In the fifth round of the 2019/20 edition of the Scottish Cup, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers side travelled to face off against Hamilton. Starting off as clear favourites, Rangers were able to continue their good form and registered the 8th win out of their last 10 matches.
This tactical analysis will look to examine how exactly were Gerrard’s boys able to win so convincingly and advance into the quarter-finals of the competition.
The home side started the game in a classic and compact 4-4-2. Brian Rice chose to start the game with Luke Southwood defending the goal, and a four-man backline that featured McGowan on the right side, Jamie Hamilton and Brian Easton centrally, with Scott McMann as the left-back. William Collar, Lewis Smith, Gogić and Dales would form the midfield, with Steve Davies and the 17-year-old Andrew Winter playing as the centre-forwards.
On the other side, despite having the lineup displayed in a 4-3-3, Gerrard actually went with a more fluid 4-2-3-1 lineup. Barišić, Edmundson, Goldson and Tavernier formed the backline of four. Kamara and Arfield held down the two central midfield positions, while Ryan Kent, Joe Aribo and Ianis Hagi played as the attacking trio behind Alfredo Morelos.
Defending in a low block
When out of possession, Hamilton used their compact 4-4-2 alignment to defend in a low block, choosing to pressure the midfielders of Rangers whenever they received the ball to force quick decisions and hopefully turnovers in their favour.
As shown in the picture above, they keep the lines tight and are comfortable defending in their own half instead of pressuring higher up the pitch. Both the RCM and the RM, as highlighted in the picture, are reading what the ball carrier is doing, and are reacting accordingly. In this instance, the RM was closing off the distance between him and Rangers’ left-back to prevent or be able to apply pressure if the ball was moving that way. At the same time, the central midfielder of Hamilton was positioned to take away Rangers’ midfielder if he was to receive the ball.
When the centre-back carrying the ball for Rangers comes back to the other side of the field, both players react and fall back into their block, to make sure they have the proper depth to be able to defend the ball coming in the other direction.
And as soon as the ball switches sides of the field and ball carriers, Hamilton reacts accordingly. The two forwards are now out of their passive stands and responsible for applying pressure, with the near-side forward applying immediate pressure on the ball carrier, while the far-side forward closing off the distance to the central midfielder of Rangers to prevent the pass going that way.
At the same time, the RCM has now the proper depth to be able to pressure if the ball was attempted to go between the lines. As highlighted by his stance, the near-side centre-back is also preparing himself for that exact scenario as well. The second central midfielder is also in position to apply pressure on the closest passing option to the ball carrier, trying to force him to attempt a riskier pass instead and make a mistake.
Using long balls to set up the attack
Recognizing his side doesn’t match the attacking potential and individual talent of his opponent, Brian Rice decided to have his team trying to build up attacks through the use of the long ball instead.
The ball will be launched from the back line by one of the defenders or even the goalkeeper, with the target being one of the two forwards, trying to force an aerial duel. The players around that forward will either attempt runs behind him, or maintain the right amount of depth to be able to play any balls that bounce back their way.
In the picture above, we can see the aerial duel taking place, as highlighted by the white rectangle. Around the targeted forward, the secondary forward is making the run behind him, hoping his teammate can win the duel and play the ball over his head. At the same time, Hamilton’s right midfielder is positioning himself to have enough space to be able to play a ball bounced back his way by the defender. From that position, he can either play off the pass to the forward running behind the defence, or attempt to advance with the football himself.
Keeping that in mind, despite Hamilton losing two of their starters to early injuries in the first half, they actually received a small boost for their long-ball tactics to work better. Marios Ogboe, who had to come in the 36th minute of the game for the injured Steve Davies, measures up to 1.88 m, compared to Davies who only reaches 1.85 m. Ogboe is also stronger and a more physical forward, able to match up better in the air against the Rangers defenders.
The long ball tactics are even more efficient when used to take advantage of mismatches. In the instance highlighted above, Ogboe came all the way to the right-wing of the formation to be targeted by the goalkeeper’s launch, trying to match up in the air against Borna Barišić, the left-back of Rangers. Barišić is 1,86 m tall, which is a little bit taller than usual for a full-back. But compared to Connor Goldson (1,91 m) and Samuel Edmundson (1,85 m), he seems like the easiest target for also not being so strong in the air. Having to go against Ogboe, who we already established is 1,88 m tall, he is at a clear disadvantage. This allows the Hamilton forward to win his duel and play the ball to the runner behind him.
Even more importantly, mismatches allow you to be more aggressive in the runs used to support the long ball and the aerial duel. After scoring to take back the lead in the 68th minute of the game, Rangers is forced to substitute out Barišić and send in Andrew Halliday to cover the LB spot.
Halliday is only 1,73 m in height, which is considerably smaller than Barišić was and therefore an even easier target in the air. This fact allows for a different player to go up against him, while saving Ogboe as a secondary runner behind the defence.
This is precisely the thing that Hamilton tried exploiting, and as soon as they resumed the play from the middle of the pitch, three players sprinted towards the Rangers back line. Ogboe and the secondary forward all went to position themselves for runs behind the defence, while a different player, this time their right-back Aaron McGowan, made a full sprint towards the right-wing of the formation to receive the long pass.
McGowan reaches 1,80 m in height. Him going up against Halliday is an even better mismatch than Ogboe going up against Barišić was, and therefore Hamilton know they can have that extra forward running behind the defence. McGowan wins the duel easily and plays the ball through the defensive lines of Rangers. The ball ends up with Winter inside the box, who is in a good position to send off a shot. Unfortunately, he misses it wide.
