Scottish Premeirship 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers – tactical analysis

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Aberdeen staged a sensational comeback to share the points with Rangers in a 2-2 draw in the Scottish Premiership. Rangers dominated proceedings on a cold night in the Pittodrie Stadium before Aberdeen clawed their way back into the match to eventually level the game. Derek McInnes will be delighted with his sides’ response in going two goals down and their character to get back in the game. Steven Gerrard will feel it was a missed opportunity that gives Celtic a bit of breathing space as they move two points ahead at the top of the table.

Rangers will rue their chance to keep the pressure on Celtic but Aberdeen deserved to get something from the game. I will show through my tactical analysis how Rangers dominated the first half before a change in system by McInnes brought Aberdeen back into the game.

Lineups

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Credit: Wyscout

Aberdeen set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with McInnes making three changes to his side that beat St. Mirren. McInnes set up his team to defend against Rangers which saw Campbell, Hedges and McGinn all lose their places. Replacing them were Logan and Taylor who came into the backline in an attempt to halt the free-flowing Rangers side. Greg Leigh and Vyner moved from defence to become defensive midfielders. Wilson and Gallagher played on the flanks as Ferguson played the attacking midfield just behind the physical Sam Cosgrove.

The visitors lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. Steven Gerrard made two changes to his team that destroyed Hearts 5-0 at the weekend. Jon Flanagan came into replace the injured Barisic at left-back. The other change Gerrard made was replacing Kamara with the impressive Ryan Jack in midfield. Gerrard’s changes reflected the respect he has for the Aberdeen fixture as both managers have won three times against each other.

Aberdeen flounder, as Rangers fortune

Gerrard respected how tough this fixture would be away from home. In actual fact, from the kick-off, it looked like a home game for his side as Aberdeen gave Rangers way too much respect. Aberdeen never really engaged or got near a Rangers player. When they retrieved the ball they were sloppy in possession and gave away the ball away far too cheaply. The underlying reason for this was McInnes system was flawed in how he set out his team. Each line and as a unit for Aberdeen were so passive in their pressing of the visitors which afforded Rangers so much time on the ball. Couple with this their defensive line was disjointed from the midfield which Rangers identified and exploited.

Rangers set up with a diamond in midfield and looked to play through the middle. Aberdeen’s midfield was so passive in their pressing. This made it easy for Rangers to progress the ball and dominate possession. Davis who played at the base of the diamond was able to receive the ball off his defenders in space and play forward balls at ease.

However, Arfield and Jack’s movement was key to punishing Aberdeen’s passive press, ensuring they dominated and were effective in possession. When Davis received the ball both Arfield and Jack dropped deep to draw out the two Aberdeen midfielders sitting in front of the defence. What was clever is they dropped deep enough making the Aberdeen midfielders hesitate. This clever movement effectively put the two midfielders in no man’s land.

They were not close enough to stop Arfield and Jack receiving the ball and they were too far out of position to block the forward passing lanes. This clever movement made Leigh and Vyner ineffective at closing off the central channels. Which was one reason for Aberdeen’s poor first half and Rangers’ dominance.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Arfield and Jacks clever movement draws out Leigh and Vyner. This creates a huge forward passing lane to progress the ball.

Another key aspect why Rangers were so dominant was the movement in the final third, especially Alfredo Morelos. As I mentioned earlier, Aberdeen’s defensive line was disjointed from their midfield line. They were dropped too deep and looked to keep the line organised instead of engaging and following a Rangers attacker who looked to receive the ball to feet.

Morelos exploited this flaw in the system with his movement where he regularly dropped into midfield. Taylor and McKenna never followed him out so Morelos created a numerical advantage against Aberdeen in the central zone. McInnes tried to set his team up to squander the Rangers attack but essentially gave their most dangerous forward Morelos loads of space and time. Morelos obliged by being their biggest goal threat and being involved in Rangers’ second goal.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Morelos drops into midfield creating a numerical advantage. McKenna and Taylor do not follow him out giving Morelos time and space to create chances.

Rangers find joy on the right-wing

Rangers did not just exploit the central area, they also found another weakness on Aberdeen’s left side in the first half. When in possession, Rangers played a 3-4-3 with Jon Flanagan tucked in to operate as a third central defender. This gave licence to Tavernier to play high and wide on the right and essentially play as a right-winger.

