Rangers faced Hearts away on Sunday afternoon in the Scottish Premiership. This game marked Steven Gerrard’s 100th game as manager of Rangers. However, Gerrard will quickly try to forget this landmark occasion as Hearts fought back to win 2-1 in front of a packed Tynecastle Park. Hearts started the game with great intent pinning Rangers back but a goal after half time from Ryan Kent gave the visitors the lead. Hearts showed immense character to come back with two goals the first from Steven Naismith and the eventual winner coming from new signing Liam Boyce scoring on his debut as he became an instant hit with the Hearts faithful.
Hearts dominated possession and territory in the first half. Gerrard tweaked his Rangers team’s tactics and set up which brought them back into the match. Daniel Stendel reacted to Gerrards changes which ultimately won the game. This tactical analysis will go in-depth into both team tactics and provide analysis of how Stendel’s side eventually came out as winners on the night, providing Stendel’s first win as manager of Hearts.
Gerrard played a 4-3-3 formation making no changes to his team who defeated St. Mirren 1-0. The Rangers manager elected not to rest any of his players less than four days ago. Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic continue their impressive central defensive partnership at the heart of defence. In front of them is a flat three midfield with Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara playing either side of Steven Davis. Jermaine Defoe leads the line once again for Rangers as Alfredo Morelos continues to serve his suspension. Gerrard looked to keep consistency and the winning mentality as the thought behind his unchanged selection as Rangers looked to hunt down bitter rivals Celtic.
Stendel set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The Hearts manager made five changes to the team that drew with Ross County. Sean Clare and Aidan White came into the Hearts defence replacing Benjamin Garuccio and Clévid Dikamona in the full-back positions. Euan Henderson came into midfield to replace Conor Washington who dropped to the bench. It was no surprise that Stendel made so many changes to his team as he has been very busy bringing in new players in the squad that suits his style of play.
Hearts fans were eagerly awaiting Stendel’s new signings to watch them play in a Hearts shirt for the very first time. Stendel started two new signings. The first was the former Ross County player Boyce who played in the central striker position replacing Donis Avdijaj. The second player making his debut was new signing Toby Sibbick who was a vital player to Stendel at Barnsley his previous club. Sibbick slotted in at defensive midfield replacing Oliver Bozanic.
Hearts’ tactics walk the fine line of risk & reward
Hearts showed their intent from the kick-off as the showed great fight and intensity which put Rangers under immense pressure almost to the point that some Rangers players looked uncomfortable when they received the ball. Hearts controlled the game and dominated possession in the first half-hour of the game. The foundation of this dominance was due to how Stendel set up his side. Hearts played in a very narrow shape getting bodies around the ball.
Stendel’s set up served two main purposes. The first being when Hearts had possession they could overload one side of the pitch creating triangles and short passing options to keep possession and ultimately control the game. The second purpose Stendel’s narrow shape served was when Hearts lost possession they had lots of players close to the ball to counter-press Rangers to win the ball back or apply enough pressure that a Rangers player would play a long hopeful ball cough up possession giving the ball back to Hearts.
In the image below, Hearts have penned Rangers deep in their own half as they have a very narrow shape. Rangers can not play the ball centrally as the middle is now too congested with players. Hearts have bodies around the ball making it easy to counter-press Rangers. Rangers left-back Borna Barisic is under immense pressure as a result of Hearts pressure and coughs up possession.
Hearts looked to pin Rangers into a corner or a side-line, as they did this the Hearts winger and fullback tucked in to make the shape narrow to apply pressure onto Rangers. What this action did, however, was open up lots of space on the opposite wing for Rangers to exploit if they played the ball out of the Hearts press. Rangers are a quality side and did on some occasions play themselves out of the Hearts pressure to set up a few clear cut scoring chances.
An example of Rangers exploiting the space left as a result of Hearts’ narrow shape can be seen in the image below. Hearts try to pin Rangers in from a throw in deep in their own half and Hearts left-winger and left-back Lewis Moore and Aidy White tuck in as well as the whole team shift across to keep the narrow shape to apply pressure on Rangers. Rangers are able to evade the pressure and play the ball to Jack who is free as a result of Hearts’ narrow shape. Jack can now run into the space left on the right-wing. Hearts are now scrambling to get back into their defensive shape after over committing to the press. Kent has found space and runs in behind. Jack plays a ball in behind to Kent who is in on goal, however Kent misses the goal-scoring chance.
Gerrard’s changes put Rangers in front
Hearts put Rangers under pressure with their narrow shape, as I mentioned earlier. Rangers normally like to progress the ball through the lines with short passing combinations especially in their midfield. However Hearts congested the middle meaning there were no passing options and even if Rangers managed to find a short pass into midfield Hearts would tackle and nick the ball off them. New signing Toby Sibbick put in a lot of clean tackles and was very influential in winning the ball back for Hearts. Hearts also pressed and harried Rangers very well from the front with Boyce and Naismith setting the tone for the press. Rangers, therefore, had to hit long balls over the press to the likes of Defoe who was feeding off scraps as a result.
