Scottish Premiership: Rangers v Kilmarnock – Steven Gerrard’s tactical development

Scottish Premiership: Rangers v Kilmarnock, Steven Gerrard's tactical development
Artwork by @chapulana

Rangers’ last-minute win against Kilmarnock was deserved. Despite press reports, there’s nothing controversial in that statement. Rangers created more chances, dominated territory, possession plus Kilmarnock had lenient refereeing to thank them for finishing with eleven men on the park. This isn’t to say that Rangers were perfect, far from it, but they were better than previous visits to Rugby Park. Steven Gerrard made a few subtle changes in shape and, in this tactical analysis, we’ll have a look at how they affected the game.

Rangers set up with James Tavernier and Borna Barisić providing the width and Scott Arfield and Sheyi Ojo supporting Alfredo Morelos. It appeared early on that Rangers were going to focus on moving the ball through Kilmarnock’s low block with runners from deep attacking the penalty area. Crossing would still be part of the game but would the ball be played in earlier attempting to turn Kilmarnock’s defence?

Rangers shape issues

This phase of play highlights a few things. How high and flat the front three are playing. The width being provided by Barisić and Tavernier, and Ryan Jack’s deep starting position. Does Jack really need to be so deep with both centre-halves there? Rangers have four defenders v one attacker. Jack and Steven Davis are fulfilling two roles though, controlling play and covering the full-backs. Even still, Jack is just too deep in this screenshot.

Build-up play

Both Rangers goals come from corners. What this doesn’t show is that both corners came from excellent passages of play in contrasting styles. With better movement, Rangers could’ve adapted more direct passing more often. As highlighted in this chance, the ball was never going to skid out of play. Kilmarnock don’t have the most mobile of centre-halves and they don’t like getting turned towards their own goals.

This image shows a more direct approach, Rangers winning a corner after a save off Morelos. He runs the inside right channel and receives a long ball from Jack, he then hooks a shot towards the top corner. A bit more height and it’s a goal. Laurentiu Brânescu takes no chances and tips the ball over. It’s worth noting, again, the position of Rangers midfield. Jack plays this ball almost out of necessity.

The direct approach

Sometimes against teams like Kilmarnock, you should accept that it won’t be free-flowing football, especially on a 5-a-side pitch. Variation between playing centrally, getting behind to play crosses and direct balls to feed off either the first or second ball is required. As is risk-taking in attack. Rangers best moments came when Joe Aribo, James Tavernier, Sheyi Ojo and Jordan Jones committed defenders and beat their first man opening space and creating chaos.

In this passage of play, you can see what happens when Aribo runs at the Kilmarnock defence. They panic and end up not knowing who should engage and who should maintain shape. This is a weapon that Rangers didn’t have from midfield last season. By taking the risk and running at the defence he is rewarded with an effort on goal which is well saved.

It’s certainly something that the club analysts will look at for breaking down the block. Playing attacking players that are comfortable with limited space and can beat opponents 1 v 1. Let the reigns off, so to speak.

As with Aribo, Jones came on and immediately started to cause problems. I’m always a great believer in playing players against their old clubs. Jones had a point to prove and only had ten minutes to make it. Sounds daft but how often do former players play well against their old club? You could argue he did more in his ten than Ojo managed in his seventy. Harsh, but it just wasn’t Ojo’s day. Perhaps going with the player who was more experienced on the surface was the way to go. Expect Jones to start the next game with a plastic pitch.

Barisic watch

Another hot take from the game on Sunday was that left-back is a priority to strengthen. Personally, I thought Barisic did ok, defensively. He was a willing runner and his work rate was an improvement on last season. Physically he seems to “get it” now and won his battles. Even on Kilmarnock’s equaliser, he is out-muscling Kirk Broadfoot. His crossing was poor though, his most effective ones were flatter and from (at least) in line with the back four. Ojo really should do better with the example shown above. He wasn’t far away with a few like this one but he needs to avoid the high, floated ones, they don’t go down well! Mind you, it doesn’t help when he is receiving the ball standing still rather than on the run.

My biggest frustration was how rarely we played either Barisic or Tavernier behind the defence despite them making runs. Every time Rangers got behind they’d caused problems.

New pragmatic approach

I’d expect the pattern of play to be similar against a few teams this year. It won’t be fun to watch but Rangers will find a way through. When you compare the performance to last year, Rangers did create a lot more opportunities and should’ve been comfortable. Gerrard appeared to ‘stick’ at around the 70-minute mark, looking to hold onto the lead rather than continue to push for a second. Rangers would frequently have five outfield players behind the ball with no pressure. A first sign of Gerrard being pragmatic this season? You don’t want to see the whole midfield behind the ball but at 1-0 up did they need to be going gung-ho? If Morelos stays with Stephen O’Donnell, Rangers see out a dominant 1-0 victory and the plan has worked.

Rangers only seemed to learn from their mistakes last season, hopefully, they will learn more in victory this time. You don’t have to analyse too deeply to see where Rangers have improved. Is it as simple as getting Ryan Kent back and into that inside forward role? We all need a little Joy Division in our life after all. If the window ‘slams shut’ on Thursday and he is still at Liverpool the excitement could be unbearable. The best way to beat a low block is to tear it apart…

Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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