SPFL Premiership 2019/20: St Mirren vs Rangers – tactical analysis

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

Rangers emerged victorious over an ultra-defensive St Mirren side in the early kick-off on Sunday afternoon. Borna Barišić’s free-kick was enough to make sure Rangers emerged from The Simple Digital Arena with all three points, thus continuing their perfect start to the league campaign.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at how both sides set up in Paisley and examine some of the tactics used by both sides during the 90 minutes in what was a game between teams with completely contrasting styles.


Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
St Mirren and Rangers starting line-ups

Steven Gerrard made five changes from the side that drew 0-0 in Warsaw against Legia. Borna Barišić replaced Jon Flanagan, Jermain Defoe replaced Alfredo Morelos, while in midfield Glen Kamara returned in order for Steven Davis to be rested. Jones replaced Ojo on the wing and Helander replaced Katić, which meant he made his first Scottish Premiership start. However, Gerrard stuck with the familiar 4-3-2-1 shape with Jack as the deepest midfielder.

Jim Goodwin named an unchanged side from the one that beat Aberdeen 1-0 in their last Premiership fixture. The graphic says Goodwin set up in a 4-4-2 shape but there is no doubt it was more like a 4-6-0 as his side showed little ambition to venture over the half-way line.

St Mirren’s lowest of low blocks

St Mirren set out to defend in a low block. Something Rangers struggled to break down last season. The intentions from the home side were clear, as seen below. Connor Goldson picks up the ball for Rangers, but he’s faced with two lines of St Mirren jerseys.

Their compact nature meant there wasn’t an obvious pass on. In the first image below, you can see that Arfield is covered, Jones is out of the game and Defoe covered by his man. This was due to St Mirren refusing to press and leave wide open spaces for Rangers to be able to play around them. The phase of play ended up with Goldson having a long shot because St Mirren’s shape and compactness meant there was nothing on for the defender; his best option was to take on a shot from distance.

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Low block from St Mirren – ending in Goldson’s shot from range
Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
St Mirren making it difficult for Rangers to penetrate centrally

The second image illustrating St Mirren’s low block is really similar to the first, because, it was the only noticeable tactic that St Mirren deployed throughout the game. Jack is on the ball, but there is no space for him to slide a pass to his Rangers teammates. The distance between the St Mirren midfield is minimal and their back four is watertight and with Jones, Defoe and Arfield being man-marked, it’s impossible for Jack to penetrate centrally due to no Rangers attacker being able to find space between the lines.

It’s not pretty to watch at all. However, you have to praise Jim Goodwin and his players for the tactical discipline that was on display.

Rangers find joy through right-hand side combination play

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Jack has so many right-hand side options as Rangers attempt to beat St Mirren’s low block

With Rangers failing to get any joy in the central areas, their best way to beat the low block was to utilise their right-hand side combination play. In the image above, Jack has three passing options. However, in order to get in behind, he uses Arfield who attracts the defender from his zone, which allows him to find Tavernier in behind.

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Arfield in the inside right occupies the defenders allowing Tavernier to bomb on the outside.

This time it’s Kamara and not Jack who is taking part in the move. Goldson (left) would feed the ball into Kamara. Arfield would move closer to Defoe and come in off the right, which would allow Rangers to create a 2vs1 and a subsequent triangle, which allowed them to get in behind and get into a crossing position.

Tactical Analysis St Mirren Rangers tactics analysis
Spaces on the right for Rangers to get in behind the St Mirren defence

The last and above image of Rangers’ right-hand side joy, involved the same players. Goldson again found Tavenier and this time Kamara would be on the touchline dragging the left-back out of position. Arfield’s run from in to out has two St Mirren players leaving their positions to track his movement, meaning Tavernier can keep his run going and underlap Arfield to give Rangers an opportunity to get in behind the St Mirren defence.

It seemed as if it was a well-rehearsed plan from Gerrard and his coaching team. Last season when faced with a test like this one, Rangers would too often get the ball wide as quickly as possible and cross the ball without any purpose. In terms of general improvement against the low block, Rangers’ use of the combinations down the right-hand side, while creating triangles, to get in behind St Mirren has to be looked upon as an encouraging sign as Gerrard’s team evolves tactically.

Jermain Defoe’s movement 

Jermain Defoe’s movement was outstanding and it was because of this Rangers got the free-kick that led to their winner. However, his movement came in two stages. His pressing and his ability to drop into pockets off the front and this was what St Mirren couldn’t handle.

In the example below, Defoe triggers the Rangers press. MacKenzie has a problem; he can’t knock it to his left-back because Kamara is covering him, with Arfield making it a potential 2vs1 in Rangers’ favour. The defender can’t knock it inside because it’s too easy for Jones to press the free player. It meant St Mirren had to go long because any short pass would put them in trouble. And that led to the easy and cheap surrender of possession to Rangers.

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Defoe triggers the press; Jones cheats on the left.

In the next example of how Defoe’s movement, Ryan Jack is pivotal. He was the ball carrier all day for Rangers and his drive made St Mirren’s low block easier to beat. At times it was the final ball that was Rangers’ downfall.

Jack carries the ball into the final third under no pressure. St Mirren refused to press again, which was an obvious tactical ploy on their part. However, given that Defoe drops deep and brings a player with him, as the move develops, it’s easier for Rangers to penetrate centrally. They have Jones making the run in behind. Furthermore, Jack has another option in Borna Barišić, who has the blind-side run on his opposing full-back. Scott Arfield, who facing the ball moves, towards Jack and takes the St Mirren player with him. This allows Tavernier (out of the picture) and Kamara to get ahead of the ball and exploit the space down the right-hand side.

Tactical analysis St Mirren Rangers Analysis tactics
Defoe dropping off leaving space for Jones and Arfield to exploit


As this analysis shows, Rangers deserved to win on the day. However, the most pleasing aspect for Steven Gerrard will be the right-hand side combination play from his side. This helped them get joy against the low block. Last season, overcoming this type of test wasn’t something Rangers excelled at. As for St Mirren, they will take heart from their disciplined display. If they can replicate that in future matches, relegation shouldn’t be an issue this season.

Artwork by @chapulana

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