“Ladies & Gentleman, England will be playing 4-4-fucking-2”
(Mike Basset, England manager)
A line from possibly the best England Manager never to have won the World Cup, but its an interesting one as it shows how tactics & formation have evolved throughout the last 20 years.
Tactical formations are an obsession of all football fans. Even football fans who don’t like the way the football world is becoming more analytical and data driven. Everyone wants to talk tactics and formations, we constantly analyse whether we should play three men midfields or go back to the days of a big man/little man combo. We talk tactics without even really knowing we’re doing it.
A certain journalist once said ‘tactics are just shape & tempo’ which you can take whichever way you wish. For me, this is one of the most important parts of a game of football. The old adage that ‘good players win you games’ is no longer always true. Leicester winning the Premier League in 2016 showed that a strong tactical base perfectly suited to a group of players can create some extraordinary things. Feats that better players playing in poorer systems would not be capable of.
Football is becoming more scientific and with that, comes knowledge and power.
The 4-4-2 formation is considered obsolete in 2020 but as outlined in Michael Cox’s excellent book, “The Mixer”, this was the de facto formation widely prevalent in English football for several decades. It was only the introduction of the passback rule in 1992 (and the influx of foreign coaches/managers) that started to shape the next generation of tactical evolution. What we see now are an incredibly complex series of tactical formations which are heavily tailored to suit the individual needs of specific teams and players.
This article will aim to introduce the current Rangers tactical set up including a brief history of how this has evolved into its current state.
This will be the first in a series of articles in which I will aim to describe the main sections of the Rangers team, the roles required & their tactical function in much more detail.
- Centre Backs
- Full Backs
- Midfield 3
- Double #10’s
Lets take a look at the evolution of the Rangers formation over the last 12 months and identify key areas of strength and improvement.
Rangers 18/19 4-3-3
Under Steven Gerrard (& Michael Beale’s) tactical leadership, it’s widely acknowledged that Rangers play a 4-3-3 formation.
This was certainly the case for the majority of season 2018/19. Rangers relied heavily on width from two full backs and two wingers completely focused on providing ammunition to the Number 9, Alfredo Morelos.
I'm going to use three games (all against Hibs) to illustrate how the Rangers tactical shape has evolved in the last 12 months. The graphic below shows the average pass locations from the 0-0 draw away to Hibs in December ’18. A match Rangers dominated but could not find a cutting edge - a familiar story last season.
Hibs 0 - 0 Rangers, Dec ’18 from Wyscout
Full backs and wingers were tasked with staying wide to stretch play and provide the bulk of the creativity. Their role was primarily to get down the wing as quickly as possible and make something happen. With Borna Barisic & James Tavernier supporting Daniel Candeias and Ryan Kent/Glenn Middleton, it was clear that crossing was a big feature of our play.
The midfield three provided a solid if not outstanding base and performed a vital role in breaking up play and feeding the ball to the wide players. One criticism was that they were nowhere near as involved in the final third of the pitch as you would expect a central midfield to be.
Alfredo Morelos was Alfredo Morelos, a constant thorn in all opposition defenders side (sometimes taking on entire defences single handedly) whilst dropping into the right channel to link with Tavernier & Candeias. There was a tendency, however, for Morelos to become isolated and forced to try and feed off scraps (which he did very well in most cases). This role is possibly the only one within the team that hasn’t evolved hugely since summer 2018 but Morelos has developed significantly as a player and continues to grow into that role on the pitch.
The suspension Morelos incurred following the 2-1 loss to Celtic in March, meant that the management team were faced with a problem. Jermaine Defoe was the obvious replacement, but his skill set – other than their ruthless efficiency in front of goal – is completely different. Defoe has less of an impact in the build up, he isn’t someone you can hurl long balls at to make something happen, and he isn’t at his best with crosses rained into the box.
So the coaching staff had a conundrum – how do we get a higher level of support to the striker?
The 4-3-2-1 (Christmas Tree)
Not many teams use a 4-3-2-1 formation in modern football, commonly referred to as The Christmas Tree due to the shape when laid out on screen. The most obvious example would be Liverpool, with rampaging full backs and Mane/Salah acting as inside forwards, but the comparisons between this Rangers team and the current Liverpool team have been made many times and are now very well established. I will pick up these threads in later articles by means of comparison.
