Scottish Premiership 2018/19 Tactical Analysis: Rangers
Artwork by @chapulana

Steven Gerrard is undoubtedly a legend of the English game and football across the globe. He spent the majority of his career captaining both Liverpool and the England national team, receiving 114 caps for the Three Lions. Gerrard made his first steps into coaching shortly after his retirement as well as dipping his toe into punditry waters. He almost took the vacancy at Milton Keynes Dons but decided against taking over the League One side. Their loss would be Rangers’ gain. Using tactical analysis, we will analyse Steven Gerrard’s tactics at Rangers.

Steven Gerrard instead was appointed as a youth coach at Liverpool, first becoming under 18’s manager before leading the under 19’s to the quarterfinals of the 2017-18 UEFA Youth League. They faced both Manchester clubs in the knockout rounds before losing to Manchester City on penalties. The under 19’s comfortably topped their group consisting of Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, and Maribor, conceding just three goals as they won 15 points out of a possible 18. (The joint second most, behind eventual champions Barcelona, who won their group with 16 points. At the beginning of the 2018/19 season, Gerrard took over at Rangers.

Rangers were in disarray. How would Gerrard approach his first season in senior management in one of the most high profile and pressurised jobs in football.

Tactical Analysis – The Steven Gerrard philosophy

Steven Gerrard employs a high, organised press at Rangers as he seeks to massively improve the defence he inherited from Graeme Murty and Pedro Caixinha. This poor defence was the downfall of Rangers in the 2017/18 season. They finished third, even though they out-scored every team in the division. A worrying statistic for Gerrard is that they conceded more than seventh-placed Motherwell. Steven Gerrard has used a much more aggressive press than his recent predecessors, this approach has contributed to the goals against column halving this season. This area was identified by Gerrard and Gary McAllister as the main concern before taking over.

Rangers most successful periods of play has seen a competent performance in the high press. During performance dips and inconsistent spells, there has been a notable lack of an aggressive press. Whether this has been down to tactics or player performance is unclear. There have been three definite tactical formations with minor tweaks in between.

Press development

In the first Old Firm game at Parkhead it was evident that Rangers pressing game was almost non-existent. After the arduous trip to Russia to play UFA with ten, then nine men, fatigue could’ve been an issue. This, however, wasn’t an isolated game where pressing was disjointed or not in place. Fatigue prevention can be the only justification for this given how successful it had been previously.

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In this image the midfield are poorly positioned allowing Kristoffer Ajer to progress unimpeded into Rangers’ half. The press occurs too late and with players not co-ordinating a chance is created. In the final Old Firm game of the season, Rangers adopted a midfield press but it was concerted, well drilled and ultimately allowed Rangers to turn the ball over. Perfectly shown with Rangers’ second goal, not just the midfield press but the change to a narrower shape. More of that later.

Positive pressure pays off

Compare this to both the Motherwell and Celtic games at the end of the season where pressing led directly to chance creation and goals.

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This is a great example of a co-ordinated press. Ryan Jack followed the ball out wide from the goalkeeper and was backed up by Daniel Candeais and Scott Arfield blocking the central pass. The turnover was finished off sublimely by Arfield after he was put through one v one.

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In the 2-0 victory over Celtic at Ibrox in May, Rangers were tactically perfect. Conceding just one shot on target and controlling the whole game, in and out of possession. Scott Bain refuses to go long because Rangers have been winning everything through Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. James Tavernier (out of shot) has already started to apply pressure to Jonny Hayes at left back with Ryan Jack backing up.

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Hayes has nowhere to pass because of the press from inside and refuses to clear with his “weaker” foot.

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Rangers win the ball and with a couple of passes create a scoring opportunity. Ryan Kent is unlucky with his flick to Arfield. If he realises how much space he has Rangers have a 2 v 1 or Kent himself has a clear shot at goal. The ball was cleared but it was still one of the best passages of play from Rangers on the day from the press to chance creation.

Liverpool influence

Steven Gerrard was heavily influenced by Liverpool’s current style of play. Aggressive, fast and hard-working players in every position. His initial insistence on playing a 4-3-3 with Rangers came across a few issues. Even in the English Premier League in an uneven battle, there are no sides that will set up the same way teams do against Rangers in Scotland.

To have a successful attack there must be a combination of width, depth, and penetration amongst other things. With no variation, a defence becomes comfortable, especially if you play to their strengths. Rangers struggled against Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, in particular, this season but why was this?

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There is no depth or width in this Rangers attack shown above. This is almost playground football with sixteen players in an area not even ten metres deep. An option to play a ball into feet and follow it up is almost the only option. No out ball wide or enough depth to play a through ball over the top. This was a systematic problem in games against Aberdeen and Kilmarnock.

