By Kyle McLean | Guest Contributor
I want to start this article off by acknowledging the massive tactical shift that will come from a change in manager and the time needed for players to adjust. However, I will say this: for the first time in a while, Rangers are playing and bullying the opposition, instead of being bullied by them.
In the Hearts game, both Jason Holt and Ross McCrorie took on Christophe Berra and came off better. A clash of heads between the two centre backs and Holt forcing himself between Berra and the ball to win the free-kick. The wee man was ferocious. Alfredo Morelos holding off and throwing back the much larger John Souttar. The players played like men again, to put it lightly.
And the Return of King Kenny. It was inevitable, wasn’t it? That kind of a performance from the big man. Two goals and an assist against Hearts, and the shared largest attacking contributor (based on xGC) against Partick Thistle. Add to that two goals in two games for Josh Windass and the revelation of Holt and it’s been a renaissance of players who had, until now, been under performing and pushed into the shadows of Auchenhowie. McCrorie continued his spectacular development. Morelos’ build up play against Thistle puts him in the top bracket of Premiership strikers and Daniel Candeias got another assist and goal.
There’s clearly two strong, functioning teams here. We just need to find a way to bed them in together and we could be on to a good thing. If only football were so easy, right?
We lost the ball far more (almost twice as much as against Kilmarnock) and made fewer passes – but this is where interpretation of the statistics is important. Bruno Alves and McCrorie made over 70 passes in one half against Killie – mostly to one another. Here Holt and Ryan Jack were the two largest governors of the ball. It’s a surprisingly effective system where Holt has the energy and drive to charge everything down and Jack is slowly getting a better ability to ping more aggressive balls forwards.
The other important thing to note was the calmness at the back. Even when we were under the cosh after Hearts scored and were hunting us down, we were calm and retained possession quite well. This largely comes down to Wes Foderingham not unnecessarily punting the ball to the opposition. He maintained his composure and that transfers to the rest of the defence. James Tavernier did, however, lose the ball going forwards a lot. He got an assist but I’d like to see him make more of those difficult passes and thread the ball through the opposition defence.
Scenarios like this, previously where we would have lost possession. Immediately they would counter attack and mistakes would start creeping in as everyone becomes panicked. Not the case this time!
Poor Thistle. In the second half they sat in their own box and rarely ever ventured out. They had had enough and just wanted to go home. What was interesting, and we’ll see more of, is how Tavernier is the attacking fulcrum from the back and Declan John’s attacking role has been significantly reduced.
In reality, for a comfortable 3-0 win, there are rarely under performers and the xGC score for this game shows that across the board the team was contributing equally. We are more incisive with our possession as well under Graeme Murty.
Pass Network Maps - Hearts away
What was interesting was how much more movement we had in the team than usual. From McCrorie to Holt, Windass and the full backs, we had different players running and pulling them apart all over the pitch. It was far more aggressive than the usual slow-paced choking of possession. And it worked, two of the goals came from intelligent runs by advanced players. On the negative side, this was Candeias’ worst game which could be due cause for concern – but he was due a bad one eventually.
We also played with narrow wingers which we’ve seen previously (against St Johnstone) can be good for team performance but worse on his personal performance. This was one of my big irritations with Pedro Caixinha – focusing on wing play and crossing so heavily means you’re making it harder for your team to score goals. It’s a lot easier to score a shot than it is to whip in an accurate cross, win the header (especially when neither Miller nor Morelos are above 6 feet tall) and score. Here we saw what intelligent, interlacing passes that split the opposition defence can really do. Though we also saw Candeias offering a different, direct goalscoring threat against Thistle which shows he can be adaptable.
What was also a positive change was the consistency. We usually completely change our style of play (for the far worse or far better – no middle ground) in the second half but here we maintained with what was working and it got us all three points. I think that again has a lot to do with being calm under pressure and not losing the ball to an advanced opposition press. Of course, Hearts are in a bit of a bad space currently so they’re not the best metric to use. The performance was still a positive step.
Again, compared to last week’s pass map, you can see how the focus of our passing range has shifted from the two centre backs. Usually under Pedro our best performances would be when our two central midfielders strongly dominated the passing – here Murty spread the responsibility quite evenly. Most players saw similar levels of the ball and due to that we were difficult to contain, every single area of the pitch was a threat and that is 180-degree turnaround from the drab 0-0 draw against Hearts at Ibrox.
Pass Network Maps - Partick Thistle home
Against Thistle, Murty played everyone in their preferred positions. That’s how we managed to get a great performance out of both Windass and Candeias – usually we need to sacrifice one or the other! However, in this system where Windass (and later Niko Kranjcar) drift in so narrowly, we see that John cannot contribute to the attack nearly as much as he’s isolated and has no cover. Which is a shame as he offers a lot going forwards and is still not concrete defensively. Reassuring was Windass’ two performances, playing like he has some direction once again. I think playing him in Miller’s role and John in his left wing position is a good medium term solution to our problems – granted that Wallace comes back before the New Year.
