A fluid front three or an amalgamation of roles?

Match Analysis
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The 'fluidity' Rangers' front three has brought great excitement, as well as great frustration. Fans are quick to eulogise when it works, but quick to criticise -- quite rightly -- when it does not. To see Waghorn, Miller and McKay attacking with pace is a wondrous sight. But I wonder whether it truly is a fluid front three? Could it not, perhaps, be an amalgamation of different roles? I wonder if the Rangers front three is playing several distinct roles, because the Manager has allowed them the freedom to play to their own individual game.

Ironically, a 'fluid' front three is a fairly specific thing, whereby players interchange with each other: one moment they are on the left or right wing, the next moment they are in front of goal, then on the other wing. While our front three do rotate to a degree, McKay will most often be on the left-wing, and Waghorn and Miller generally interchange on the right-wing and up top. By this definition, Rangers' front three is not really 'fluid'.

The Rangers U-20's are more fluid up front. According to the Rangers website, we currently have no forwards (Ryan Hardie being a first-team player and currently away on loan) in the Academy squad; only goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders. In the 4-1 against Falkirk, Roberts, Burt and Leacock-McLeod played in the front three. All three seemed to take their place in one of the front three positions at one time or another. Leacock-McLeod scored his goal playing centrally, while Roberts grabbed 3 goals playing up-top or wide-left. This illustrates a more fluid front three.

The three players that invariably play in these three positions in the first-team are McKay, Miller and Waghorn -- with a smattering of others to replace them. Each have their own playing style, which in turn influences how they play the three positions. It's the different ways in which these three players play these positions that brings a 'fluidity' to the front three, rather than being a fluid front three in itself.

(Bare with me, because this is where I start comparing Rangers players with the greats of the game. Not because they are anywhere near the same quality, but because they illustrate the roles.)

Whenever he plays up-top, Miller has played a false-nine role, a la Messi (no laughing at the back!). In earlier days Miller was a runner; always looking to play on the shoulder, looking to get in behind. Today, he can't do that. Instead, he has to find space in between the lines and in the hole, looking to link-up the play rather than get on the end of it himself.

I only name-drop Messi as he is the best known example of a false-nine, but he was not the first. There is evidence of a false-nine as early as 1934. Recently, Fabregas, Neymar, Rooney, Sanchez have all played the role -- even Kevin Nolan! The earliest example in modern football of the false-nine is Francesco Totti.

Totti's role developed by accident, as Roma were crippled by injuries. Instead of playing in attacking midfield, Totti ostensibly played 'up-top', but continued to play deeper, looking for space in between the lines to pick up the ball; basically playing his normal trequartista role. At this time Roma played with two natural wingers, so deploying Totti in the false-nine role caused havoc for opposition defenders. They had no idea how to mark him: push up and there was space in behind for the wingers and midfield runners; stand off him and he'd continue to orchestrate the attacks. Undoubtedly one of the best sides of the last decade, Roma would utilise Totti to great affect domestically, finishing in the top 2 in Serie A 8 times in 10 years, and winning the Coppa Italia twice (finishing runners-up another 4 times in the same period).

The false-nine can cause havoc, leaving the centre-backs caught in two minds of whether to man-mark or stand off and while also creating a lot of space for midfield runners and wingers to exploit. Conversely, it has its problems: most obvious of which is that you don't have a natural striker or focal point for your attacks; while also being dependent on midfield runners.

It would be easy to think that the false-nine has to possess an unreal array of skills and abilities, but this is not true. Totti is almost the polar opposite of Messi, yet has played the same role successfully. In his own way, Miller has done the same for Rangers this season -- more out of necessity than anything else, as the legs have deserted him -- bringing a fluidity to the Rangers attack.

The second role is the wide-forward. As you would have guessed, a wide-forward is simply a forward, deployed wide (a variation on the old inside-forward). Wide-forwards are positioned wide, with the objective of providing penetration and goals. Not to play wide all the time, but to target the channels and to get into the box.

Thierry Henry was the best, with fellow-Frenchman Anthony Martial continuing this role (albeit to a lesser degree); both like to play wide, but both are natural strikers. The most recent exponent is Alexis Sanchez with Chile, Barcelona and Arsenal. Chile national coach Jorge Sampaoli often deployed two forwards (Sanchez and Vargas) in the 2014 World Cup, but not in the same way British sides deploy a front-two (like Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke). Instead, Sampaoli tasked them with sticking to the channels and providing penetrating runs in behind (from wide to centre). This set-up saw them beat World Champions Spain.

