Rangers haven’t just strengthened their squad this January, they’ve completely rebuilt it. The revamp project…
Saturday’s defeat to Kilmarnock was a surprise to some Rangers fans and in many cases a perfect example of the limitations of Graeme Murty’s role as head coach of the club. Against a typically impressive Steve Clarke side, Rangers were forced to succumb to their seventh home defeat in the Scottish Premiership this season.
Yet, this wasn’t a snatch and grab from the travelling Kilmarnock side. Although Rangers hit the woodwork late on and had multiple chances throughout the match, it was a well-contested affair in which Kilmarnock actually enjoyed five shots on target – two more than Rangers.
Indeed, as Celtic happily pointed out just six days prior, Rangers aren’t nearly as defensively sound as they perhaps should be. And although a recent injury to the impressive David Bates may have played a part in that there’s also undoubtedly a notable hole in the middle of the park.
The Ibrox side have had to contend with numerous midfield injuries over the course of this season. Graham Dorrans hasn’t played a game for his new club since late October, Ryan Jack picked up a knee injury just before the New Year and Ross McCrorie has been sidelined since the side’s mid-season break.
Murty and more specifically his director of football, Mark Allen, have done a reasonable job of making up for such holes in the side with the loan signing of Sean Goss and the permanent signature of Greg Docherty. And with notable success, both young players have settled in relatively quickly and formed a useful partnership at the heart of Rangers’ midfield.
However, neither half of Murty’s new midfield duo is a defensive midfielder and although Docherty and Goss have been put to good use against the likes of Partick Thistle and Hamilton a shunning of defensive duties has caused problems in recent weeks.
When we look at the data this becomes quite apparent.
The graph above shows the average defensive actions per 90 minutes for the four central midfielders in question this season, including Jason Holt. And as we can see there are some notable contrasts between the amount of defensive work Murty’s current midfield duo are doing on the pitch and how much the men they replaced were doing before they were injured.
Similarly, when we then look at the next tab which shows how often those actions are successful – i.e when an attempted tackle, header or interception is made – we can see that McCrorie and Jack are far better at actually winning such duels. Although a seven percent swing between McCrorie and Goss may not seem like much it means the difference between a player winning the ball back once every five times and once every three times. And over the course of 90 minutes of football, such numbers can begin to stack up.
When we narrow in on tackling in the middle of the pitch we get an even clearer idea of the lack of defensive work being done in the Rangers midfield right now. As we can see in the graph below, when it comes to tackles made per 90 minutes McCrorie and Jack are once again in front, while Goss and Docherty lag behind.
In fact, it’s worth noting here that Docherty only attempts 0.13 tackles on average per game. A figure that stands out, even more, when you consider that up until January he was playing for a relatively combative Hamilton side that had to do their fair share of defensive work.
When we flip the tab to look at each player’s percentage success rate we see that while McCrorie then falls behind Holt and Goss the former Aberdeen midfield maestro, Jack, is essentially in a league of his own here. So not only do Jack and McCrorie tend to make a lot more tackles than Murty’s preferred midfield partnership but Jack, in particular, is far better at winning such actions than just about any of the Rangers midfield.
Although this specific aspect of Rangers’ game hasn’t perhaps been the most obvious fault in Murty’s team – everyone still seems intent on rattling on about Alfredo Morelos or Jason Cummings – it is a more subtle problem that came to the fore against both Celtic and Kilmarnock.
As the post-split fixtures against the Scottish Premiership’s top five sides approach – as well as a semi-final clash with Brendan Rodgers’ team – now may be as good a time as any to fix any holes in Rangers’ defensive play.
A short-term fix may be available in the reintroduction of Holt. The bit-part captain hasn’t started a game under Murty since early February but is clearly more defensive than either Docherty or Goss. However, it seems clear that if Rangers want to regain their bite in midfield they may need to wait around for either Jack or McCrorie to return from injury.