Widely regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation, Steven Gerrard is known worldwide for his playing ability, often identified as Liverpool’s greatest ever player, Gerrard embarked on his first role in management agreeing to become Rangers new manager on 4th May 2018, succeeding Graham Murty. Gerrard has markedly improved The Gers since his appointment but is yet to knock Old Firm rivals Celtic off their perch. Whilst there have been questioned raised about his future at Ibrox. Gerrard has wading into the deep end early in his managerial career. Much like he was at his beloved Liverpool, Gerrard is the leader of the underdog aiming to dethrone the mighty champion. He may not have accomplished that feat with The Reds but can he do it in Scotland?
In this tactical analysis, we will look back at the 2019/20 season and analyse the tactical lessons Gerrard has learnt. We will also consider what tactical tweaks Gerrard may need to make to his philosophy if he is to successfully guide Rangers to their first Scottish Premiership title since 2011.
Throughout the 2019/20 season, Gerrard has utilised several systems. Most commonly a 4-3-3 or a similar variant. Although he has experimented with various other systems such as 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to resolve the issue of struggling to break down deep defensive structures, also known as low blocks. If we look at the possession statistics, we see that Gerrard likes his team to dominate the ball and we can see that Rangers have an average of 60.81% of possession, according to transfrmarkt.com.
Out of possession, Gerrard likes his wingers to tuck in to form a narrow 4-3-3 formation. His boyhood club, Liverpool have clearly had an impact on his philosophy as Gerrard encourages his team to be proactive in terms of pressing and trying to win the ball back high up the pitch. Rangers are solid defensively conceding a joint lowest, along with Celtic, 19 goals in the league this season. Where Rangers have struggled is scoring against those teams that sit back and soak up pressure. Gerrard has implemented at Rangers is a clear tactical identity, something the club has lacked in recent years under previous managers.
Rangers have several patterns of play under Gerrard. Starting from playing out from the back, Gerrard asks his full-backs to push high and wide, whilst his holding midfielder, usually Steven Davis or Ryan Jack, drops deeper to create a ‘2-1’ triangle with the two central defenders, which can be seen below.
Another variation of Rangers’ build-up is for one or two of the centre midfielders to drop in where we would usually find the full-backs, also known as a false full-back, to assist in the build-up. This gives the full-backs license to push forward and the forwards to tuck in narrower. This would then result in ‘2-3’ shape.
Moving up the pitch, Rangers utilise two triangles consisting of the full-back, number eight and winger in the half-spaces on each side. These triangles are very positionally fluid in order to take advantage of spaces left by the opposition
Once into the final third, Rangers use various patterns of play in order to penetrate the penalty box and create goal-scoring opportunities. Rangers often move the ball wide to full-backs James Tavernier and Borna Barišić, who are the team’s most creative outlets (see key passes image), for them to cross into the penalty area. As shown below, the ball is worked wide for Tavernier to cross.
In the last five matches, Rangers have attempted 98 crosses and have been successful in 34 of them (34.69%). The cross accuracy is high, when compared with Liverpool for example, who are renowned for their crossing ability via their full-backs. Liverpool have attempted 132 crosses in their last five matches and completed 39 of them (29%). Where the problem does arise for Rangers is how many goals they are scoring via crossing situations. As seen in the table below, Rangers have a combined xA from crosses of 2.41 and an xG of 1.71 from crossing situations yet have no goals to show for it. Liverpool, on the other hand have an xA of 1.45 and an xG of 1.46 yet have scored three goals. Rangers create good quality chances from out wide but fail to convert them. One aspect, why this might be the case is how many crosses are in the air towards 5’9” Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian has been on the receiving end of 10 crosses and none of the 10 have been on the ground, resulting in only two shots and none of them on target. Sadio Mané, in comparison, has received 11 crosses, two of which, have been on the ground, and both were shots on target, one of which he scored.
The benefit of Gerrard’s system encouraging his attacking players to stay central and allow his full-backs to provide the width is that they have a number of players in central areas that can combine together to penetrate the penalty area and create goal-scoring opportunities. Below is a perfect example, Glenn Kamara passes the ball into Morelos’ feet before continuing his run past the striker and into the box, Morelos returns the ball to Kamara and he squares the ball across the six-yard box.
We can see in the image above how big an influence Morelos is in the progress and penetration of the attack. This is a key component of how Rangers break defensive lines in order to progress the ball up the pitch or to play out of a difficult situation and be able to spread the play, as shown below in a match versus Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League. Morelos comes deep to show for the ball, plays a first-time pass to Steven Davis, then spins away and looks to drive into space behind the German defence.
