan – Horgan, Gauld, Omeonga – McNulty
Bench: Bogdán (GK), Agyepong 62′, Kamberi 62′, Murray 79′, Spector, Bartley, Shaw
Coach: Paul Heckingbottom
Steven Gerrard named the same team as the previous game against Aberdeen. Meaning top goal scorer Alfredo Morelos could only manage a place on the bench. Jermaine Defoe kept his place after leading the line and scoring twice in Morelos’ absence.
Again, it was a front three of Kent, Defoe, and Arfield in a tight triangle. The midfield triangle of Ryan Jack, Steven Davis, and Glenn Kamara. A back four of James Tavernier, Connor Goldson, Nikola Katić, and Jon Flanagan in front of Alan McGregor in goal.
Hibernian have no new injury concerns as they bid to extend their unbeaten league run. Paul Heckingbottom opted to keep the shape that finished the Edinburgh Derby. However, he dropped Florian Kamberi to bring in Ryan Gauld for his first start in three months, as the number ten.
With Marciano in goal, a back four of David Gray, Allan McGregor, Paul Hanlon, and Lewis Stevenson. The midfield is anchored by Mark Milligan and Stevie Mallan. Daryl Horgan, Ryan Gauld, and Stephane Omeonga getting forward to support Marc McNulty.
Hibernian had success in the previous game by pressing in a high block after half time. They started this game in a similar fashion. Recently, Rangers attempted to build up from the back through Connor Goldson and Nikola Katić splitting wide and Davis dropped into the centre. In this instance, Horgan or Omeonga would join McNulty to provide a two-man high press, directing Rangers to a flank. If the ball was played out to a high full-back, then Hibs applied a layered, diagonal press.
This was an attempt to make Rangers play down the flank or go long. Since the “Old Firm” derby Jack, Davis, and Kamara have been integral to Rangers success with a tight central three. How would Hibs stop Rangers from attacking centrally to supply Jermaine Defoe?
The diagonal first press is applied to the centre-back in possession to force the ball wide. Horgan or Omeonga would go forward to work with McNulty and stop the centre-back from turning back to recycle the ball. The rest of the team would shape in two or three diagonal layers behind the first line.
The intention was to make Rangers predictable and for the players on the layers behind to be able to anticipate their attacking intent. Defensive triangles cover the spaces between the layers. Players on the final line of cover would be able to deal with long balls or long diagonal switches.
Initially, Goldson failed to cope with this and was closed down or forced to go long. His only option became a long ball up the right flank into space. Katić, on the other hand, drew pressure from the press by bouncing the ball off the midfield three. This, in turn, allowed the midfield three to play one touch and then switch the point of attack.
Rangers domination of the central channel
By contrast, Rangers forced Hibernian into the wide areas or to go long by dominating the central channel. They formed a block in the central channel by joining the front triangle with the midfield three. This blocked the central channel and when Hibs played the ball to a flank the block would shift over to press.
The press would begin from the front when Hibs attempted to build up play. In their build-up play, McGregor and Hanlon split, David Gray and Stevenson go high, Milligan and Mallan drop in to link with the centre-backs. The Rangers front three would press zonally allowing them to press the nearest three of four to the ball.
As the image above shows, if McGregor progresses with the ball Arfield applies pressure. Defoe can cover Hanlon or Mallan. Candeias can cover Mallan or Hanlon. Again, this tended to lead to a long ball to McNulty with attacking midfielders going in support. Rangers countered this by firstly Katić winning his aerial duels with McNulty and the midfield three being in place to win the second ball.
In possession, Hibernian would make the pitch as big as possible. The centre-backs would split wide with Mallan dropping between. Both full-backs going high onto the touchline. Milligan would stay centrally between them. This left a further line of three attacking midfielders to support the lone striker.
By trying to make Rangers less compact horizontally, Hibs would play the ball into the half channels. This tactic has caused Rangers problems previously this season. Tweaking of their system to a more compact shape and the re-introduction of Katić has proven to be a successful move.
Rangers, in possession, play at a high tempo with one-touch passing if possible. Jack, Davis, Kamara, and Scott Arfield are crucial to this. By having the confidence and technique to draw pressure from Hibernian they create space to break the lines. In many cases, they overload one side to isolate a free player on the other flank. Most often the free player will be James Tavernier or John Flanagan. The free player is then supported quickly by the nearest midfield player, as the compact block shifts over.
It is evident that the Rangers coaches and players have been working hard on the training ground. There is more structure to side, roles and responsibilities are more clear. There is also more communication within the team as player rotate and interchange. An example of this is shown below. Although there has been an interchange of players, they ensure the shape remains intact.
For Hibernian, it was a disappointing performance. Although the possession split was even, Rangers 51% to Hibs 49%, the difference in expected goals was 2.2 to 0.26 in Rangers favour. The quality of pass into the final third was a major factor. The average Hibs’ pass into the final third was on average 10m longer than the Rangers equivalent. Rangers passed into the box 22 times with a 50% accuracy, Hibs managed 16 with 38% on target.
This was down to Rangers controlling the central channel and forcing Hibernian to play longer and riskier options. Perhaps there was too much expected of Ryan Gauld as he returned from a long injury. As a number ten, he should have been the key to unlock Rangers but at this stage, it was a step too far.
For Rangers, with improvements in the squad, results, patterns of play, shape, and individuals. The elephant in the room and a major issue was discipline. With a one-goal advantage, 89 minutes on the clock and the ball safely in his hands, Alan McGregor decides to lash out at McNulty. There is no reason why he did this, as a highly talented and experienced professional it is inexcusable.
With all their substitutions already made, with no goalkeeper and down to ten men, Rangers had to see the game out. Ross McCrorie, twin brother of Rangers reserve goalkeeper Robbie, who had come on ten minutes earlier took over in goal. Fortunately for him even with Hibs adopting a 3-4-3 with David Gray as a target-man they failed to trouble the stand-in goalkeeper.
Gerrard admitted he was at a loss as to his sides discipline problem. To mount a serious title challenge next season he needs all his players available for selection and 11 players on the field for the full game. He will need to find an answer.