DUMFRIES - Palmerston Park is an old-fashioned ground, tight and intimate, from the standing area to the wooden stand façade and little clock; residential buildings nearby loom large over the low terraces. The Rangers fans were packed like sardines tightly together in the standing area, wrapped in their blue scarves and tammies on this pitch-black, cloudless night. The pitch is a thing of wonder; it is like a bowling green, pristine and well-defined. Artificial surfaces get a bad press but many have commented on the 3G surface at Palmerston as being "a lovely playing surface;" at least we weren't going to get bobbles.
Rangers lined up with a standard 4-4-2. Bell had a muscle strain so the diminutive Robinson deputised; Mohsni replaced a suspended McCulloch in defense; and Templeton replaced Shiels. It was a flat-back-four of McGregor, Zaliukus, Mohsni and Wallace; Law and Murdoch placed central midfield, flanked by Templeton on the left and Vuckic on the right; Miller and Clark led the lines.
Queen of the South lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, but it was more like a 5-3-2 with the Wing-backs rarely getting forward. They are known for being a hard-working and energetic side with lots of pacey players, and in previous games were comfortable sitting back and countering with pace.
Initially I saw a problem in central midfield: we would be outnumbered 3v2 so we would need to be sharp on the ball and get it wide quickly.
Rangers started well, passing it around comfortably. It was clear we would have the majority of possession with QotS happy to soak up pressure and counter when they got the chance. We tried to get it wide to our wingers, but QotS's Wing-backs and Wide-centre-midfielders doubled-up quickly; When Vuckic got the ball -- which was rarely -- he has ushered wide to prevent him getting on his strong left-foot; Templeton received the ball often early on but cut inside on too many occasions and couldn't deliver a good cross or find the target, or he was robbed.
With no penetration on the flanks we resorted to the much maligned long-ball. At first there seemed some method to the madness as it looked like we were trying a pre-planned long-diagonal. Alas to no avail. For me, to start with Clark precludes playing those long-balls; he is too slight and small to win headers. The same goes for Miller who can't hold-up the ball. Their strength is their running game, but they never got in behind; mainly because our midfielder never got time on the ball in the centre because they were outnumbered.
QotS rarely threatened, but on the one occasion they did, they scored. A simple long ball was launched over the top on the right-hand-side and Wallace got in front of the attacker but was pushed to the ground (illegally in my view, but he was easily pushed) and the ball was squared and bobbled up nicely for veteran Derek Lyle to half-volley it into the opposite side of the net to a thunderous roar from the home fans. 1-0.
Nothing changed; it was the same pattern of Rangers dominating the ball but with no penetration. The fans were still pretty confident going into the second-half, but not 19 seconds in that bubble was burst. QotS broke down the left and whipped in a ground-cross in behind the defence where the unmarked Kidd fired a tame shot across goal; it was going wide until an off-balance Wallace couldn't adjust his feet and scuffed it into his own net. 2-0.
This is when the Rangers players lost it mentally. Their heads went down under the realisation that they weren't going to win this game; 1-0 is fine, but 2-0 is near impossible with no real chances created apart from a Clark header that went wide in the first-half. Mohsni summed it up by trying to get us back into the game by forcing difficult passes and getting wound-up by the crowd and punching the ground in frustration to loud cheers from the home fans. He deserves credit for trying and he showed what winning means to him; it's a good trait, but he must learn to ignore the crowd. The team retreated into the same long-ball game that had no chance of succeeding.
QotS continued to press and got their reward when substitute Crawford dawdled on the ball and lost it; a quick 1-2 allowed Reilly a one-on-one chance and he calmly slotted it low into the inside of the near post. 3-0.
All the substitutions were man-for-man with no change to the formation, so nothing was going to change. Boyd came on and looked like he could hold up the ball better than Clark and Miller, and he did win a fair share of flick-ons, but his poor first touch let him down on too many occasions. He did get some space when a nice deep cross found him at the back post, but his header was too central and the 'keeper tipped it over the bar. Apart from a looping Miller header earlier on in the second half, Boyd's header was the only real chance. I think Boyd should have started, if we were going to play the long-balls, he'd certainly have fared better than Clark and Miller in that respect.
What a fickle and capricious mind the Rangers fan possesses. A few months ago we were at our lowest ebb, pessimistic about getting promotion and complaining that the players had no redeeming qualities and they must get put down. The last few weeks saw a complete reversal after two impressive wins over nearest rivals Hibs and then Champions Hearts, who by all accounts have strolled to this title with barely a whisper of a challenge from us. Now the morning after the night before brings more pessimism: "Will we get promoted?"; "We need to get another manager for next year"; "[so-and-so] is finished".
One defeat - and we must remember it is only McCall's first - does not define a career. McCall was not my first choice but I was pleasantly surprised with his tactical awareness against both Edinburgh clubs. He just got it wrong last night; he is allowed to make mistakes.
Moreover, I wouldn't place the blame on the players. We started very well, passing it around - albeit with no end product - and easily dominating possession. There is certainly cause for Wallace to be blamed for the first and second goals. Too easily out-muscled for the first, but he could also have been given a foul; and he knocks the ball into his own net for the second after a tame shot is heading wide. Again, Templeton (or is it Tempelton?) can be criticised for an ineffectual display where on a day he finally got a chance to shine he was too easily dispossessed or couldn't find an end-product, from numerous crosses that never quite reached their man, to shot that were powerful but lacked any accuracy and too often kept rising high over the bar with too much back-spin. If he could just hit the ball flatter he'd cause more problems for the 'keeper because he gets a lot of power behind his shots. Case in point was a very tame, long-range shot from Mohsni that because it was on target forced the 'keeper to parry it.
But I don't want to blame the players because I think the strategy was wrong. We were outnumbered in central midfield 3v2; that simple numerical advantage meant that it was going to be very difficult to get through the middle or have any time and/or space on the ball. When a team plays three at the back you need to stretch them and that was what, I think, McCall was trying to do with the two wingers, but QotS had their Wing-backs, Wide-midfielders and the Wide-centre-backs to cover. The only way to counter this is to get the full-backs to make deep overlapping runs, but it never materialised so our wingers were constantly marked 2v1, sometimes 3v1. The ineffectual - or non-existent - runs by the full-backs compounded the problem. McGregor never ventured forward, but Wallace did quite often. Unfortunately it was never an overlapping run from Wallace but more like the 'underlap' that Baines has made famous, but that was no good because they dominated the middle of the park, so Wallace just ran into more defenders and no one could thread a pass through to him.
If we were going to combat QotS last night we had to go 4-3-3, with the two wingers pushed high to press the Wing-backs, and the full-backs making overlapping runs to stretch the back-three and get in behind. An extra man in central midfield would have allowed us to match the Queen's midfielders.
It was a disappointing result to say the least, but I don't blame the players too much other than a few individual errors. In my view we were doomed from the start when the formations were announced. McCall got his tactics wrong, but it is not the end of our season. It is a lesson learned.
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