On his competitive managerial debut, Steven Gerrard led Rangers to a 2-0 win over Shkupi…
It has been claimed that 2-0 is arguably the most dangerous lead in football. There is some sense behind the idea. More than anything else, 2-0 presents a dilemma as psychological as it is tactical: Do you continue to attack, confident in the lead you have already established and risk leaving yourselves open, or do you defend what you already have and invite pressure?
These questions may have crossed Steven Gerrard’s mind as he led Rangers into their Europa League first qualifying round second leg match with FC Shkupi. Travelling to Macedonia with a 2-0 lead from the first leg, he had to assess whether it was worth continuing with the all-out aggression shown at Ibrox or implementing a more cautious approach to defend the lead. In the end, he went with the latter.
His decision was a sensible one. Rangers kept another clean sheet, rarely looking threatened on their way to a 0-0 draw and progressed to the next qualifying round. What needed to be done was done, and Gerrard’s tactics showcased an adaptability that few would have guessed existed on the basis of his bold pre-season assertions.
The most obvious switch was a simple change of system. Having lined his side up in a 4-1-4-1 shape for the home leg, Gerrard brought in a 4-2-3-1 here. With Scott Arfield out through injury, Ryan Jack took up a position alongside Ross McCrorie in central midfield. Daniel Candeias returned to his usual right wing berth, temporarily shelving his experimental right-sided central role, while Josh Windass was deployed on the left and Jamie Murphy moved inside to support Alfredo Morelos up front.
Defensively, Gerrard clearly asked for more restraint from his players on this occasion. Whereas at Ibrox they hunted the ball down at almost every opportunity and as early as possible, here they stood off a bit more, allowing Shkupi to build possession out from the back.
Setting up in 4-4-2 medium block – neither high nor low – their pressing was focused mainly on the opposition’s full-backs. Morelos and Murphy looked to block off the centre, forcing the opposing centre-backs to go wide. Then, once the ball went wide, the nearest Rangers winger, be it Candeias or Windass, shifted out to press the receiving full-back. Any pass into central midfield saw intense man-to-man pressure from McCrorie or Jack, both of whom stepped up when their opposite men had their backs to goal with the aim being to force a back-pass and prevent further progression.
This defensive display was more about containment as Gerrard, in a show of admirable practicality for a young coach, prioritised preventing opportunities over forcing errors. Not only did the side press in a more withdrawn area of the pitch and in a less ‘crash, bang, wallop’ manner, but they had the extra stability of Jack in central midfield alongside McCrorie.
The new double pivot helped Rangers in other ways, namely in building possession. Last week, McCrorie at times found himself blocked off by the Shkupi front two, meaning centre-backs Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic had to look for alternative passing options in wider areas. However, this time if McCrorie was marked Jack often had space to receive. The duo worked well together, particularly in the first half, taking up positions at different levels and moving in tandem to free up space for one another. Consequently, Rangers were able to progress possession through the centre more comfortably and more frequently.
However, there was a concerning lack of cohesion in possession in the second half as Rangers came under greater pressure from an increasingly desperate Shkupi side. While the Jack/McCrorie partnership helped them to play through the first line of opposition defence and the Candeias/James Tavernier right wing relationship continued to work well, there was an overarching lack of combination play and forethought throughout the team’s passing. Mistakes were made, wayward balls went out of play, and anxiety crept in.
This is a worry for Rangers, who lost many a point last season due to their inability to break down dogged deep defences without completely losing their own structure in the process. For all the talk of a more aggressive defensive side, there remains a clear need for offensive improvement. They are going to dominate possession against most of their domestic opposition – they need to know how to use that possession.
The good news is that Gerrard took no time at all to identify this problem, bringing on Ovie Ejaria for Candeias in the last 20 minutes to add another central presence. Ejaria, who recently joined on loan from Liverpool, came deep to offer a third option in build-up whenever Jack and McCrorie were covered, and he also pushed on to offer an option between the lines when Rangers looked to move the ball through the thirds.
Afterwards, Gerrard pulled no punches when analysing the way his side attacked. “I’m disappointed with us in possession for the first 30 minutes. I don’t think we passed the ball well enough,” he said. “We will get better on the ball and we will improve in the final third.”
That statement of intent should be as pleasing to Rangers fans as the result. Not only are they through to the Europa League second qualifying round, but their manager has already identified his biggest problem and vowed to solve it. Progress has been made, and more may be on the horizon.