to the Scottish Premiership
For Rangers and Hibernian fans the 2018/19 season began today. Forget your summer holidays, forget…
On his competitive managerial debut, Steven Gerrard led Rangers to a 2-0 win over Shkupi in Europa League qualifying. However, while the result was good, the performance was slightly underwhelming. Expectations are high at Ibrox, and patience is in short supply. Fans were hungry for immediate improvement to be shown, but Gerrard’s side laboured at times in their opening game of the campaign.
The lack of cohesion is understandable given the scale of the task at hand and the quantity of new players that have come through the door of late: this rebuilding job was always likely to take months, not weeks, to complete. And, while he works to implement his ideas, Gerrard needs positive results to restore positivity and gain momentum. With this in mind, his first game at the helm was more about the scoreline than anything else. So Rangers underwhelmed, but they did win. For now, that will do.
Lining his players up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, Gerrard’s emphasis on making his side a more aggressive outfit was evident from the very beginning. Defensively, Rangers looked to press high. Alfredo Morelos led from the front, while wingers Josh Windass and Jamie Murphy tucked in to form a narrow front three and discourage passes out to the opposition full-backs. Central midfielders Daniel Candeias and Scott Arfield both pushed up to support the press, while Ross McCrorie, operating as a No.6, generally covered from behind.
The pressing was intense and man-oriented, while the back four were compact and looked to take up a high line just beneath halfway. This concoction created some discomfort for the visitors as they tried to build out from the back, forcing them into the occasional panicked long ball and helping Rangers to establish control of the game.
Gerrard has also, on this evidence, already instilled a more aggressive approach in defensive transitions, as his side looked to win the ball back as quickly as possible after losing it, swarming their opposition in numbers in order to do so.
Sometimes, however, Rangers overextended themselves in their pressing game, leaving gaps for Shkupi to play through. While McCrorie covered well for the most part, the tendency he has to follow his man into wider areas is something that must be stamped out. With his midfield teammates moving up, he must focus on covering the central zone; if he wanders, the back four will have no protection, and opponents will play through Rangers’ midfield line. For all the haranguing and harrying, positioning will be equally important if Rangers are to become a more solid proposition this term.
In possession, there are signs that the 20-year-old McCrorie is maturing into his more natural defensive midfield role. In the pre-match build-up Gerrard spoke of the dangers associated with having such a young player playing out of position at centre-back, so such experimentation is unlikely to happen again. On this particular occasion, he played in front of a central defensive duet of Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic, creating three-versus-two situations against the opposition front two and offering a line-breaking passing option during build-up.
Much of Rangers’ attacking game was based around a rather peculiar right-sided dynamic. Candeias, who thrived as a winger last season, was asked to play on the right of the central midfield three. To his right, Windass, who has looked at his best when playing as a second striker, started on the wing, with support coming from right-back and new club captain James Tavernier.
This trio combined nicely while on the pitch together, rotating positions to ‘dis-mark’ themselves and create space for one another. Windass made some clever inside runs to support Morelos in the penalty box, while Tavernier was arguably Rangers’ most creative player, storming forward in the right inside channel and supplying accurate cross after accurate cross. Unsurprisingly, he set up the opening goal, finding Murphy after a lung-bursting run on the counter-attack.
The overlapping and underlapping runs and positional rotations of the right-hand side were not so evident on the left, however. Murphy, playing on the left wing, was joined on that side by another right-footer in Jon Flanagan. While both played well individually, their natural inclination to cut inside made it difficult to stretch the Shkupi back line, something that would have been helpful given the Macedonian’s proclivity for congesting the centre.
But Gerrard showed some adaptability to rectify this situation, bringing on Glenn Middleton for Windass on 79 minutes in the hunt for a vital, potentially tie-killing second goal. The 18-year old brought greater mobility and directness on the left as Murphy was switched to the right, constantly dribbling at his opposite man and attempting to hit the by-line and cut back rather than drift inside towards a packed centre.
While his side’s aggressive defending helped them keep a clean sheet, one issue Gerrard will have to iron out in the near future will be his team’s attacking structure. If they are to avoid embarrassing domestic defeats, there must be a clearer plan in place for breaking through low defensive blocks. A start would be to have the full-backs pushing higher earlier on in build-up; at times here they remained deep – as circled above – offering unnecessary additional security against a passive Shkupi front two. Were they to take up higher positions and provide real width, Rangers’ nominal wingers could then come inside and offer more passing options between the lines.
Gerrard can be pleased with his team’s work ethic and aggression without the ball. And while the overall attacking play needs improvement, the movements down the right-hand side were promising. So too were some of the individual displays, particularly that of Katic, who showcased the aerial dominance Niall Murray wrote about in this article and offered a consistent threat from attacking set pieces.
Rangers remain a work in progress but, thanks to a late penalty converted by Tavernier to make it 2-0, they kicked off the Gerrard era with an all-important positive result.