Wide-forwards provide a goal-scoring threat from wide, with pace and energy very difficult to deal with for defenders. However, wide-forwards need space in which to work. At Arsenal, Alexis Sanchez was involved in two games against Bayern Munich, winning 0-2 and losing 5-1. In the defeat, Giroud, Ozil and Sanchez were the front-three, but they struggled because they kept getting in each other's way: with Giroud as the target-man there is no space in behind for Sanchez to exploit. In the victory, Arsenal lined-up with Sanchez, Ozil and Walcott; where Sanchez was able to drift centrally and Walcott stayed wide. When he was at Barcelona, Sanchez had Messi in the false-nine role which provided a lot of space in behind.

Rangers have had Waghorn and Miller play the wide-forward role, to varying degrees of success. Both tend to play in the same team, with one up-top and the other playing wide-forward. Miller does a job wide, but it is not as rewarding for the team, because Waghorn would be occupying the space centrally, limiting the space in which to exploit in behind. Conversely, Waghorn does well wide because when Miller plays centrally he plays deeper, as a false-nine, vacating the space for Waghorn. With Waghorn injured, O'Halloran has come into the wide-forward role -- playing well without being spectacular -- which works because Miller creates the space; Forrester has come into the team also.

Finally, the winger is the traditional touchline-hugging wide-man, looking to take on and beat the opposition full-back to get a cross into the box. But the traditional winger has gone the way of the sweeper, seen as a luxury. Nowadays, most wingers are inverted; still looking to take on full-backs, but with the aim of getting a shot away. The great Herbert Chapman (way back in the 1920's) said that inverted wingers were more rewarding for the team than the "senseless policy of running along the lines and centring [the ball] just in front of the [goal], where the odds are nine to one on the defenders" (although this has shortened somewhat).

The best wingers of recent times have been inverted. Arjen Robben is left-footed, but plays right; Franck Ribery is right-footed, plays on the left; Messi is left-footed, but, when he's not a false-nine, plays on the right; and Ronaldo plays either because he's unbelievably two-footed, but always cuts inside. A major part of Leicester's race to the top of the Premier League is Riyad Mahrez; he plays right-wing, but is left-footed.

Again, there are many pro's and con's to a winger's game. Hugging the touchline can be isolating, but can also provide an easy out-ball. The inverted winger can also, ironically, provide less width because they are always looking to come inside. Even if the winger reverts to the traditional tactic of crossing the ball, logically the inverted winger is more dangerous: If a ball is crossed from the outside, it can only swerve away from goal; whereas an inverted winger's cross will always swerve towards goal. Recently, we've seen many of these in-swinging crosses sneak in at the back post.

Barrie McKay has been Rangers' winger of choice. Naturally right-footed, he has played left-wing to great success. His natural tendency to hug the touchline stretches the opposition back-line, and allows an easy out-ball -- which Tavernier has looked to play time and time again. However, as an inverted-winger, McKay provides an unpredictability and 'fluidity' to the Rangers front-line. By going outside to cross or inside to shoot, the opposition defence has struggled to deal with him. Forrester and King are the other two natural wingers Rangers have, but tend to play as traditional wingers; both are very direct, and very successful at getting crosses into the box.

The fluidity of Rangers' front three has been a misnomer. By definition, a 'fluid' front three will interchange with each other, which I don't think Rangers employ. It's more of an amalgamation of roles. The variety of styles from the forwards has seen Rangers line-up with wingers (inverted or not), wide-forwards and false-nines. Once again, it is an example of the tactical flexibility of Mark Warburton, and his knack of getting the best out of the players at his disposal. Instead of shoehorning our players into playing a certain role, Warburton has allowed the players the freedom to play to their own strengths, within the confines of his preferred 4-3-3. Instead of Miller being forced to play as a traditional striker where he would undoubtedly be less effective, he's allowed to drop off, playing a unique false-nine role. By utilising an amalgamation of different roles, Warburton has brought a variety and unpredictability to the Rangers front-three.

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