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This is what happens when forwards get frustrated against a low block. Taking shots with a low xG (expected goal) score. The percentage ball for Alfredo Morelos is to play Ryan Kent in or to play it wide enough for him to cross it to Jermain Defoe at the back post. If you can’t play through a low block you have to go either over it or behind it. The 4-3-3 that Rangers adopted in these games just didn’t work. Neither did the 3-5-2 they tried against Motherwell early on in the season, well not defensively anyway.

The Motherwell experiment

With James Tavernier and Borna Barišić on the flanks and Kyle Lafferty playing centrally with Alfredo Morelos, Rangers looked perfectly set up to cause Motherwell problems. Rangers scored three times with all the goals assisted by the full backs. Great success. Well (sorry), there was a problem. The other end of the park.

Connor Goldson had an individual stinker. Jon Flanagan had his worst game in a Rangers shirt and James Tavernier allowed two free headers from set-pieces. If it’s any consolation I don’t think he switched off again in the rest of the season, lesson learned.

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The Motherwell opener after a couple of minutes came from a hopeful long ball, Connor Goldson slips under no real pressure. The problem is Flanagan is miles away and has no chance of covering him, his starting position should be deeper and closer to Goldson. Remember, the ball came from Motherwell’s half.

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Lack of communication was the cause. This time a Motherwell throw in results in a chance, an increase in pressure and eventually a goal scored in the 95th minute. Flanagan in the whole passage of play doesn’t move from the back post. He should be marking the Motherwell player in front of him currently occupying Nikola Katić. This would, in turn, allow Katić to cover Goldson at the front post.

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Flanagan still hasn’t moved. Ryan Jack leaves his man free to attempt to apply pressure but doesn’t get close. This whole passage is an example of how not to play in a back three. In fairness to Flanagan, he’s not a centre half and Rangers hadn’t played in this shape before. Basic communication though. This game scarred Steven Gerrard and Rangers didn’t play a back three again, except for the odd 10-15 minutes at the end of games. With a stronger midfield, next season Rangers may go back to 3-5-2 with more time to drill the players in pre-season.

Enter the diamond

When Rangers changed shape to accommodate the suspension of Alfredo Morelos, little did we know how successful it would be. As previously mentioned, Rangers started to play with a narrower midfield. They also played with greater depth to their attack. Scott Arfield’s goal against Celtic is the perfect example of this.

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Steven Davis wins the initial challenge and combines in a slick interchange with Glen Kamara. Kent, Arfield, and Defoe begin to create space centrally.

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Arfield makes the run to stay in the space behind Defoe, nobody picks him up. We see this pattern in about four or five goals in this run of games. We all know how this ends, Kamara’s pass, Defoe’s beautiful dummy, and Arfield’s slide rule finish. A coach’s dream.

Fir Park return

Another example of the Defoe/Arfield axis is below, this time, instead of dummying the ball, Defoe flicks the ball through. Daniel Candeias had applied the initial pressure centrally to turnover the ball. The proximity of Arfield to Defoe is key, as is the player’s individual intelligence.

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Dismantling of the Dons

The real benchmark was going to be how did Rangers perform with the new shape against the low block? Rangers were comfortable winners in the game above against Motherwell. A Scott Arfield hat-trick highlighting again the success of the shape and his relationship with Defoe. There was a similar pattern against Aberdeen, except Aberdeen had Joe Lewis in outstanding form. Lewis single-handedly kept the score down to just the two goals, both from the penalty spot.

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Rangers now have width provided by their full backs. The depth provided by Kent and Defoe being supported by Arfield.

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The defence is drawn out with the movement of Kent and Arfield. This allows Arfield to play in Defoe only to be denied by an excellent save from Lewis.

Rangers also alternated their pattern of attack to bring in their full backs. With Flanagan on the left, they were slightly restricted with him being a natural right-footer but Tavernier was at his rampaging best.

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On this occasion, instead of playing the ball into Arfield, it goes wide to Tavernier who plays an excellent ball behind the Aberdeen defence. If Defoe moves in front instead of the back post it’s a goal. Another excellent passage of play against a low block. the 2-0 score line and no goals from open play really didn’t reflect Rangers’ performance on the day.

What does the future hold?

Rangers this season played with ten men (or less) for about a fifth of their games. Kudos has to go to the coaching team for how we performed in most of those games, UFA should be used as the example for coaches. They also played nearly a quarter against just Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, where Rangers struggled most. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the two key factors that need to be improved. Discipline and playing against the low block. The new shape seems to have dramatically improved the latter.

Whereas it looked as though Rangers would go out to buy better players for a 4-3-3, we might also see fewer players than expected. A striker to support Defoe, a goalscoring midfielder and a Ryan Kent replacement are paramount. Unless we get to keep Kent and Morelos of course, stranger things have happened.


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Gavin Kelly

All aboard the Stevie G hype train, destination, 55!!Contribute on Ronnie Dog Media sites at All About the Rangers and Tale of a Two Halves. Hopefully you read something that makes you think, laugh or remember the good old days.
Gavin Kelly