Even though the championship is already decided, and Rangers were secure in second place, Kilmarnock had plenty to play for – third spot on the table and a place in Europe. It is always interesting to observe the tactical measures by Steve Clarke against Rangers. It is also an opportunity to assess any improvement in Rangers’ ability to beat a low block.
Rangers have struggled to break down Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premiership. In January after a morale-boosting win over Celtic, Kilmarnock brought them back to earth with a 2-1 defeat. In the end, Kilmarnock, again, was able to secure a 2-1 home win in what turned out to be Steve Clarke’s last game in charge. This tactical analysis will show the reasons for Kilmarnock’s win.
Starting XI: McDonald – O’Donnell, Broadfoot, Findlay, Taylor – Burke, Power, Dicker, McKenzie – Mulumbu – Brophy.
Bench: MacKay (GK), Bruce, Boyd, McAleny, Waters, Miller, Tshibola
Coach: Steve Clarke
Starting XI: Foderingham – Flanagan, Goldson, Worrall, Barišić – Jack, Kamara, Halliday– Candeias, Morelos, Kent.
Bench: Firth (GK), Defoe, Dorrans, McCrorie, Coulibaly, Middleton, Awokoya-Mebude
Coach: Steven Gerrard
Kilmarnock coach Steve Clarke opted for a 4-4-1-1 system, providing them with a compact defensive unit with the ability to press high through Brophy and Mulumbu. Rangers started in a 4-3-3, the same shape as the Old Firm derby but with five personnel changes. Tavernier, Katić, Davis, Arfield and Defoe dropping out, replaced by Worrall, Barišić, Halliday, Candeias and Morelos. At the beginning of the first half Rangers kept possession to draw Kilmarnock out of their low block 4-1-4-1 out of possession.
Rangers lack of penetration
Without Arfield and Davis, Rangers are slow and too predictable. Below Rangers have easy possession, however, they have five players plus goalkeeper McGregor below the first line of Kilmarnock pressure. In the first 15 minutes, Rangers had 82% possession, despite this Chris Burke opened the scoring in the ninth minute.
Here, we have an example where five Rangers players are involved in the build-up, six if you include McGregor. Yes, a five against two is safe, but it doesn’t seem to make sense to have all the five players below the first two opposition defenders. To penetrate the first line of pressure, the space behind the two opponents should be filled.
Within the previous 4-3-3 setup by Rangers, the holding midfielder has to manage the vertical and horizontal space to assist with ball circulation and its forward movement. Playing at the base of the triangle, Davis usually plays a pivotal role in breaking the press and assisting the Centre Backs in the build-up. With Davis missing, neither Jack nor Kamara took this responsibility.
This led to Rangers dominating possession but Kilmarnock controlling the game. Rangers had too many players below the Kilmarnock defensive block for Rangers. The three central midfielders of Jack, Kamara and Halliday in front of the two centre backs, Goldson and Worrall. This allows them to keep possession easily in deeper areas, but struggle to penetrate centrally due to lack of viable pass options.
It essentially also leaves Candeias, Morelos and Kent to play against Kilmarnock’s back four and midfield four. At times, Candeias tried to drop in to fill the space but there was no interchange with the midfield. No forward run from Jack, Kamara or Halliday. This only led to Rangers having one more player below the line of pressure.
Kilmarnock’s well-drilled defence
Kilmarnock started in a low block 4-5-1 when out of possession with the opposite wide player in midfield coming in tight usually all the way to the central channel. If Rangers broke the first line of pressure, Mulumbu would drop into midfield and Dicker would drop back to protect the back four. Overloading the midfield and leaving no central passing lanes. This gave Rangers the choice of playing wide, retaining possession or to play the ball long. If they played the ball wide, O’Donnell and Burke on one side and Taylor and McKenzie on the other can press. Rangers on most occasions opted for non-productive possession in their own half followed by a long ball for Kent or Candeias to chase.
Kilmarnock also set traps to snatch possession and counter onto Rangers. The opening goal was a prime example of such a situation. Rangers in the shape of Jack seemingly with safe possession. However Jack plays a slack pass to Goldson in the air, Goldson looks uncomfortable, the trigger for Mulumbu, circled below, to press. This triggers the press for the whole team.
Below Mulumbu sprints off Kamara to close down Goldson. There is no recognition of potential danger from Rangers. Flanagan and Barišić are high. There is no defensive transition from the midfield. A lack of awareness from Halliday. Mulumbu has engaged Goldson but Kamara has not angled himself behind the press to enable him to receive and play out quickly forward. As a result, Mulumbu is able to get back to Kamara to dispossess him.
Rangers midfield get drawn into to the ball in a straight line. Brophy takes Worrall in towards Goldson, leaving space wide for Burke. From there it is simple for Mulumbu to play a pass over the top leave Burke one on one with the goalkeeper.
Since Clarke arrived at Rugby Park, he has more than had the measure of Rangers. In general matches between the sides have followed a familiar pattern. Clarke clearly has the game plan to combat Rangers. In this instance despite Rangers having 72% possession, they could only achieve an expected goal rating of 0.54. Whereas, Kilmarnock with a mere 28% possession achieved an expected goal rating of 1.9.
Rangers have still to find a consistent game model that is adaptable to changing circumstances and can use the space effectively. After a promising run of six wins from six games following their defeat by Celtic, it is clear that they do not have the strength and depth in their squad to make wholesale changes. Summer recruitment will be a priority for Gerard.
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