Rangers dominated the central areas in the Petrofac Training Cup Semi-final, causing St Mirren to play deeper and deeper, with the wide players leaving the touchline to play in the half-spaces. Stellar performances from Halliday, Wilson and Kiernan provided an excellent platform from which to dominate possession, with each reading the game, stopping any St Mirren counter-attack before it had begun.
Rangers lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation. Oduwa and Ball dropped out to be replaced by Miller and Wilson. Wilson slotted in to the standard back-four of Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson and Wallace. Halliday sat in the hole, with Holt and Zelalem in front. McKay, Waghorn and Miller made up the front-three. Hardie got a well-deserved spot on the bench, after some excellent goal-scoring performances for the U20s.
St Mirren lined up in their typical 4-4-2. Thompson dropped out, perhaps to allow for more energetic forward players. St Mirren have always provided a test this season, with a high-pressing front-two, and midfield runners, particularly giving Rangers plenty of problems.
What was apparent from the outset was the slight change in the movements of the Rangers wide players. The last few games saw both McKay and Oduwa hug the touchline, which, to a large extent, is their natural game. With Miller coming in, it was obvious he would play more centrally. However, both McKay and Miller played in the half-space, leaving the touchline altogether. This resulted in an overload in the central areas, where Rangers often had 4 versus 2. St Mirren front-two never dropped deep to help, leaving their central-midfield paring to cover a lot of players; their wide players were preoccupied with Wallace and Tavernier.
Zelalem was quite clever. Whenever McKay came inside, Zelalem overlapped, stretching the play. He found himself up against an isolated full-back, which he tried to take on several times early in the game. The movement caused St Mirren problems, but Zelalem failed every time to beat his man, so nothing came from it directly, but it open up space for Wallace and McKay.
Holt, as always, was clever and positive in his movement, always looking to nip in behind -- in fact, the first goal saw this movement come good. It was not during open-play, but the movement was devastating. A long, deep corner taken by Holt -- something that had to be attempted, because St Mirren often had two or three players over blocking the usual short-corner -- found it's way over to the right. Tavernier attempted to make space for a shot, but eventually had to pass it back to Halliday, who then chipped a delightful ball over the defence, for Holt, who slotted low into near post in acres of space.
From the kick-off, the St Mirren front-two looked to press our centre-backs, but their midfield never supported the press, so it was very easy for Foderingham to bypass our centre-backs -- and the St Mirren forwards -- altogether, targeting Halliday with several long passes, before beginning the build-up again. The rest of the St Mirren team were content to sit deep and allow us to have the ball, which was conducive to a dominant possession game. The Rangers build-up was slow and methodical, and generally came down the left, where Wallace, Zelalem and McKay looked to create triangles, and waited for the final through-ball. Unfortunately, the execution of the through-ball was atrocious, with Holt and Zelalem guilty of over-cooking simple passes.
When St Mirren did manage to win the ball back, they knocked it long to one of their two forwards, but excellent reading of the game from Wilson and Kiernan meant that the ball rarely stuck, and we won the ball back relatively quickly. Kiernan was guilty of a few lapses in concentration, but Wilson put in an assured and composed performance. Halliday was important for this solid defensive base, as he often dropped deep to collect the ball, providing a base for the next attack and an extra man to collect any loose balls; it also helped that our two centre-backs were happy to knock a short ball into Halliday, instead of trying to force a longer ball. Halliday himself was the start of most attacks, pin-pointing direct, vertical balls into any of the forward players in space.
The positional interplay between our front five was very interesting: all changed positions easily, with a teammate taking the vacated spot. It made marking tough for St Mirren, and created a lot of space for us. Waghorn and Miller link-up especially well, with one coming deep and the other going long; there was always one in the hole. Despite his clever movement, Miller found it difficult to make things happen because he often got the ball to feet, which made him stop, rather than getting the ball in front so he could take it on the run, and make things happen that way.
Another obvious tactic was the long switch of play. Guardiola often had his Barcelona team recycle the ball on one side of the pitch, drawing the opposition into a tight space on one side, before switching it to the other side, where Daniel Alves would invarably be in a lot of space. Here, Rangers' wide players played in the half-space, and Holt and Zelalem drfited over the the left; Miller was a decoy midfielder, dropping back slightly, but most players were over on the left. Zelalem then lofted a long diagonal over to Tavernier. It happened in the second-half also, but with McKay as the open wide player. Again, poor execution on both occasions let down this tactic.
For a period in the second-half St Mirren came into the game, by pressing more aggressively from midfield. Rangers added to this with a positional disconnect between the front and back five; the distance between Halliday and rest of the midfield was too great. The substitutions were probably the cause of this, with Rangers not coming to terms with the change. Clark and Shiels came on for Holt and McKay, which meant we had three out-and-out strikers up front. All three tended to stay on the shoulder of the St Mirren defenders, whereas before Miller and McKay played in the half-space, creating space and pulling the opposition out of shape. Eventually, we got to grips with the changes.
As it turned out, the positioning of the forwards (on the shoulder of the defence) allowed for Shiels to play a reverse, through ball to Waghorn; who calmly squared the ball for a greatful Miller to bundle it home. It was one of the few times the through-ball was executed effectively.
The game was over at 2-0 as St Mirren lost discipline and shape, allowing Waghorn and then Shiels to pick the ball up and drive at the defence, before the ball found it way into the net twice in the remaining five minutes. The directness of Shiels and Waghorn was effective late on, but only because the St Mirren players never covered the runs.
A cameo from Hardie in the last ten minutes was well-deserved. He was bright and confident, always pointing to where he wanted the ball to be placed. A real talent for the future; one that deserves more game-time.
As a support, we are not 'tuned-in' to the patient build-up. We are very quick to get frustrated when things don't work-out and, therefore, often think that we are doing the wrong things. Rangers are doing the right things, but the players are not executing their passes or shots well-enough. Several players were guilty of messing-up their final ball, or shot at goal. It was a good, tactical performance: a patient, methodical build-up, interesting wing-play and a strong defensive base created a game in which Rangers dominated completely. If we play like this, we'll not lose many.
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