It's 'attack, attack, attack!' 'It's the most exciting football we've ever seen at the club. We used to get caught on the break at times, but that's the style of football -- score more goals than the opposition'.
Such was the testimony of Brentford fans when curious bears asked, "what's he like?" At the time it was exactly what we wanted to hear. After several years of slow, ponderous, route-one football of the McCoist era, it was time for something more progressive, more proactive -- something more fitting, in the world of tiki-taka.
But, the honeymoon ended. The 3-1 defeat to St Johnstone was as comprehensive a defeat as we'd seen since Warburton and Davie Weir entered the hallowed halls of Ibrox. There were rumblings among the support that, perhaps, Warburton's "attack, attack, attack" philosophy was too naive for a title-chasing team. After all, the gaffer's continued refrain is 'plan B is to do plan A better'. It's admirable, but does it lack the pragmatism required to win titles?
The perception from these rumblings is that Warburton is too stubborn in his approach; too unwilling to change when change is required. This is not strictly true. Sure, his philosophy is proactive, concerned with dominating possession and taking the game to the opposition. But within this framework, within which this philosophy is executed, he has demonstrated an ability to tinker with his formations.
In his first season with Brentford in League One, Warburton chose an offensive 4-3-3 formation. This formation featured two adventurous number 8's, two aggressive wingers who always looked to stretch the play, and a roaming centre-forward. It was an aggressive approach that sought to dominate games, and achieve promotion. This equates nicely with our own approach this past season: an aggressive approach that sought to achieve promotion. For all it's defensive flaws, it worked.
When it came to Brentford's Championship season, Warburton tinkered; trying 4-1-4-1 and a defensive 4-3-3. Eventually, he settled on a 4-2-3-1. Of course, Warburton is never going to deviate from his favoured style -- attack, attack, attack! -- but by adopting a slightly different shape he added defensive stability. The proof is in the pudding, and a play-off spot in what is an extremely competitive league would suggest it was an unmitigated success. From a Rangers point of view, it may be likely that, as we make the step up to the Premiership, we will see the more defensively stable 4-2-3-1 being adopted as our default formation.
It's clear that Warburton's chosen formations are all variations on the same 4-3-3. The 4-1-4-1 just has deeper wingers, and the 4-2-3-1 has two number 6's instead of one. In many ways not a lot changes: He still likes three attackers in the final third, the fullbacks will always push on, and there will always be a three-man midfield. But in other ways, it is quite different.
In the middle -- whether that's a 1-2 (as in the 4-3-3) or a 2-1 (as in the 4-2-3-1) -- logically, the roles of the midfield trio are completely different. That is because the triangles are different, the zones in which the midfielders operate are different, and the transitions, from defense to attack, are different.
The 4-3-3 transitions, from back to front, into a 2-3-2-3 shape -- we see this at Rangers, with the Fullbacks pushing on to appear in-line with Ball, with Holt and Halliday in front, and then we have the 3 up top -- which eventually transitions into a 3-4-3 shape when the team is ready to attack the final third -- Ball staying back, with the Fullbacks creating a 4 in midfield with Halliday and Holt. The 4-2-3-1 in contrast transitions, from back to front, from a 4-4-1-1 to eventually end up in a 2-4-4 attacking shape.
The way in which the general framework moves in transitions has an influence on the midfield triangles. In the 4-3-3, the 2 in the 1-2 midfield shape are playmakers (Halliday and Holt), while the Wingers move in-field and the Fullbacks push on to provide width. The 1, the DM, will stay back to provide a solid defensive unit. In the 4-2-3-1, the double pivot are required to stay back and provide the defensive stability, while the Number 10, Wingers and Fullbacks push forward.
Because there are 2 pivots, they will tend to have 2 distinct roles: one will be the ball-winner, holding his position and providing the base for the rest of the team; while another will be the ball-player, responsible for dictating play and pulling the strings from deep. The double pivot that epitomised this distinction was Alonso and Mascherano at Liverpool. While Mascherano would tenaciously hunt and regain the ball, Alonso (still playing deep) would dictate play, pinging balls every which way. Another would be Gattuso and Pirlo in the Milan side of the early 00's. One is the ball-winner, the other the ball-player.
Moreover, the advanced playmaker -- the 1 in the 2-1 shape -- will have more license to get into the box. To use the Liverpool example, Gerard epitomised this role. He starts deeper (from between the lines) but he is always looking to either work the channels and free space for the main striker, or burst into the box himself if the striker starts to drift out wide. Not just an advanced playmaker, but almost a second-striker.
Rangers signings thus far have hinted at this shift in both shape and roles. Joey Barton has been the 'marquee' signing for Rangers, and his role for Burnley fits seamlessly into the 4-2-3-1. Barton is tenacious, gutsy and an excellent tackler and reader of the game. It is quite easy to see him in the role of the ball-winner at Rangers. The fact that he can also play the ball-player role too is good news for Rangers.
The other signing thus far also fit into this shape. Jordan Rossiter is a player that plays deep, again a decent ball-winner, but is also a crisp and accurate passer of the ball. Again, we have another player that can play both roles. Matt Crooks, while not being the ball-player, can easily fit into the ball-winner role. Warburton has shown a preference for fluidity and versatility. Therefore, it makes sense for him to target players that can play in a certain system (4-2-3-1), while also being able to play a variety of roles within it.
Again, the signing of Josh Windass fits into this different advanced-playmaker role described above. Despite being defined as a Number 10, he has played as a striker for Accrington Stanley, as well as on the wing. He is a versatile player, but it is easy to imagine Windass in the advanced-playmaker role, bursting from in-between the lines to cause danger in the box. It also helps that we already have a player in Jason Holt that is tailor-made for this role too.
Plan B will always be to do plan A better. Warburton will always want to see his teams dominate the football with a possession-based, attacking style. But that doesn't mean he can't, or won't, change. At Brentford, despite continuing with the attacking style, he demonstrated that he can change the framework, or shape, within which this style is executed. By shifting to a 4-2-3-1, he added defensive stability to a attacking style for his first campaign in the English Championship. Rangers' signings thus far (Barton, Rossiter, Crooks and Windass) hint at the possibility of this change happening again. Attacking aggressively when you can dominate, but adding that defensive stability when it is required.
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