France's 1998 World Cup Winning squad also utilised a 4-3-2-1 formation, but this was built entirely around releasing Zinedine Zidane from any defensive responsibilities. Christian Karembeu, Emmanuel Petit & Didier Deschamps provided a solid midfield three with the primary function of protecting the defence but they were also given licence to roam forward as and when required. France only conceded 2 goals in their 7 games en route to lifting the trophy.
There is one other team from the recent(ish) past that pops into mind when you think of this formation. Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan team of the early 2000’s.
Ancelotti’s iteration was borne in slightly different circumstances to Rangers. Ancelotti wanted to get as many ball players in his starting line up as he possibly could, and as such he initially sacrified ALL width. Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Rino Gattuso formed the central midfield with Rui Costa and Kaka slotting in behind lone striker Andriy Shevchenko (or Pippo Inzaghi).
This was before the advent of full backs who primarily acted as auxiliary wingers - the 2003 Champions League winning team had Kaladze & Costacurta as their full backs so it was clear how happy they were to concede possession on the flanks. This proved to be an issue though - particularly in Europe - and a period of failure in this time prompted a rethink.
By their 2007 Champions League winning team they were still setting up in a 4-3-2-1 formation but their full back play had evolved completely with legendary attacking full back Cafu (backed up by Massimo Oddo) & Marek Jankulovski (a converted winger) providing their width from the full back areas.
Ancelotti was still obsessed with ball playing centre mids, but recognised the need for more defensive stability now he had such attacking full backs. Massimo Ambrosini joined Pirlo & Gattuso in central midfield to provide more defensively stablity in a midfield three which was not required to provide much in the way of attacking thrust, but would provide the necessary protection for both the centre halves and the attacking full backs. The addition of Ambrosini freed up Andrea Pirlo to an extent and allowed him to use his passing prowess to link midfield to attack.
Clarence Seedorf and Kaka formed the double number 10’s who were freed from defensive responsibility and encouraged to impact the game creatively as far up the pitch as possible in support of lone striker Pippo Inzaghi.
Rangers 2019 – 4-3-2-1
Back to present day Rangers, and from the first two games immediately following that loss to Celtic – 3-0 wins against Hearts & Motherwell – it was clear to see the plan.
The ‘wingers’ – Scott Arfield & Daniel Candeias in this instance – had their positions tweaked by both moving 10 yards into the pitch and becoming a pair of Number 10’s. The central midfielders were tweaked too, with Ryan Jack, Steven Davis & Glen Kamara playing regularly together as a midfield 3. Their role cannot be underestimated as they essentially created a solid line of three in midfield rather than a traditional defensive midfielder behind two box to box to box midfielders. This allowed them to cover the full backs forward runs by shuffling over laterally whilst also maintaining a strong defensive structure ahead of the centre halves (sound familiar?)
Scott Arfield scored 4 goals in these two games and would go on to notch another in the 2-0 win against Celtic in May. He scored 11 league goals for Rangers last season, 5 of which came in the last 6 games of this season, following the tactical shift. The plan had worked, Defoe was not isolated in the slightest, the two number 10’s provided support and linked the play well from an advanced area of the pitch. The full backs were still able to rampage forward at will in support due to the extra cover provided by a wider, flatter central midfield.
Rangers 1 - 0, Hibs May ’19 from Wyscout
As you can see above, in the space of a few short games Rangers 4-3-3 had morphed into a 4-3-2-1 formation primarily to get the best out of the players available at a certain point in time. Daniel Candeias (No. 21) and Eros Grezda (No.37) were now much narrower and higher up the pitch to support the striker. A key principle of creating a cohesive tactic is for it to be flexible - so you need to have the ability to tweak it to suit a number of different demands.
In my article for Modern Fitba last summer, I described ways that Rangers could go about resolving the issues experienced when trying to break down teams who defended in a low block.
What were the key things that needed to change?
“It’s important to have players who can outplay their opponent 1v1 and provoke the block to take on the first player. We work a lot on combination play, trying to cross early to put defenders under pressure. It comes down to a matter of taking chances and having moments of quality. There have been key games this season where we’ve encountered low blocks and done fantastically well taking chances.”