Gallagher was employed as the left winger for Aberdeen and he was supposed to be marking Tavernier. However, his attention was drawn infield as Morelos was creating the numerical advantage in midfield and Aberdeen were being overrun. Gallagher had all the right intentions by helping his teammates but what that did was leave Tavernier free out on the right. Gallagher’s decision was more of a hindrance than a help leaving a top player like Tavernier have free reign on the right.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Aberdeen are being overrun in midfield by Rangers. Gallagher tries to help his Aberdeen teammates by moving infield. Gallagher is not helping by coming infield. Tavernier is left free out on the right wing to progress upfield.

Considine playing left-back made matters worse for Aberdeen as he was essentially doing the same thing as Gallagher- being drawn infield. However, Considine was doing the opposite to Gallagher and he was man-marking his man too rigorously which is why he was drawn infield. Considine was outplayed by Airbo, Rangers’ right-winger. Where in the build-up play Airbo stayed out wide right but as the ball progressed he moved infield drawing with him Considine.

With Tavernier already left free by Gallagher, Considine being drawn infield gave Tavernier even more space. Tavernier with so much space was menacing and his cross created Rangers’ first goal. McInnes made a big mistake playing two players inexperienced in their positions on the left against one of Rangers biggest danger men in Tavernier.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Morelos’ movement draws Considine infield. Considine is too close to his other Aberdeen defenders. Left free is Tavernier who creates a chance for Rangers.

Tactical tweak by McInnes gets Aberdeen back in the game

Rangers dominated McInnes’ side in their home ground in front of their own fans and it was humiliating. To stop this humiliation, McInnes, just before half time made a tweak to his formation. Moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a flat 4-4-2 with Gallagher moving up front, Leigh moving out to the left-wing and Ferguson moving back to the central midfield position. This instantly had an effect and Aberdeen got a goal just before the break. McInnes could relay his tactics in more detail at the interval.

After the break, Aberdeen came out a different team who pressed aggressively. What was noticeable from the tactical change was that all of Aberdeen’s lines were pressing as a unit. These tactics worked as Aberdeen squeezed the space in between the lines forcing Rangers into mistakes and blocking passing lanes. Another change that worked well as Leigh’s move out to the left wing to keep tabs on Tavernier. Greg Leigh is a natural left-back and a good defender so he touted Tavernier’s influence on the game and stopped his creation of chances on the right.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Aberdeen are pressing Rangers as a unit. Aberdeen are squeezing the space so that Ranger can not play any forward passes.

What was evident from Aberdeen’s first half when in possession was to look to hit long balls to Cosgrove. Granted Sam Cosgrove is physical and very good in the air but he was left isolated by the Aberdeen midfield and defence as they were too deep. Meaning that Rangers could surround Cosgrove and win the ball back with ease. The tactics to change to a 4-4-2 meant that Cosgrove now had support in the shape of Gallagher.

Gallagher did really well as the supporting striker as he looked to run the channels which stretched the Rangers defence. Gallagher also did a great job of staying close to Cosgrove to get any ball headed down to him. Aberdeen’s tactic of the lines moving up and back as a unit helped win any second balls off Cosgrove. Aberdeen soon levelled the game and this tactical tweak by McInnes got Aberdeen back in the game.

Scottish Premiership 19/20: Aberdeen vs Rangers - tactical analysis tactics
Aberdeen’s Jon Gallagher is supporting his teammate Sam Cosgrove. With Gallagher and his Aberdeen teammates moving forward as a unit it increases there chances of winning second balls.

Conclusion

Steven Gerrard’s Rangers side dominated the first half of the game and went 2-0. Rangers exploited Aberdeen’s flawed system as they played through the central areas passed against a passive Aberdeen midfield and disjointed defensive line, as shown by this analysis. Morelos’ movement to drop deep to create a numerical advantage caused problems for Aberdeen. Coupled with the fact that Tavernier had free reign to create chances on the right-wing as both Gallagher and Considine got pulled infield. Rangers could have had the game won by half time but for some fantastic saves from Joe Lewis in goals.

McInnes’s tactical changes at the break moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 made a huge difference and effectively got Aberdeen back in the game. Aberdeen had way more cohesion about their gameplay in the second half which saw them grab two goals back to the level the game. Aberdeen will be delighted to get some result from the game because it could have been over before the interval. Gerrard will see this as a missed opportunity for his Rangers side to keep the pressure on Celtic coming into the Scottish Premiership winter break.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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Jake Meehan