On his competitive managerial debut, Steven Gerrard led Rangers to a 2-0 win over Shkupi…
Steven Gerrard is just nine games into his managerial career, but those nine games have been hugely influential in changing perceptions. When first appointed as Rangers boss, the general consensus was that the gamble taken by appointing him was as big as his name and playing reputation. Time would be required to judge whether he was a good manager, a bad manager, or something in between. Fortunately for Rangers, the early signs suggest he will fall into the ‘good’ category.
In nine games at the helm, Gerrard has won five times and drawn four. From those figures, keen mathematicians will be able to deduce that he is, as yet, undefeated. During this run, Rangers have jumped three Europa League qualification hurdles to reach the play-off round, where they take on Ufa for a place in the group stages. They also overcame Kilmarnock – one of their bogey teams last season – in impressively comfortable fashion to reach the League Cup quarter-finals. On top of that, the only thing separating them from maximum Premiership points is an injury time Aberdeen equaliser in a tough opener, away from home, in which they had 10 men for 80 minutes of the match.
It’s still too early to consider Rangers as genuine title challengers, even if Celtic are stuttering. But it’s not too early to state, with confidence, that Rangers are good again. Here’s why.
Rangers had no problem scoring goals last season; indeed they scored more than Celtic. What ultimately cost them was their goals against column, which was in the Premiership’s bottom six. One of the first tenets Gerrard seemed keen to install was to make Rangers more aggressive defensively, though lack of aggression wasn’t as serious an issue as a lack of basic organisation in 2017/18.
In certain games, Rangers were, if anything, overly aggressive, going man-to-man in advanced areas to disrupt their opponent’s build-up and leaving huge spaces behind in the process. This assertive, man-orientated approach has remained evident under Gerrard, though greater organisation has been implemented, resulting in five clean sheets and just four goals against.
Defensively, Rangers shape up in a 4-1-4-1 mid-block. They tend not to press the opposition’s first line of build-up, with lone striker Alfredo Morelos passively moving between opposing defenders in a bid to cut off passing lanes and force them wide. Both outer central midfielders – two of Lassana Coulibaly, Ovie Ejaria and Scott Arfield – move up to gain access to the opposing central midfielders so they can pressure them from behind should they receive possession, while the wingers – two of Jamie Murphy, Ryan Kent and Daniel Candeias – occupy the inside channels and look to discourage passes wide to the full-backs, who are then closed down if the ball reaches them.
The defensive midfielder – Ryan Jack, though Ross McCrorie has filled in when Jack has been unavailable – will then cover the space behind the central midfielders and wingers, ensuring gaps do not open up between the lines and moving laterally so as to remain in position to support the press.
Rangers’ pressing under Gerrard is man-orientated, though there is a greater focus than before on retaining compactness within their shape. The positioning of the four behind Morelos, as well as their collective shifting from side to side, not only ensures compactness, but that they have good access to the opposition’s second line of build-up. So, when opposing central defenders and goalkeepers play the ball to their slightly more advanced central midfield and full-back teammates, Rangers are able to quickly close down both the ball receiver in question and his nearest passing options.
On occasion, Gerrard’s Rangers have deployed an attacking press, applying pressure to the opposition’s first line of build-up in a bid to win the ball close to goal. They regularly do this from goal kicks when the opposing goalkeeper looks to pass out to his defenders. Rangers have also, occasionally, used intense, multi-directional counter-pressing as a means of winning possession back immediately after losing it.
While Rangers’ new defensive setup and pressing approach is a positive, there have been bumps in the road for Gerrard. At times he has had no other choice but to change his strategy, primarily due to red cards. Against Aberdeen and St Mirren in league action, Rangers had a player sent off in the first half – Morelos and McCrorie respectively. As a consequence, they were not quite able to press in the same areas and in the same ways as they normally would.
These testing situations have perhaps provided the clearest evidence of Gerrard’s tactical acuity yet. In both he managed to alter his team’s shape and – one last-gasp Aberdeen goal aside – keep the opposition at bay.
Following Morelos’ sending off against Aberdeen, Gerrard switched his defensive shape from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-3-2. Without a striker, he opted against making an instant substitution and simply instructed his wingers – Murphy and the since departed Josh Windass – to move infield and take up more central positions defensively. This decision helped Rangers to congest the centre of the pitch through sheer numbers, forcing Aberdeen wide. It also allowed them to press slightly higher than they would have been able to had they kept a 4-1-4 or 4-5-0 shape.
After McCrorie’s sending off at home to St Mirren, Gerrard instructed his side to sit deeper. Again, no instant substitution was made; rather, there was a simple change of setup and defensive focus. Rangers defended in a 4-4-1 mid-block, though they quickly transitioned to a vertically compact low block with everyone behind the ball, minimising the space available between their midfield and defensive lines. This was a more cautious approach than the one taken against Aberdeen, which perhaps was a recognition of St Mirren’s more incisive possession game.
Away to Maribor in their last Europa League qualifying fixture, Rangers found themselves struggling to deal with the Slovenian side’s wing play. The opposing full-backs were attacking the flanks, and the midfield three within the 4-3-2-1 shape Gerrard chose on the night were being stretched. In response to this, Gerrard added another player to the midfield line, switching to more of a 4-4-1-1. This move helped Rangers when shifting laterally and reduced the threat of being overloaded in wide areas.