The bulk of our passes were either forward passes or between forward players – exactly the way you want it. Not the back and forth between centre halves that we’ve seen at times this season.
Here reconfirms that the second half was primarily us just sitting deep, waiting for them to press and open up spaces in their defence… And then they just never pressed, so we passed the ball around at the back. It was boring to watch but it makes sense – Murty also wants the clean sheet. To add to the point of our increased incisiveness on the ball: look at the link between McCrorie and Candeias, those are more aggressive and difficult passes regularly being made.
The biggest change in this side is just the energy and movement that is so difficult to deal with, especially from Holt.
As I’ve highlighted – teams that come to sit deep and try nick a point off us are very static. Those four attackers/midfielders highlighted in red barely move in the time it takes for Holt to run/pass through them. Even if he lacks top level quality, he will be very useful as a ‘flat track bully’, someone who ensures you get maximum points against those small teams who try and suffocate the game, just with his movement.
We need some consistency in the defence now. The clean sheet against Thistle was only our third of the campaign, and is the main source of our suffering. It’s difficult to put together good form when you’re leaking goals. McCrorie was good, if not still a bit naïve, and Danny Wilson was understandably rusty but they were a decent partnership. I think they should both get more minutes, though it’ll be interesting to see if Fabio Cardoso and Alves were suspect due to poor management by Pedro or if that was due to them just not being up to the Scottish game.
Something that really unsettled this rather makeshift defence was strikers making diagonal runs – that comes with practice and understanding the expectation of your teammate. Here, however, no one was tracking the run of Lafferty and Hearts had an opportunity for a two-on-one, luckily their attacker made a poor decision and we were able to recover. Similar rustiness and lack of communication was seen at one set piece:
Where we were lax in our offside line and allowed them to overload the defenders holding the original line which had been broken. Again, they had another shot for a two-on-one but quick reactions from Foderingham – who was impressive in distribution and decision making – meant they couldn’t capitalise. Though the usual scenario of a mistake leading to everyone panicking happened again, after they broke the trap we all charged after the two of them, leaving a further two attackers unmarked in our area for if the ball fell to them, while five of our players were just standing in the middle of the box, ball-watching.
It'll be interesting to see, going forwards, if we can develop some mental resilience defensively, meaning Pedro was at fault (best case scenario seeing as he’s now gone) or if those problems linger, indicating mental fragility in our own players (worst case scenario because they’re still at the club). An interesting thing to see was that McCrorie clearly has previous precedent with the U21 keeper:
Where the shot came in and he had a wide stance (so the goalie had clear vision) and threw himself out the way to prevent a deflection. It shows he has a lot of confidence in Wes’ shot stopping but by his reaction he would clearly prefer an attempted block. More signs of settling and getting used to one another. In my opinion it is an active movement, and not him fearfully pulling away from the shot.
This is really embarrassing. Wilson has no right to lose that ball and John is guilty of ball watching. That’s why, if he’s not contributing offensively, John becomes a weak link. We’ve suffered from crosses from the left with Wallace and John – looks like neither are the solution to it. That’s just bad signing policy. I like John a lot (probably more than Wallace), but to sign the exact same type of player twice is foolish.
Concentration is an issue we seem to be struggling with. During every game there are moments where everyone switches off and we are lucky to scrape by without conceding. Though with greater game time for Wilson and McCrorie I think that should decrease. On that note, I should mention: I like Alves and Cardoso, and definitely want them to succeed but neither of them should walk back into this defence. Aside from Lafferty’s wondergoal, we have been a lot more structurally stable at the back – and Wilson may have a better passing range than Cardoso!
Expected Goal Chain (xGC)
Again, this tallies up the contributions of each player to successful shots, so even if they go wide or are blocked they are counted. The takeaway is that Miller came up trumps. Those who recall when I first started measuring xGC, Miller was topping the charts then too. That’s the big argument for keeping him in the team, he sets up teammate opportunities.
Windass too had a good score, though a touch inflated by bad shooting – he took four of our shots (almost a third of our total). Again, his goal was a shot inside the box. I wish he would completely cut out his long-range shooting because it’s very poor.
On the other side of the spectrum is Candeias who had one of his worst games. Additionally, John (for the first time) didn’t contribute to any successful attacks, very strangely. Both are one-offs though so no need to panic.
The scores team-wide are quite consistent, indicating that we are a threat all over the park. That is brilliant. I would want to see Jack more involved in attacks but he was very deep in the second half, when Murty was clearly looking for the clean sheet. Aside from that, Morelos has contributed a lot to our attacks but he does need a goal sooner rather than later. You can see it’s bothering him.
The start of the second Murtinho era is successful! There’s two strong teams, ‘Warburton’s Players’ and ‘Pedro’s Players’. We must now find a way to integrate them. It must be possible. There is 100 per cent a team in here that can beat Aberdeen home and away, and we have a favourable run of games in which to build up steam first. Let’s hope that, whoever the manager may be at the time, they can lead us to two resounding and statement-making wins.