Since returning from the winter break on the 17th January 2020, Rangers have underperformed their xG. With an average of 1.38 goals scored to an xG of 1.95. This may not seem a huge amount, but what is more crucial is which games they have massively underperformed their xG as it has cost them valuable points. The missing of good quality chances undoubtedly dented their chances of maintaining pace with Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premiership. In the graph below, we can see the among of goals Rangers scored and their xG for all matches leading back to the resumption after the winter break.
We can see that Rangers underperformed their xG in 11 of the 16 games. Whilst in some matches, it would not have had a massive impact on the outcome. Match 16, for example, versus Stranraer, Rangers underperformed xG by 2.29, yet Stranraer’s xG was 0. If we look more closely at how many matches underperforming their xG may have cost them the result, as shown in the image below, we can see Rangers xG and their opposition’s xG and also the match result, for example Rangers lost 3-1 versus Bayer Leverkusen.
According to xG. Rangers created the better chances in 14 of their last 16. Yet, it may be surprising that Rangers only outscored their opponents and therefore won nine. Five matches where Rangers had a higher xG yet were not able to secure the three points. In the last five matches alone, Rangers have underperformed their xG by 6.27.
A key component of Rangers’ attacking style starts when they are out of possession. Gerrard has obviously been influenced by Jurgen Klopp and his ‘gegenpressing’. Rangers often defend in a compact 4-3-3 mid-block with their wingers tucked in alongside Morelos. They generally allow opposition centre-backs time on the ball deep inside their own half and await certain pressing triggers before launching into an aggressive press.
The most commonly used pressing trigger is a sideward ball from centre-back to full-back, when pressing the full-back, the front three look to cut off passing lines back inside in an attempt to pin the full-back towards the touchline. With the backing of the midfield blocking passing lanes, Rangers aim to win the ball back in the wide areas of the final third and capitalising by counterattacking and attempting to get a shot off as quickly as possible. Other pressing triggers that Rangers look to exploit are poor first touches, bad passes and passes back to the goalkeeper.
We can see from the below image, that Rangers clearly set out to win the ball back and get into a shooting position as soon as possible within these areas.
In this example, from a recent match versus Braga, we see four Rangers players press the Braga player as well, as blocking all his passing lanes, crowding the opposition player and forcing him into a turnover of possession, which Rangers capitalise on and launch a counterattack.
When looking at statistics for the top four teams in Scotland and the top two in England, we can see that Rangers not only make the third most high recoveries but also the second-lowest PPDA, PPDA is a measurement of how opposition passes per defensive action in the final 60% of the pitch, any defensive actions in the remaining 40% would be considered a team defending with a deep block.
Only Liverpool (18.98) and Manchester City (18.53) have made more final third recoveries per 90 than Rangers (16.04). Whilst only Old Firm rivals Celtic (7.77) have a lower PPDA per 90 than Rangers (8.00). What does this tell us about the Gers defence? Well, Rangers are clearly proactive and persistent in their hunt to win back possession of the ball. It also shows us that Rangers have a significant high press intensity level due to their PPDA, which is backed up by the high amount of recoveries in the final third. Below, we can see an example of the high pressing traps that Rangers use regularly in matches.
Five of Rangers front six are actively involved in pressing the opposition in the final third. All five are working together to force the opposition to play into their pressing trap. Ianis Hagi puts immediate pressure on the defender forcing him towards the touchline whilst creating a passing shadow over the Bayer Leverkusen player behind him. Ryan Kent reads the press and starts to anticipate the pass to the full-back, whilst Morelos does the same with the goalkeeper on the opposite side. Scott Arfield and Steven Davis are both marking space behind the initial press so that if the German side manage to beat the first press, the ball is swept up by one of Arfield or Davis. If we move the match on just another few seconds, we can see how the pressing trap develops.
We can see that the forwards have forced the play to their strong side and due to all passing options being marked or risk being intercepted in a dangerous area, the only option for the Bayer Leverkusen defender is to clear his lines with a long ball down the line. Which Steven Davis and Matt Polster (out of shot) sweep up on the halfway line.
Aggressive midfield pressing
As previously mentioned, Rangers deploy a midfield tasked with marking the space in between the lines and ensuring that the opposition are unable to play through them. We can see in the example below from the match versus Braga. Scott Arfield man marks the Braga player and presses him aggressively when he receives the ball to ensure he doesn’t have time to turn. This action forces the Braga player to play backwards and Arfield can slot back into his defensive position for the next phase of play.