In their away game against Shkupi in the first round of Europa League qualifying, Rangers went with a 4-2-3-1 attacking shape that saw Jack and McCrorie play together at the base of midfield. The duo worked well to create space for one another – one would move to drag their marker with them, while the other would exploit the space vacated to receive possession from the centre-backs, Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. As always, Jack demonstrated an acute positional awareness in build-up, which is why he has established himself as the team’s first-choice defensive midfielder.
Generally, Gerrard’s Rangers attack in a basic 4-3-3, though their build-up structure within this shape varies not only from game to game, but during individual games. It is common to see Jack take up a position between the centre-backs – in front of them or, at times, on the same line – creating a 3v2 or 3v1 that helps them to out-play the opposition’s first line of defence. One of the major benefits brought to the side by Goldson and Katic in this area is that they are both comfortable acting as the ‘free man’, carrying the ball forward to provoke pressure or finding teammates with accurate long-range passes.
The movements of the full-backs and central midfielders are not so easy to predict. At times, one or both of the central midfielders will drop deep in their nearest inside channel. From here they can receive possession from the centre-backs whilst also enabling the full-backs to advance down their flanks. Alternately, one of the central midfielders may look to move beyond the opponent’s midfield line while the other drops deep, opening up the possibility for penetrative diagonal through balls from the latter to the former.
In the League Cup win over Kilmarnock, Ejaria’s low positioning in the left inside channel caused problems for the opponent – he was positioned outside of their 4-4-2 defensive block and it was not easy to close him down. Had Kilmarnock’s right winger or right central midfielder moved up to pressure him, space would have been created in the middle third. At the same time, if and when one of the strikers moved sideways to close him down, space was created centrally. Furthermore, from this position Ejaria had decent access to the whole of the pitch.
Arguably the most eye-catching build-up structure Gerrard has used came at home to Maribor. On that night he had right-back James Tavernier take up an advanced position down the right flank, while left-back Jon Flanagan stayed deep and formed a three-man back line with Goldson and Katic. This asymmetrical shape not only gave extra stability as Rangers looked to play around their visitors’ two-man first line of defence, but it increased the threat on the right-hand side, with Tavernier immediately able to switch positions and combine with Candeias.
Last season, Rangers lacked structure when looking to build possession. As a result, they often completely lost their shape when attacking and conceded chance after chance from counter-attacks. Now, under Gerrard, they have a multitude of cohesive build-up strategies that allow them to progress out from the back safely and effectively.
Gerrard has made Rangers a much tougher team to defend against through the use of positional rotations between the full-backs, central midfielders and wingers. As mentioned previously, the central midfielders at times drop in the inside channels while the full-backs push up. Alternately, the full-backs can stay deep and the central midfielders can move wide while the wingers come inside, or the full-backs can attack the inside channels while the central midfielders stay deep and the wingers stay wide.
These rotations aid Rangers’ possession in a number of ways, helping them to progress through the thirds. The main aim of the movements is to shake off opposition marking and create space for the players involved so that they can receive the ball and continue the attack.
In his first game in charge, Gerrard curiously deployed Candeias as the right-sided central midfielder in his 4-3-3. Candeias, a natural winger, would drift out wide while the nominal winger, Windass, moved infield to attack the penalty box and get on the end of crosses. These movements also allowed Tavernier, the right-back, to attack the inside channel, an area he thrives in as it gives him a good position to whip in his exceptional crosses.
Since then similar movements have occurred frequently, though the emphasis is mostly on the wingers getting into more central positions between the lines. From this position they not only offer a line-breaking pass to their teammates to help Rangers play through – rather than around or over – their opposition, but they can also cause problems for the opposition back line, who must decide between staying in their line and giving the Rangers ‘wingers’ space, or moving up to close down the Rangers ‘wingers’ and leaving space behind that could be taken advantage of.
On top of the positional rotations between the full-backs, central midfielders and wingers, Morelos is a constant thorn with his own movement, often dropping deep when Rangers are in possession. Should his marker track him, space will be created behind for one of the wingers to run into; should his marker leave him, he can help to create numerical superiority in the middle third.
Gerrard has improved Rangers quite dramatically inside a nine-game span, though there have been some tactical teething problems. There are still occasional issues in build-up, one obvious example being new left-back Borna Barisic giving the ball away against St Mirren and enabling a counter-attack that led to McCrorie’s dismissal. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how Rangers handle playing out against more ambitious pressing sides.
Defensively there have also been difficulties, particularly in the home leg of the Europa League clash with Maribor. In that game, the man-marking in Rangers’ defensive line was frequently exploited by the opposition to create gaps for through balls in behind. In addition, it’s worth noting we don’t have a full picture of Gerrard’s defensive style yet due to the simple fact that in each of his two league games he has been forced to alter his approach due to red cards.
What is absolutely clear this season so far is that Rangers, as they prepare to face Ufa in a key Europa League clash, are a more organised force with and without the ball.