An Analysis Of Our Defensive Frailties

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There has been many superlatives bandied about when the Rangers defense is discussed: 'terrible', 'bomb-scare', 'lightweight', and even the more blunt but nonetheless correct, 's****'. There is a perception that our offensive philosophy leaves us exposed at the back, most commonly on the counter; add to that poor organisation in certain situations, namely corners, one gets a good impression of our defensive frailties. It has been the most prominent flaw, in what has been a stellar start to Warburton's reign.

However, the facts suggest that this is not entirely true; while we do get caught on the counter, we're generally not punished as much as one would expect. In our run to the Scottish Cup final, where we arguably faced our biggest tests, we conceded a total of 7 goals in 6 games. The breakdown of goals conceded makes for interesting, if not too surprising, reading:

Corners - 3
Midfield Penetration - 2
Free-kick - 1
Long-Ball - 1
Counter-Attack - 0

Over the 6 games, no goals were conceded from counter-attacks, contrary to the general perception. The Free-kick (conceded against Cowdenbeath) can be marked down as a fluke, or a moment of skill if you're that way inclined. Our biggest problems came from Corners and Midfield Penetration (where we are in our defensive structure, but the opposition have managed to get through it).

The first instance of Midfield Penetration came against Celtic in the Semi-Final. The image above shows an approximation of player positions in the build-up to the goal. Rangers line-up in a 4-3-3, with Celtic in their normal 4-2-3-1. The Rangers 'back-four' were set up zonally -- Tavernier taking a 'benny', aside -- with the midfield taking up man-to-man positions: Wallace, Wilson, Kiernan are lined-up well, structurally, with Tavernier pushing out to close the ball-player, before the ball is passed wide to the LB; Halliday, Zelalem, Holt and McKay are tight-ish to their men, with Law (playing RW, after coming on for Shiels) closing down the LB.

Tavernier is out of position, but ironically gets back in time to potentially cover the attack. The Celtic LB, Tierney, runs past Law and Tavernier, beating them one-on-one -- or, embarrassingly, one-on-two -- and cuts the ball back. Halliday doesn't keep tight to his man, Rogic (AM), and the Australian is left open to slot the ball into the net. The issue is poor man-to-man marking and a lack of concentration.

The second instance of Midfield Penetration was against Hibs in the Final. The image above shows an approximation of player positions in the build-up to the goal. Hibs lined-up with a 3-5-2, with Rangers in the usual 4-3-3. Again, the Rangers 'back-four' line-up zonally, with the midfielders taking up man-to-man positions: again, Wallace, Wilson and Kiernan are solid, structurally, with Tavernier pushing forward to man-mark the LCM (McGinn); Halliday, Zelalem and Holt are very tight to their men.

From this throw-in, the Hibs LWB is able to lob a ball to the LCM, who is relatively open as Tavernier is not close enough -- Waghorn is expected to mark the LWB in this instance, but could cover. Again, ironically, Tavernier still gets close enough to snuff out an attack when the LCM receives the ball, but both he and Halliday (who leaves his man) fail to win the ball. From this scrappy situation the ball finds it's way to Stokes (LF) on the left. With Tavernier covering the LCM, Kiernan covers Stokes. Unfortunately, Kiernan doesn't make a tackle, or keep him wide, but allows Stokes to run into the box, scoring a silly goal. Again, the issue is poor man-to-man marking and poor concentration/decision-making.

The man-marking from the midfield and Wide-Forwards (the pressing game) works well as it allows us to cover/mark all the potential passing options, and creates the potential to steal the ball. It also forces opponents into mistakes, and allows a greater chance of Rangers recovering the ball -- of course, it requires good execution.

There was one instance of a Long-Ball. During the Kilmarnock game, a long ball was lumped up-field by their Goalkeeper, and a 50/50 aerial duel is not won properly by Wilson; the ball falls to McKenzie in-behind our midfield, and he proceeds to utilise the space by curling the ball into the net. Physicality in the air to win aerial duels, and defensive organisation to cover when we don't, is needed in this situation.

These issues are even more prevalent at corners. Three goals were conceded at corners over the 6 matches; one against Celtic and the other two against Hibs in the Final. A inability to track runners, and failures to win aerial battles when we do, have allowed opponents back into games when they have not even had a sniff of ball.

We've long been crying out for defensive acquisitions, both to add competition to a thread-bare defense -- no cover at full-back was a real issue throughout -- and to add quality. The names of potential targets and players signed thus far (Joey Barton and Jordan Rossiter aside) have been met with ambivalence, and downright scorn. But, it can be argued that our defensive targets are perfectly suited to solving many of the defensive frailties laid bare last season.

The issues outlined in the examples above are: a failure to man-mark effectively, a lack of concentration, an inability to track runners consistently, a failure to win our fair share of aerial duels and a lack of defensive organisation. These issues will only get more pronounced in the Premiership if they are not corrected.

Right away, the acquisition of Barton solves many of those problems. Will Barton lose many man-marking situations? No. Will he allow others to shirk responsibility and lose concentration? No. Will he lose an aerial duel? No. He's not going to win every one-on-one or aerial duel, but it appears Barton will go a long way to solving most of these these issues; most importantly, it looks like he will take charge of any organisational duties.

Even the more "disappointing" acquisition, Clint Hill, looks to strengthening our defensive frailties. At 37 he comes with bags of experience, and is strong in the air. His age may be a issue, but he has been a consistent performer at Premier League and Championship level. Again, he doesn't look likely to lose aerial battles, nor does it look like he'll shirk responsibility at corners etc.. We have two leaders, which can only be a good thing for our younger, more inexperienced players.

Even Oguchi Onyewu potentially solves our problems. A name that few are excited about, but he could do a job. At 6ft 4ins, he's not going to lose many aerial duels, and at 34 he has bags of experience. It is unlikely that Warburton would ever (hypothetically, for Onyewu has not signed and it's not known if he will) line up with Hill and Onyewu, as he likes a ball-playing centre-back; from that, it's easy to imagine them coming in and out of the team, easing themselves, and us, through the long, hard season. If they can be purchased on favourable deals, then they can surely play their part?

Our defensive frailties are clear for all to see: defensively unorganised at times, a lack concentration and an inability to win the majority of aerial duels. While it's easy to be dismissive of some of our signings thus far, or any potential signings, it is clear that Warburton knows what he needs to improve in our team. It's easy to forget that our team is still very young, with the majority under 25; even one of our most experienced players, Wallace, is only 28. Barton and Hill bring experience and leadership, qualities that will go a long way to solving our defensive frailties.

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