In the image below, Rangers are looking to progress the ball out from the back. Hearts have congested the middle with their narrow shape forcing Rangers to go long to Defoe. The long ball gets a fortunate flick-on from Jack and sends Defoe through for a chance but Halkett makes a great recovery challenge. Although this ended in a chance Hearts were forcing Rangers into playing an attacking style that did not suit them.
Another factor is to why Rangers had to play long balls was Gerrard’s set up in midfield as he played a flat three in the middle which made it easy to mark and almost invited Hearts to press onto Rangers. Gerrard addressed this problem at half time as he brought on Arfield for Jack. Arfield moved into a more advanced attacking midfield position as Kamara and Davis played behind him in a double pivot.
Arfield stretched Hearts midfield and he also added depth to Rangers’ own midfield and attack. By stretching the Hearts midfield this opened up Davis or Kamara to receive the ball. Hearts would then try and press onto Davis or Kamara leaving Arfield free to receive the ball in a more advanced position to hurt Hearts. Rangers had a better fluency in progressing the ball forward as they were able to create passing combinations in midfield that led to a lot of chances after the interval. Another reason why Rangers found it easier to play short passes and progress through the midfield was as a result of Stendel’s change to put Sibbick who was Hearts’ main tackler in the middle in the first half out to left-back. Rangers had space to exploit as a result of Sibbick’s absence in the middle of midfield.
In the image below, Rangers are able to progress the ball past the Hearts press through Arfield and Kamara playing in the double pivot. Davis has swapped positions with Arfield and has become the attacking midfielder he is in acres of space as Henderson leaves his position to try and press Arfield. Davis picks the ball up in space but the move eventually breaks down. This was a warning sign for Hearts as this move was minutes before Rangers took the lead. Gerrard’s tactical change got Rangers back in the game and as a result, they went a goal in front.
Stendel’s attacking changes set Hearts up to snatch a win
Hearts strategy in the first half was really impressive how they controlled the game and possession of the ball. Unfortunately with all that great work possession and overall dominance in the first half Hearts did not penetrate Rangers defence or create any real clear cut chances. Even though Hearts are starting to turn a corner under Stendel as his philosophy starts to surface a major area Stendel must work on is Hearts’ ability to create and score goals. Hearts are the 4th worst in the league in terms of goals scored. They are second-worst in terms of goal scored per game with 0.81 goals coming into the game against Rangers (only St. Mirren have a worst goal per game rate than Hearts).
In the first half Hearts although they were committing to the high press, there was not the same commitment or eagerness to get into the box or support their front three. As a result Hearts’ forward players were isolated being outnumbered by the Rangers defenders, as you can see in the image below. Naismith, Boyce and Moore were willing runners and getting on the ball but when they picked up the ball there was maybe one or two Hearts’ players in support. Rangers could easily deal with every Hearts’ attack as a result and therefore Hearts’ had a problem in creating goal scoring opportunities.
However, after Rangers took the lead Stendel looked to tactically change things in terms of his team’s attacking play to try and get back in the game. Stendel brought on Conor Washington and later he brought on Ikpeazu which showed Stendel’s intent playing four strikers in order to grab a goal. The Hearts’ players showed great character in going down a goal and looked up for the fight. Stendel instructed his players to push up and look to get themselves in the box which increases a teams chances of nicking a goal.
With more attacking players and greater support from the midfield Hearts eventually got a goal to level the game through a great finish from Naismith. With less than ten minutes remaining Hearts increased the pressure on Rangers and by committing more bodies into the box found a winner through Boyce, on his debut for the club. In the build-up to the goal as you can see in the image below, Hearts have committed way more forward than they did in the first half the forwards have are in the box but are wide and stretching the Rangers defence. Boyce is in the box but stays wide and is free the ball makes its way to him before he finishes past McGregor in goal.
Stendel set up his Hearts side in extremely well as the narrow shape really disrupted Rangers normal style of play. Coupled with the tactics the Hearts players especially the new signings applied the kind of energy and commitment needed to carry out their manager’s philosophy. Gerrard did well to change things at half time through the introduction of Arfield and change from a flat three to pushing Arfield up to an attacking midfield position. Stendel however reacted and made very aggressive attacking changes committing more Hearts’ players to the box which ultimately won them the game in the end.
Stendel will be delighted to get his first win as Hearts’ manger but he will be more impressed with his team’s commitment and character to come back and beat a top side like Rangers. Hearts are still bottom of the league but are just a point off Hamilton. Stendel has developed this Hearts’ team well and is building something good at the club.
Gerrard will be bitterly disappointed as Rangers had a chance if they won this match and their other game in hand to go a point above Celtic. Rangers had only one good spell after half time as Hearts dominated proceedings. Rangers seem to come back very flat from the winter break as they lost last year to Kilmarnock but this could be more fatal this year as Gerrard and Rangers missed a huge opportunity in the title race.