By Dougie Wright | Contributor
On August 6 2016, Rangers kicked off the 2016/17 campaign full of optimism. The Championship had been won at a canter, while the disappointment of losing the Scottish Cup final to Hibs was slightly cancelled out by the semi-final victory over Celtic. There was a real belief within the club that an immediate title challenge was in the offing.
Fast forward 11 months, and things have changed significantly. A third-placed finish 39 points behind Celtic was the result of a season marred with managerial changes, controversies with the playing squad, and a general sense of instability.
This article will consider what made Rangers such an inconsistent side last season, which tactics suit the current squad based on its personnel, and finally highlight any areas that need addressed before the transfer window closes.
Most Rangers fans would agree that the team lacked fluency last season. Rarely did the same team appear two weeks in a row, as thirty different players were used throughout the campaign. Consider the following table, showing the percentage of the season each of these thirty played in:
Let’s assume that for a player to be classed as a first team regular, he has to be play at least 75 per cent of available minutes. Over the course of the season, this works out just shy of 30 games.
Using this assumption, we see that Rangers only really had three regular starters: Foderingham, Miller and Tavernier. This means the spine of the team was subject to frequent chopping and changing. Such inconsistency in personnel can lead to inconsistent performances on the park. For example, while Rangers only had three regulars in the team, Aberdeen had eight.
However, it is important to remember that injuries plagued the side throughout the season. No fewer than 12 first team players were ruled out for five matches or more. This was particularly evident in the heart of defence, with Rob Kiernan, Danny Wilson and Clint Hill missing 29 games between them.
It might not be an obvious priority, but it seems like it would be a good idea for the club to investigate if there is any underlying reason behind this relatively high injury rate.
Turning our head now towards the individual players, it is still not clear exactly how Caixinha wants his team to play. So far we’ve seen wingers, a diamond, a two-man midfield pivot and even all out kamikaze football in the second half against Motherwell. It’s very difficult to recognise a coherent tactical system in all this.
Nevertheless, with a nine week preseason, Caixinha will have plenty of time to implement whatever tactical plans he has in mind. Against Niederkorn, Rangers’ mismanagement of the centre lead to cross after cross being swatted away by the Luxemburgers. Just as in Luxembourg, teams sitting deep and looking to counter will be common in Scotland. Caixinha has to find a way around these teams, and crossing just isn’t it.
Under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid play a 4-4-2. The width is provided by the full backs, as the four in midfield are very compact. While you can’t foresee Caixinha playing an identical style to the Spanish side, it would appear that a similar system plays to Rangers’ strengths.
Lee Wallace and James Tavernier were instrumental in bringing the Championship title to Ibrox in 2016. However, the step up in the league required better cover from their midfielders. Unfortunately this was not forthcoming.
Looking to the season ahead, central midfield is arguably Rangers strongest area of the park. Dorrans, Jack, Pena, Holt, Dalcio, Kranjcar, Rossiter and Windass are all central players. If Caixinha can coach them to play as a unit of four, then that would give the full-backs full license to push up the pitch.
In the Scottish Premiership last season, the going rate for most teams was a long ball every six passes. Goals were mostly scored through set pieces and counter attacks. Brendan Rodgers was able to take advantage of this by building a Celtic side well-structured in the buildup, and well equipped to deal with any possession turnover.
On the other hand, while aspects of Warburton’s buildup play were solid, a lack of tactical nous in the centre of the park saw too many goals shipped from fast counter attacks. This is why it’s crucial for Rangers to add that extra body to the midfield.
Furthermore, keeping three players high often tempted teams to sit deep. This caused Rangers problems finding space in behind defences. Moving an extra body further back may encourage teams to come out more.
You can bring either full-back up, so long as you leave one of the central midfielders (Jack) deeper to cover. You have the quantitative superiority in the centre of the park, so you can create chances through there. Finally, with the classic “little and large” partnership between Morelos and Herrera up top, you can rely on the Mexican to win flick-ons for his Colombian partner.
However, there is a notable weak point in this squad. At left back, there is no natural cover for Lee Wallace. Although Beerman filled in last season, the Maltese teenager is a natural right back. His positional awkwardness was perhaps most brutally exposed in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden where he was fortunate not to have been sent off in the opening 15 minutes.
Beerman is a very promising player. He’s direct, pacy and still just a teenager. Unfortunately, if he’s played on his weaker side, teams will be able to exploit that. Lee Wallace will turn 30 next month. While he may have a few years left in the tank, the captain has just recovered from a stomach operation that kept him out the team from April.
It is therefore logical that Rangers find a left back capable of pushing Wallace next season. Someone who could step into the captain’s shoes and show the same desire to push forward in case of injury/suspension.
Thanks to the Progres Niederkorn result, the 2017/18 domestic campaign will start with far more questions being asked of Pedro Caixinha than he would have liked. The calibre of signings he has brought in look solid overall. However, he must find a way to get them to gel tactically. Nevertheless, should they avoid the same scale of injuries incurred last season, all that is required is a left back to end up with a fairly robust squad.