Utilising the counterattack
Occasionally Rangers will sit back and allow the other team to have possession, this has generally been the case in the Europa League, where Rangers often find themselves playing against teams that are technically better. In the recent Europa League match versus Braga, Rangers had just 29.48% of possession, according to Wyscout, and completed only 176 passes, a staggering 317 fewer than their Portuguese rivals. As discussed earlier, Rangers typically play a high pressing game, with a low PPDA and high recoveries in the final third. In this match, however, Rangers’ PPDA was 29.5, the highest it’s been all season and Gerrard’s team only made six final third recoveries. Despite this, Rangers managed more shots on target and won the match 1-0. Proving that Rangers can be successful when pressing high and, when needed, defending in a mid-low block. We can see below that the winning goal in this match is the result of a lightning-fast counterattack.
Ryan Kent goes onto to find the bottom corner and Rangers take the lead. From winning the ball back to Kent scoring took just 11 seconds.
What needs to be better?
With the Scottish Premiership season being finished early due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Rangers are in second, 13 points adrift of leaders Celtic, although Rangers did have a game in hand.
During the 2019/20 winter break, Rangers were just two points shy of Celtic with a game in hand on their greatest rivals. Rangers had just won 2-1 away at Celtic Park, the first time they had beaten Celtic away since 2010. Alfredo Morelos picked up his second yellow card in the 95th minute for a needless dive in an attempt to win Rangers a penalty, when the match was all but won.
Fortunes have changed since the winter break. Celtic racked up win after win, in relentless fashion. This led to Celtic amassing 1.1 more points per game than Rangers.
Rangers’ struggles since the winter break have seen them let good chances go begging and make silly mistakes at the back. The losses to Hearts in the Scottish Cup and to Hamilton in the league are both good examples of the simple defensive errors that have been Rangers’ downfall. Firstly, the failure to clear their lines versus Hearts, leads to several Rangers players making simple mistakes and Oliver Bozanic being completely unmarked in the penalty area for an easy finish.
Once again, failure to clear their lines led to the goal versus Hamilton. Rangers fail to clear a long ball on three separate occasions before another mistake on the edge of the penalty box, gifts Hamilton an easy goal.
As well as making simple mistakes, Rangers have thrown away a lead three times in the first three months of 2020. Hearts in January, Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone in February. All three teams are in the bottom six of the Scottish Premiership. Hypothetically if Rangers were able to see out these games and eradicate the errors, they would be 10 points better off in the league. Rangers ran out of ideas versus Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone, despite having over 60% possession in both matches, 44% of the 38 shots Rangers took in those two matches were outside the box, 38 shots resulted in just three goals.
If Rangers want to go on and add to their tally of league titles, they will have to find a way to live with Celtic’s relentless form. In the last three seasons, Celtic have racked up points tallies of 77, 80 and 91, (adding in their projected PPG, 88, this season if it were to be finished) on their way to winning the league. It produces an average of 82 points. The last time Rangers won the league in 2010/11, they amassed 80 points.
Rangers clearly need to stop dropping points because of mistakes or poor finishing. Jermaine Defoe is the top scorer in the league for Rangers this year, he’s 37 years old. Alfredo Morelos is attracting more attention from bigger clubs. Rangers may need to revamp their attack this summer if they’re wanting to push Celtic all the way. In the last two seasons, Rangers and Celtic have been neck and neck at Christmas, and in both years, Celtic have forged at least 10 points ahead. Perhaps the pressure of a title challenge is too much for Gerrard’s team. A few proven winners may also be a good idea in the summer.
Steven Gerrard wants his team to play out from the back even when under pressure, which doesn’t happen often in Scotland but Celtic, Hearts and several European teams have proved that Rangers can be beaten if forced into mistakes by a high press. If that is the tactic Gerrard wants to stick with, it would be a good idea to recruit another ball-playing centre-back and a goalkeeper who is more comfortable on the ball.
Gerrard needs to find a solution to the problem that low block defences have caused him. Whether he goes old-school and recruits an old-fashioned number nine to get on the end of crosses or whether he can tinker with his tactics so that Rangers are not as reliant on their full-backs being the creators.
We have discovered in this analysis that there is no doubt that since Gerrard was appointed in May 2018 that he has improved Rangers and implemented a tactical style that had been missing for a long time. For his first senior role in management, it can be expected that there will be a certain amount of ‘learning on the job’. Should Rangers look elsewhere for the answer to Celtic’s domination? In my opinion, no. If Gerrard and Rangers can recruit smartly in the summer and make those subtle changes to their tactics. We should all look forward to another cracker of a title race next season. Whenever that may be.