Rangers' win at Saints example of one way forward after Hampden pain

By Kyle McLean (ForeignRangersFan) | Guest Contributor

I'll begin by pointing out that this review of the St Johnstone win must now be taken in a new light. Originally this was prior to the Motherwell game, but now it is impossible to ignore that greater context. 

That being said, this was one of our most complete and accomplished performances of the season. While some may argue that it was only due to Steven Anderson’s red card (and that did make our night easier) in reality St Johnstone only had one shot on target by that stage. This was away at an accomplished side, whom Tommy Wright has made into a strong unit over quite a few years.

It really did help that their main threat of Michael O'Halloran was barred from playing, leaving them with primarily aerial alternatives. As Bruno Alves had the second most aerial clearances in Serie A last season, we were resolute. Last season? We would have conceded at least one or two from those set pieces.

Utter domination

James Tavernier, sublime. Declan John has now not misplaced a pass in 180 minutes of league football for us. Carlos Pena was getting a lot of stick but he was not the worst on the ball, that was Josh Windass. He now has 16 shots thus far this season in the league: nine wide (56%), five blocked (31%) and two on target (13%). A lot of people finally lost their patience with him against Motherwell. I completely agree. I’ve spoken previously about how wasteful his shooting is, especially when you are not even testing the goalkeeper 87% of the time. 

Note that we dominate play much better when Wes Foderingham sees less of the ball as he is still prone to the odd long ball, which is almost always immediately lost for no reason. Graham Dorrans was also immense. Possibly his best performance in a Rangers shirt – but you knew that. Even Jason Holt proved himself a very able deputy to Ryan Jack.

In the Motherwell game they were not able to impose themselves in the middle as we would have liked. Going forward I would like to see Daniel Candeias play on the left, dropping Windass (and bringing Aaron Nemane on the right), playing Dorrans as our number 10 and Holt and Jack through the middle. We really don’t have time for passengers, and Pena is too much of a passenger when not scoring goals.

Defensively staunch

Their biggest chance to score was a breakaway through the centre of our defence – and while some may lament that in some way, we keep our centre backs wide-set because it gives the two of them so many more passing lines to use.

A bit exaggerated but from 1) you can see quite plainly how the increased width of our centre backs reduces the effectiveness of the opponent press, whereas in 2) just their one striker cuts out most passing lines and forces more risky/difficult passes. By playing with that width we can control the game far better – the one downside being that if we’re then caught unawares, there is space between our centre backs to charge into.

That’s a risk worth taking in my opinion, especially seeing how bad we are at dealing with opposition pressure. I used three opposition players in their press because that tends to be as bold as any opponent is – any more and a single, good pass can cut out a large percentage of your attacking press.

Passing map - first half

Pass 1.jpg

What has really set aside our best performances this season has been our ability to stretch the game. Previously our big wins were width-wise: Windass and Candeias as left and right wingers respectively. What happened here was that we were almost playing with three central attacking midfielders, they were that narrow – however, we stretched the length of the pitch. And I thought it was the best we had played this season at times. John and Tavernier bombarding forwards, Dorrans and Holt dropping into the spaces they left or, occasionally, bombing forward to assist.

This approach also leaves the most room in the centre of the pitch, allowing Dorrans a lot of space to run into and keep players around him. Previously, if he bombarded forward, he would be isolated as we stretched wide, and not long. 

What you can also see is that in the first half we focused our attacks down the left wing – Tavernier fed the ball down to Cardoso, and from there (via Alves or Dorrans) through to John. We have two very fit, young full backs full of running. We shouldn’t be afraid to give them room to gallop into. 

Now the downside to this formation – it slightly nullifies Candeias who isn’t as comfortable so central. He still created a good few chances – but not as dominant as he usually is. Windass, on the other hand, is much more comfortable in the middle (though he was still probably our worst attacker, with Candeias on the ball as much as him and losing it less).

There is a direct contrast to this style of stretching the game we have seen as well: prior to the Old Firm, Pedro was looking for a way to basically choke the middle and break up play. He did this by effectively withdrawing Windass and Candeias as left and right midfielders. This, as we saw against Thistle, was pretty disastrous and only served to congest our own attacking play, doing nothing to prevent opposition chance creation.

