Rangers' upturn nothing statistical and everything tactical

By Kyle McLean | Guest Contributor

A lot of Rangers fans are rightfully confused as to how we could be ultimately meek, feeble and pathetic in consecutive games against Hamilton and Dundee and then come back with a resounding success against Aberdeen twice. The answer is surprisingly straightforward, and has nothing to do with statistics. It’s all down to tactics.

In four consecutive games, as we will see with the passing networks, Graeme Murty set up the exact same tactics and formation, only letting the structure of the formation weaken game-on-game. This meant both Martin Canning and Neil McCann could prepare down to the very finest details. No changes in width, the only change in personnel coming about due to Declan John’s illness. A well drilled pack of donkeys will outmatch a rabble of ‘superstars’ every single game of the week.

The same formation of Danny Wilson and Ross McCrorie as centre-backs, John and James Tavernier as marauding full-backs, Ryan Jack as the base and Jason Holt as the dynamic box to box midfielder. Josh Windass was in a very loose, inverted winger role and Daniel Candeias in a very dedicated, consistent right winger position, coupled with Kenny Miller and Alfredo Morelos both dropping deep to build up play. However, as play went on, Windass’ loose role, Holt’s advanced runs and Miller dropping deep meant we had three players constantly congesting the same area of the pitch, leaving us without a focal point up front and narrow on the flank. And very, very, very repetitive.

Possession statistics

77% of the passes we made in the second half against Dundee involved either a defender or the goalkeeper. In a half of football against the side at the foot of the table that we needed to win, 37% of the passes involved a centre-back. It’s not good reading and is the clearest way to explain how tactics are invaluable in modern day football. Both Canning and McCann set up to block off our main flow of passes from Wes Foderingham, up the flanks and out to the wings where we could bombard the opposition penalty area.

Contrast that to our performance against Aberdeen. Jack, specifically, was immaculate in his passing and movement. Playing him further forward (and I’ll wager the opposition) really got a new dimension out of him. Our passing pattern changed completely too: only 68% of the passes in the first half were made involving a defender or goalkeeper. Even lower at 56% in the second half! There was far less directionless passing with no incision. The change in formation allowed us to create gaps in their midfield and we ran the game far higher up the pitch than we usually would.

Passing networks

Dundee passing network full 90.jpg

I usually do a pass map over 45 minutes but the strategy was so consistent that you can see the same pattern as in previous games. All it then took was for Dundee to isolate Tav and John by putting them under immediate pressure. Hence why there’s an equal number of passes from McCrorie to Tav as there are in the opposite direction. A simple strategy that stopped us from building any momentum. One that Murty couldn’t out think. I like Murty but this repetition as well as his poor substitutions mean, for me at least, that he can’t be our long-term manager. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a lot of triangles at work here, but unfortunately they’re all in the defensive end. What is interesting is how, mired in all of these previously disappointing results, was how a freer role for Windass really allowed him to shine. While they may have been some of our worst games this season, the four games prior to Aberdeen all saw Windass as probably our man of the match for each. He’s quietly developing into a very, very good player for us. His movement is proving incisive and his goal against Aberdeen was a testament to his strength and positional awareness.

Aberdeen first 45 network.jpg

Contrast this with the structure and spread of play seen against Aberdeen. The spread means that there were more avenues to attack down but most importantly is the number of offensive connections being made. Rather than defenders holding the ball while attackers remain isolated, it was the opposite. The ball was circulated between Holt and Jack and there were meaningful link ups in the attack. This was the first time we packed the midfield this season as well, and it was clear that we also dominated it for large spells of play.

An additional benefit is playing McCrorie in the defensive midfield role. Here, he was more of a destructive influence than productive, but it meant that when Holt and Jack had the ball, there was an additional buffer between Fod and the ball. If a pass was misplaced there was still a lot of work to be done by Aberdeen to get near our goal – as opposed to against Hamilton where the ball was mostly with McCrorie and Wilson, and McCrorie’s wayward back pass led directly to a goal. He is incredibly useful and impressive in this role in the gap between midfield and defence. Usually opposition team’s most talented players will sit here, and he can serve – as he did against Aberdeen – as a wrecking ball, clattering through more fragile attacking players. He and Wilson did end up battering GMS off the park.

Aberdeen second 45 network.jpg

In the second half our play became more disjointed, with John becoming isolated, but we saw how small tactical tweaks can pay dividends – Pena was tiring at the hour mark and was replaced by Candeias. Immediately the additional width stretching the Aberdeen defence gave Windass an opportunity to whip the cross in for Tav’s second goal.

McInnes was on the backfoot the entire game. An early penalty destroyed any hopes of sitting deep, the strong, narrow spine meant that we nicked a goal through the middle (off the enigmatic Pena) and he had to bring on Gary Mackay-Steven before half time to try and get any threat in. Thereafter, Murty reverted to our usual formation and again he was too slow to react, Windass stretching the full back while Tav found space at the near post.

Tavernier’s Rise

It may be bordering on common knowledge now, but Tavernier is only just the second-best fullback in the division to Tierney, and miles above third. His rise with our club has been impressive and I want to reiterate a point I’ve made previously. He’s just signed on to an agent notorious for getting players into the Premier League. There is a good chance this is his last season with us – athletic, goalscoring fullbacks are a rare commodity. While he may not go to a Chelsea or Man City, there is every chance a top ten club will swoop for him. And I would have no complaints. In our time with us, he has worked diligently and been an often-unsung star. While his goals will get all the focus, I want to look at one moment where he proved to me he has made the step up:

Tav Dons 1.jpg
Tav Dons 2.jpg

A player with the level of GMS would have ripped him apart a season ago – maybe even 6 months ago. His tracking and positional awareness have come along leaps and bounds. While the left fullback position tends to be where we leak the most goals to opposition crosses, Tav has tightened up and made the right flank his own, both offensively and defensively.

Regrettable Errors in Dundee

While the first goal in Dundee was an error in not just clearing the freekick, the second was just poor marking and (speaking of Tav on the right) naivety in our left fullback.

El-Bakhtaoui is able to block off Wilson and John is not tight enough on his man. Sadly, Scott Allan can get an assist and secure a massive, massive win for a genuinely terrible Dundee side. It’s early days yet, but there’s a string of results in 2016 where you can see where we lost second place last campaign. Let’s hope that these two results are not going to end up in the same basket of lost opportunities.

Conclusion

These games reinforced something I love about what I do. Stats are nothing without an understanding of football and tactics. Looking at the possession stats, we had much higher pass accuracy and only gave the ball away slightly more against Dundee than Aberdeen. And yet look at the disparity in the results. Football will never be solely a numbers game.

It’s also not just about the players or the money. Dundee and Hamilton proved that against us. I’ve been speaking about wanting us to get a manager who can challenge Celtic on a much smaller budget – the way McInnes has never managed to do. I have nothing against him, but while the Rangers budget is bigger than Aberdeen’s, it is still dwarfed by Celtic. He’s a comfortable choice, but I don’t think he’s shown the ingenuity required to beat Rodgers. His results against the Old Firm – even a weakened Rangers – leaves a lot to be desired. It will be interesting to see who is eventually brought in.

This all leaves us on an interesting tipping point. Aberdeen have yet to be convincing this season. While they are more consistent than us, our peak ability far surpasses theirs. Now we have to take these consecutive wins against the Dons and not blow it against the minnows in the division again. Our next six games are massive, and include an away trip to Hibs, a revitalised Kilmarnock and Celtic. Meanwhile we’ll host a sturdy Ross County, an ever-impressive Motherwell and an under-performing St Johnstone. It will be nervy but I believe we can take a lot of points from those games.