Three second-half goals ensured Rangers returned to winning ways after their defeat to Celtic before the international break.
Although the game was relatively comfortable for Steven Gerrard’s side in the end, it was a reminder of the struggles Rangers have had against sides who come to Ibrox and play with their entire team behind the ball.
Analysis of Steven Gerrard’s team selection showed he was willing to be more offensive than usual with his starting eleven. Scott Arfield has played as an inside forward so far this season but dropped into midfield alongside Joe Aribo and Steven Davis. This catered for the inclusion of Ryan Kent and Sheyi Ojo in the front three. Andy Halliday also came in at left-back, replacing the injured Jon Flanagan.
Livingston set up as predicted with a five-man midfield anchored by Marvin Bartley and deployed Lyndon Dykes as a sole striker. Chris Erskine and Steven Lawless were tasked with supporting the lone front man when possible.
Rangers struggle to play through Livingston’s low block
To set the scene of the match, let’s firstly look at how Livingston set up. The visitors sat in a deep compact low block (as so many opposition teams at Ibrox do) which intended to minimise the space Rangers were able to play in. As will be explored in the next section, they seemed happy for the Rangers centre backs to have possession. Their press was passive and only triggered to force Rangers backwards, they rarely looked to turnover possession by winning the ball back. Instead their wide midfielders tucked in narrow to compact the middle of the park and restrict Rangers ability to play. Here is an example of Livingston’s set up.
In the frame above, forward Dykes tracks back and acts as a block, denying Davis the ability to switch to the right if he receives the ball. Instead he plays the ball back to the left when Halliday passes to him, unable to switch the play. This low block restricted Rangers switching the ball quickly or playing through the centre of Livingston, thus meaning most of their possession was slow and not effective.
The entirety of the first half was played purely in Livingston’s half but rarely did Rangers trouble Ross Stewart in the Livingston goal. In fact, Livingston didn’t even attempt a shot on goal until their opener in the 47th minute.
Goldson and Katić struggle in possession
Rangers centre back pairing of Nikola Katić and Conor Goldson have undoubtedly improved their ball distribution this season. When playing in defence for a team who dominates possession in most of their domestic matches this is a necessity. However, they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had against Livingston.
Katić and Goldson struggled with their distribution because Livingston set up to allow them possession and restrict their options. Livingston were happy for them to have the ball. There was little if any pressure on them, meaning that all passing options were usually marked. This can be seen below. Goldson has possession of the ball, If he is confident and exploits this space highlighted he will have a passing option as he will be pressed by Livingston, freeing up a Rangers player in the process.
Instead he plays a one-two with James Tavernier and then a long diagonal ball aimed for Andy Halliday which was wayward. Rangers struggled to play through the phases of play, they needed their central defenders to be confident to bring the ball out to do so.
Neither Goldson or Katić are comfortable taking the ball into the midfield and going past an opposition player. So, in the first half they resorted often to attempting a long diagonal ball. If they were to bring the ball out and in turn force a Livingston player to press them, one of the midfielders would have been available to receive the ball. To reiterate, Katić and Goldson had bags of space and time but didn’t exploit it.
Here’s another example. As highlighted Katić has a channel of space to run into. All Livingston players are already marking someone else and allow him time on the ball. Katić driving into this space would unsettle Livingston’s structure. However, he instead played a ball to Halliday in an offside position. Too often, the Rangers centre backs took the option Livingston wanted them too, a long ball which would inevitably not trouble the visitors.
Rangers start to find their rhythm
Livingston scored the opening goal of the game right after half time which meant Rangers had it all to do in the second period. As the half went on they began to find more space and play more ambitious passes.
The first evidence of this was Alfredo Morelos’ chance five minutes after the restart. Scott Arfield here plays an excellent ball and crucially breaks the Livingston line of defence and midfield, something that Rangers just did not do often enough throughout. A pass such as the one below completely takes Livingston’s five man midfield out the game and isolates Morelos with his marker. Morelos sent his resulting effort just wide.
After James Tavernier’s and Morelos put Rangers in front, Livingston began to push for an equaliser and in turn began to leave space open in the midfield. Rangers were much more clinical in possession than they had been in the first half and scored their third through excellent counter pressing. Winning the ball back immediately and exploiting the space vacated by the Livingston midfield. The below frames are taken in the build up to Brandon Barker’s goal which made it 3-1. Here, the ball is transitioned through the phases of play quickly which excellent one touch passing. Crucially, the pace of the move doesn’t allow Livingston to regroup defensively.
When a team is solely set out to defend any opportunity to exploit their poor positioning must be taken.
In this example, Arfield gets in front of his marker to intercept the loose ball and plays the ball to Morelos in the half space who flicks it into the path of Sheyi Ojo, the space vacated by the Livingston midfield is evident and unrecognisable from Livingston’s earlier set up.
Sheyi Ojo makes a positive cross field run and plays in Barker who makes no mistake slotting home.
As mentioned, the game turned into a relatively comfortable victory for Rangers. But Rangers again were forced to rely on set pieces to get them out of trouble and only scored from open play when Livingston went down to ten men.
Many more teams will come to Ibrox this season with the same game plan as Livingston, and Rangers will have to put in performances of greater quality and intensity to open them up.
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