Michael Beale, Rangers First Team Coach
Well, taken straight from the man himself on a recent interview with Rangers TV, Michael Beale said the above so I think it’s clear what the intention was but has it been put into practice on the field?
The short answer is undeniably yes. The recent struggle against St Mirren aside, Rangers have performed very well this season when faced with teams who sit in and frustrate. This was clearly a key point for the management team to try and improve on this year. It’s an undeniable fact that a Rangers team playing in Scotland will play many many more games against teams who will pack defences and sit in so figuring out how to get the better of these teams was crucial going into this season.
Has this been successful?
Rangers picked up just 46 points from 57 available at home last season. This season - albeit in only 9 home games so far - Rangers have picked up 24 points from an available 27. If Rangers maintain their current pace over the second half of the season, we would finish with 5 more points at Ibrox having taken 51 points from 57.
Away from home this season, Rangers have performed even better, picking up 29 points from an available 33. Over the course of last season as a whole, Rangers only accumulated 32 points away from home. A major improvement and the manner of this also has to be very pleasing for the coaching team.Rangers 19/20 – 2-3-4-1
The 4-3-2-1 shape outlined above is Rangers default tactical shape when we are defending or out of possession.
This season, our attacking shape and cohesion has been significantly enhanced due to a number of reasons, but none more so than the introduction of some key players such as Alfredo Morelos (banned when the new shape was first introduced), (re)Borna Barisic (after a difficult first season) & Joe Aribo (signed from Charlton last summer)
When Rangers are in possession - i.e. in the attacking phase – our play has evolved to such an extent that we now actually play a 2-3-4-1 formation with Alfredo Morelos as the spearhead. Michael Cox's recent article on The Athletic describes how prevalent this formation has become in the Premier League and it’s clearly a concept that Rangers have also implemented in Scotland this season.
The Pyramid formation
The 2-3-4-1 (or 2-3-5) formation is actually a throwback to the Pyramid formation first used on these shores way back in the late 1800’s. It’s most successful iteration is arguably Uruguay, who used this en route to victory in the 1930 World Cup.
This formation was notable at the time for the balance it created between defensive and offensive play. The ‘full backs’ would mark the three forwards, whereas the three ‘half backs’ were tasked primarily with filling in gaps and marking opposing teams wingers – sound familiar?
This tactical shape became obsolete due to the offside law rule change in 1925 which first introduced the concept of ‘passive offside’. This also meant that for the first time, a player was only considered offside if two players (reduced from three) of the opposing team were in front of him. This caused a huge increase in the number of goals scored, therefore teams naturally moved to a more sound defensive base. This primarily consisted of 3 man defences, resulting in the birth of Herbert Chapman’s now legendary W-M formation.
Hibs 0 - 3 Rangers, Dec ’19 from Wyscout
The image above again shows the average pass locations from a game at Easter Road but this time it’s a lot more recent. December 2019 to be exact. As you can see, Rangers new 2-3-4-1 shape looks nearly identical to the Pyramid formation. The major differences to the present day iteration are the wingers and inside forwards. The wingers are now attacking full backs tasked with covering the entire length of the pitch whereas the inside forwards now start slightly deeper and are charged with dropping into the half spaces to try and cause maximum havoc.
Key tenets of Rangers 2-3-4-1
I have identified below what I believe are the key principles of Rangers 2-3-4-1 shape this season. As mentioned at the outset, I will expand on the roles and tactical functions in later articles but these principles will be referred to throughout:
- Strong in defence but retaining the capability to transition quickly to attack
- Flat three man midfield who offer support whilst sliding over to cover for full backs
- Full backs acting as playmakers (more on that later) to provide width and create overloads
- Combination play in wider areas of the pitch to create overloads
- Two number 10’s free of defensive responsibilities - they are not wingers and haven’t been since April last year. Gerrard is quite clear on this and reiterated this specifically in the Hearts pre-match press conference on 24th Jan.
- Alfredo Morelos (sometimes a player is more important than a tactical role!)
The next article in this series analyses at the Rangers centre backs and explain their role in both defensive & attacking phases of play and can be read here.