Lee Wallace: Captain Fantastic

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Following on from the excellent Gersnet article on Lee Wallace earlier this month, I thought it would be appropriate to add to it with an overview of the tactical progress our captain has made over the past few years. Bought as a rampaging full-back, Lee Wallace has transformed himself into a Guardiola-esque full-back, demonstrating a tactical awareness all too lacking in the Scottish game. The thoughtful full-back arrived on the cusp of our demotion, and had to show loyalty and determination at a time of great adversity.

The young Wallace was born in Edinburgh in 1987, and like many youngsters, he would gravitate towards football. Showing promise, he eventually made his way through the Hearts Youth Academy, making his first-team début at 17. The Hearts Academy has been relatively successful over the past decade or so, churning out talented youngsters who would go on to play at a decent level. Early on he was showing the raw running ability that would become his trademark, when in 2006 he would score his first goal for Hearts in the Scottish Cup by running a full 70-yards to stroke the ball into the net.

It was this powerful running game that brought the 23 year-old to the attention of Ally McCoist's Rangers in 2011. Tactically lacking, McCoist always would prefer the powerful, athletic footballers over the next few years; the rampaging full-back fit the bill perfectly. Signed for £1.5m, Wallace would face strong competition at left-back, with stand-out Sasa Papac ahead in the pecking-order. He was not put-off however, saying "I'll be working hard [...] to push my way into the team and capture the success". Wallace was aware of the challenge, and was only looking forward to learning: "These are top players [...] I can learn from. Training with these players every day can only benefit me and that's what I'm looking for. I'll certainly be working hard to try to progress into the team".

Unfortunately for Wallace, this would be the highest level he would play at for quite some time, as Rangers were unceremoniously demoted by the SFA, who hypocritically cited "sporting integrity". He could easily have left along with the other first-team players -- the ones he so looked forward to learning from -- but chose to stay faithful to the club; one of only three first-team players that did so. The full-back would devote himself to regaining Rangers' rightful place at the top of Scottish Football, and looked to improve himself as a footballer. (It seems many of the deserters could have learned something from him...)

To become a more complete player, the relatively young Wallace would put himself through his coaching badges. Keen on Frank De Boer, he did his thesis on Ajax, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, looking to understand their philosophy and way of playing. He unashamedly describes himself as a "geek" in these matters, stating he is "relentless [and] borderline insane when it comes to studying and research". His first choice subject for his thesis was Barcelona, but a friend got there first, so he had to settle for doing a little personal work on them, reading several books on Guardiola. Wallace is never happier than when studying team formations and philosophies, which can only stand himself and Rangers in good stead for the future -- the only negative being he was willing to give such analysis to Neil Lennon's Celtic in preparation for their defeat against Ajax!

Displaying loyalty, tactical awareness and a desire for self-improvement, Wallace was named captain by Mark Warburton. Following in the footsteps of greats like Greig, Butcher and Gough, Wallace would wear the armband with pride, leading in his own way. Never a 'ranter and raver', Wallace looked to bring an air of calm to a distressed dressing room, seeking to lead by example. In the modern-era, an understanding of the teams philosophy is key; Wallace seeks to lead by demonstrating this understanding, ensuring Rangers lead the way, suggesting "[the] other teams should be watching us".

Signed for his qualities as a rampaging full-back, a mid-season 'crisis' brought a halt to this 'to-hell-with-the-consequences' running game. After a series of disappointing results where too many goals and points were conceded, Warburton sought to tighten up the defence, admitting that Rangers were a little too gung-ho. As a result, the full-backs were more disciplined in their positioning. It is testament to his tactical awareness that Wallace can adapt to a more disciplined game, whilst still providing a strong attacking threat. A subtle positional shift by Warburton has allowed Wallace to utilise this running game in a new way.

As in chess, the centre is the main zone; control the centre of the pitch, you control the game. The reason for this is quite simple: the choices are greater in the middle of the pitch. Theoretically, if a player has the ball on the wing he is restricted by the touchline into only having a 180-degree view of the game. Whereas a player in the centre theoretically has a 360-degree view of the game. Simple maths.

Of course, receiving the ball in the middle is difficult because there are more defenders to block the way to goal; loosing the ball in the centre is also often more dangerous. Wing-play is the opposite. A player receives the ball with less pressure, with only a full-back to press him. The danger of loosing the ball out wide is less dangerous because you have your defensive players set up centrally.

Half-spaces provide the best of both worlds. The half-spaces are the channels, the space in between the centre column and flank. By taking up positions in the half-spaces, a player can simultaneously occupy a more central position, therefore having a greater view of the game in front of him, and move away from the more congested central defensive zone.

This also opens-up the diagonal pass. A typical defensive position will see a 4-4-2 zonal defence. If the attacking team move to the right flank, the defensive team shuffles across. If the attacking team move the ball to the centre, the defensive team tightens-up. Moving the ball horizontally gains little territory, but forces the defensive team to move alongside; vertical passes gain a lot of territory, but the defensive team merely has to drop deeper. By occupying the half-spaces, a player can open up diagonal passes (both short and long) to gain territory, which in turn forces the opposition into more complex moves, both horizontal and back.

It is with these ideas that Guardiola has tuned his full-backs to target the half-space. Bayern Munich's Bernat, Lahm and Alaba will start at full-back, but instead of drifting wide, they will drift inside to take the half-space. This has the effect of freeing space for the natural winger, dominating the centre of the pitch and providing more diagonal passes. Lahm has made this position his own.

Over the last few games Wallace has incorporated this tactical awareness into his game, taking up position in the half-space. A typically Scottish response to this change in position was "Lahm eat your heart out". By doing so, Wallace allows Rangers to dominate the centre, strengthen the middle column against any counter-attack and provide more passing options for our possession game. Moreover, his running power is used more centrally within the half-spaces, providing a difficult defensive task for any defence: do you man-mark leaving the gaps for Holt and Miller to exploit? Or do you play zonal and allow him to penetrate directly through your defence?

The club, bereft of many of our recent stars after 2012, has in many ways found a better one; one that espouses all the qualities of a modern, tactically proficient player with the grit and determination to develop, and to always look to the future. Wallace's raw running ability steered his game towards that of a rampaging full-back, but his self-confessed 'geekiness' and constant need for self-improvement has seen him develop into a cultured, Guardiola-esque full-back, demonstrating a tactical awareness all too lacking in the Scottish game. His loyalty and understanding in the face of great adversity for our club has endeared him to many. The thoughtful Captain, leading by example, is a modern-day full-back.

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