So Pedro is clearly learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. I appreciate a man who learns from his mistakes. 

As an addendum, I’ll add that context is very important. Length worked very well against this square four-man St Johnstone defence. We were able to stretch them and overwhelm them at certain points. Against Motherwell – they played with a central back three. In that scenario you have to be flexible and stretch the width.

There were many scenarios where we could have beat them on the overlap but were too narrow. Pedro made a wrong call. It seems that, much like our defence is capable of conceding due to an error once per game, Pedro is prone to at least one error in setting up the team for each match. That may explain why we’re yet to win three on the bounce. 

Passing map - second half

Pass 2.jpg

Here you can see the way we comfortably recycled possession, not letting St Johnstone near the ball and looking to kill them off. Even if they hadn’t gone a man down and we gone on to score two more – not every game needs to end with such a large score. This was a mature, dominant performance away from home against a team that was equally behind us to what we were to Aberdeen last season. This team got a point at Them. We cannot scoff at this result.  

What is most noticeable here is how Dorrans is the absolute fulcrum of this side – if this was his best performance yet, this was his best half. Out of the other nine outfield players, he had notable links with six of them. He was at the heart of everything and deserved his goal.
Speaking of deserving a goal, Morelos was very unlucky to not get on the score sheet as well – however, this was the most complete performance of a striker we have had this entire season. The most link ups from a forward in a half (three) and he often dropped deep or wide to help win the ball or provide another outlet to the creative players. 

xGC (Expected Goal Chain)

This is a very, very basic measure of each players contribution to attacking phases/goals by measuring their input to successful attacks (resulting in recorded shots). It is by no means definitive, especially not my ‘model’.

xGC.jpg

What we can see is squad-wide we have some impressively high scores. Three goals mean we will see an unnatural spike but what it also tells us is these weren’t ‘freak goals’, where there’s some confusion or pandemonium leading to a cheap shot. These were well constructed team goals, with the longest chain of passes before a goal being an impressive eight.

Again, offensively we can be proud of this. Windass was a bit low, as many would expect. Surprisingly low was Candeias, who as I mentioned earlier, may end up being stifled by the narrower formation. Also impressive, massively so, was Morelos. He didn’t score or assist a goal and yet obtained the second highest score. That comes from relentless work and consistently finding himself in good positions – similar to Pena who arguably could’ve had a hat-trick.

Conclusion

All over the pitch, from John to Morelos, they couldn’t touch us. Again, my only issue is whether or not this performance is sustainable – especially at home where cracking deep sitting defences is something we struggle to do. Luckily, in terms of fluidity, this gives us another option. The ability to transition between narrow central attacking midfielders and left and right wingers may seem subtle on the surface, but over the course of a game this constant pushing and pulling of the width and length means that our forward line will be very difficult to handle. Especially if Dorrans keeps that level of performance up.

Some people have asked me whether it was the absence of Jack that led to this kind of resurgent showing – I don’t think so. If you look at the numbers, Holt most acted like Jack in the second half (in terms of cycling possession) and this was also Dorrans strongest half. I believe it can work. Also deserving a mention was young Ross McCrorie who came off the bench to play a conventional defensive midfielder role and was very calm and assured on the ball.

And what we learned at the weekend was that we are not capable of sustaining that performance – or in our aim of sustaining it we made the mistake of becoming predictable and thus beatable. We should not have lost to Motherwell. We are good at killing teams off ruthlessly. If Windass took any of the three gilt edged chances he had then that tie was done. Though to say I would be confident about our odds in the final would be a bold overstatement.

I have always maintained that I will back Pedro until Christmas. If I have a company and get a new manager in, I’m not going to sack him in under a year unless he’s actively robbing me. I don’t think we can claim to be at that stage yet. I have complained about Pedro’s tactics before though – I'm not naïve. I know this isn’t good enough.

However, I will continue to lightly criticise until he either fixes the avoidable errors or the New Year rolls in, when I believe the clock will begin to toll.