Fluidity in the formation
Gerrard aligned his formation originally into a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Ryan Kent on the left-wing, Ianis Hagi on the right side and Joe Aribo playing off the number 10 role as an attacking midfielder.
However, playing against a compact low block, it was important that the three attacking options behind Morelos played fluidly. Particularly important was the movement of Aribo, who from the CAM role had the freedom and responsibilities of roaming from side to side, trying to create moments of numerical superiority and open up Hamilton’s defensive back line.
One of the tactics deployed was to create triangle-shaped combinations of passing and movement to free up players, and attack the lanes that would open up.
In the example shown above, Aribo is in possession of the football and is the lowest up the field of the three. Hagi is playing the pivot role and is opening up to receive the pass, while the right-back Tavernier is threatening with the cut inside, which forces his marker to follow him, freeing up the space on the wing for Aribo to move into.
They could use this strategy on both sides of the field, sometimes with more than three players involved, with the core principles remaining the same.
In this other example over on the left-wing of the formation, there are four players involved of Rangers against three defenders of Hamilton. The initial triangle combination was made of Kamara, the ball carrier in this instance, the left-back Barišić who was staying wide to the left, and Kent playing the pivot role inside.
It’s the body movement of Kamara, however, that does the tricky part. He decides to press on with the ball at his feet, leaving his marker behind and breaking off the initial triangle shape, switching the wide Barišić for the central Aribo. This accomplishes two things: it presents two good passing options inside the box for Kamara to choose from, and it leaves the Hamilton central midfielder (no.7) all alone in an impossible situation in the middle of the triangle.
The right-back of Hamilton was baited into reacting to the initial shape and close the distance to Barišić on the wing, so he was taken out of the next play. With two defenders out, all Kamara had to do was read the intentions of the centre-back, who in this case appears to settle for marking Aribo, and he’s able to get the through pass that finds Kent in a great position inside the box.
Wingers as playmakers
Along the use of Aribo to create a numerical advantage on the flanks, Gerrard’s team also allowed for freedom to both wingers to move into central positions and act as passing options behind the lines. This allowed for Rangers to be able to quickly transition and break off on counter-attacks before Hamilton was able to fall back into their low and compact block.
In this picture, Rangers recovers the ball deep in their own half, and now have the opportunity to break on the counter. With the midfield line of Hamilton being much more advanced, there is a big hole created between the lines that Ianis Hagi, the right-winger of Rangers, reacts to by staying inside. This opens him up for the pass that finds him with nothing but empty field in front of him to attack.
The same tendency of using the wingers in more central positions was evident in positional attacks as well. With the game tied until the 68th minute, it was harder for Rangers to open up the low block of Hamilton, and to do so, they could use the wingers to occupy the half-spaces and target them with passes through the lines.
They could even do it with both wingers at the same time. In the frame above, the right-back is staying wide to maintain the threat on the wing and occupy the left-back or left midfielder. Meanwhile, both Hagi and Kent are staying in the half-spaces, each one on their respective side of the field. This allows for Aribo to cut behind the midfield line and be in a great position to receive the through pass.
Counter-pressing to create opportunities
As they say that the best defence is a good offence, the reverse can be true as well. And this philosophy was adopted by Rangers in trying to recover balls lost high up the pitch, force turnovers and transform them into attacking opportunities.
Usually, the player that lost the ball was the first that initiated the counter-press by immediately trying to force a duel and delay Hamilton to advance the ball. At the same time, nearby teammates would first look to take away immediate passing options, or attack the ball carrier, forcing 2-on-1 or even 3-on-1 advantageous situations.
What we can see in the frame from above is the reaction of Rangers after losing a ball high in Hamilton’s half of the field. The player that lost the ball is sticking to the ball carrier, while two teammates are reacting to cover the two immediate passing options available, while also maintaining a good position to be able to break back on the ball carrier. A fourth Rangers player is coming off the wing to force the 2-on-1 duel and put the Hamilton carrier in an impossible situation to get out of.
In this other frame, the left-back tried to cross off the left-wing, but the ball didn’t make it past the first Hamilton defender. In order to prevent the counter-attack, he knows he has to close off the distance immediately and apply pressure.
He does his job well, eventually forcing the ball back on the wing. Kamara was also aware of what his responsibility was in this moment, and he sprints towards the ball to cover for Barišić and meet the Hamilton attacking player just as the ball arrives, not affording him any time to progress with the ball or advance the counter-attack with a second pass.
This was a particularly harder position to counter-press from than the first one, because the player responsible for the turnover happened to be a Rangers defender, which meant there were fewer options to cover for him from behind. However, between only the two of them, Barišić and Kamara, they worked well together to pull it off and make the most out of a bad situation, which in this case meant simply preventing Hamilton from breaking on the counter-attack. This goes to show that Gerrard’s side is very well coached in effectively counter-pressing.
The match ended up being a more difficult test for Rangers than many would have anticipated before, or that the scoreboard might indicate, as this tactical analysis has shown. Early injuries that forced substitutions before or right at halftime for Hamilton made it much harder for them to compete over 90 minutes, but their low, compact block made it tough on Rangers to find good open chances.
In the end, it was mostly the superior individual talent that made the difference and allowed Rangers to advance into the next phase of the 2019/20 Scottish Cup.