IBROX -- The Scottish Cup match against Kilmarnock was the perfect opportunity to banish those lingering doubts around Rangers' credentials against top-flight opposition. Mark Warburton had clearly learned his lessons from the loss against St Johnstone in the League Cup, setting his side out with a solid defensive shape, which restricted Killie to very few chances. Rangers dominated possession, but a lack of quality in the final third let Rangers down, as the two sides played out a 0-0 draw.
Lee McCulloch stamped his ideas on Kilmarnock, with five changes to his starting line-up; including débutantes Gary Dicker and Lee Hodson. Kilmarnock lined-up with an orthodox 4-2-3-1, with three attack-minded midfielders playing in front of two sitting midfielders. The powerful Josh Magennis led the line.
Rangers lined-up in their usual 4-3-3. Despite the return of Jason Holt, Rangers remained unchanged. Dominic Ball retained his place in Defensive-Midfield, with Halliday and Zelalem playing in front. The inclusion of both Ball and Halliday gave the central midfield a more steely look. Miller, Waghorn and McKay made up the front three.
Kilmarnock broke from kick-off aggressively, pinning Rangers back and winning a corner in the first minute. From the outset it was clear McCulloch wanted to isolate Tavernier. The tall Obadeyi pushed up high on the left, and Magennis spun into the left-hand channel to outnumber the Rangers right-back.
However, Rangers' passing game gradually pushed Killie onto the back foot. Despite this, Killie still employed an orthodox 4-2-3-1, with the wide players playing in front of the Defensive-Midfielders (usually teams revert to a more defensive 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 shape). They clearly looked to counter whenever they could: Obadeyi and Magennis pressed on the left, pushing the Rangers defenders back, and Kiltie looked to spin wide from his No.10 position.
Rangers looked to probe the wide areas, but Kilmarnock doubled up on both McKay and Waghorn, cutting off the attack and forcing Rangers back. Miller was very clever in his movement, spinning into the hole. It was from such a move that brought the first chances. McKay received the ball on the touchline and stood up his defender pushing him back, as Miller over-lapped and Wallace under-lapped providing two runners from deep. Miller dragged the full-back wide, as McKay slipped the ball through for Wallace to blast a shot at goal -- the 'keeper saved strongly.
The Wallace under-lap has been a common tactic, but often comes into trouble as he runs into congested central areas. Miller's clever runs added another variable to the mix, creating space for McKay and Wallace.
As Rangers dominated possession, Zelalem came into the game, finding space deep in the left channel. From there he had full view of the attacking-third; a few forward runs were cut-off with little movement, but a nice through-ball played in Miller when a forward finally did run in behind. Surprisingly, Zelalem also won the ball back a few times, by finally putting in a few tackles.
Rangers were good at dragging the play over to one side of the pitch, with the aim of switching play. Zelalem drifted out wide, and Halliday tucked in also, dragging the Killie players over to the left flank. A switch of play looked to be the tactic here, but Waghorn wasn't disciplined enough wide-right, and Tavernier was too concerned with Obadeyi. The switch-of-play to McKay worked a little better, as McKay hugged the touchline.
Kilmarnock's counter was firmly in the minds of the Rangers players. Tavernier and Wallace were deployed a little deeper, and Halliday was disciplined in central midfield and never roamed forward too often. There was a distinct lack of risk in the final third, as many were content to recycle possession. On a rare occasion when Tavernier did get forward, he unleashed an instinctive strike against the post.
The counter-attack did inevitably come, but the long balls were the only method; Kiernan and Wilson were dominant in the air. Ball snapped up any loose ball in the central areas, and sprinted wide to cover wide runners. The only real instances of danger was when Tavernier and Halliday were caught high up the pitch; Ball had to close down the wide man, leaving two Killie players free in the middle of the park.
Kiernan and Wilson were impressive, and seem to be developing an understanding. However, another move saw Killie get in behind Tavernier, and Kiernan gifted a chance by sliding in too eagerly. Foderingham stood tall, and his head came to the rescue.
Rangers continued with their patient build-up, but a lack of quality in the final-third let them down -- although midfielders were reluctant to take any risks, contributing to the lack of penetration. Halliday seemed to have enough of this at times: a few runs from deep, good inter-play with Zelalem, posed problems for Kilmarnock and ended with a goal-bound strike being tipped round the post.
On the hour mark, Zelalem made way for Holt (presumably Warburton wanted to retain the steel of ball and Halliday in the midfield, despite Zelalem having a good game) and Forrester came on for Miller (the old-man was tiring, but had a very good game). Ostensibly a straight swap, but Forrester's more direct style added an another option out wide.
Strangely, McKay and Forrester seemed to tuck in a little, rather than stretching the play; it did outnumber the two sitting midfielders, causing a little indecisiveness. But, when both got the ball they were good at running at the Killie full-backs. A couple of half-chances resulted from aggressive wide-play. Unfortunately, there was a lack of a focal-point up front to take better advantage of this: Miller tended to spin into the hole, and Waghorn was too eager to come deep with his back to goal.
Kiernan was forced off late on, with Law coming on. Ball dropped into Centre-Back and Law went into midfield. Law and Holt looked lively, but Kilmarnock were playing very deep at this point, playing for the replay, so there was very little space. Some good deliveries from corners -- from Forrester -- provided the only tangible threats, with Wilson hitting the bar.
Rangers were dominant in possession, but a solid defensive approach to the defense and midfield combined with a reluctance to take risks, resulted in few chances created. It was no surprise that Warburton looked to prevent any St Johnstone-style game, but a more aggressive approach may have seen Rangers move into the next round. As it happens, Rangers must prepare for a replay. It may prove useful -- as another test against top-flight opposition in preparation for next year. Those lingering doubts about Rangers and top-flight opposition may still remain, but the way the game went, the replay should hold no fear.
Discuss this article
Enjoyed this analysis? Disagree entirely? Found a spelling mistake? Whatever your opinion, it's welcome on our popular and friendly message-board.