It's been a long time since we've left Ibrox with a smile on our faces. Results have been dismal, with performances -- outside the odd decent showing -- equally as dismal. When results stagnate like they have questions must be asked of the management and players. We've often questioned the ability and desire of our players over the past two years, but it's only recently that the Manager has been put under the spotlight, pressure building around him and cracks showing in his philosophy and tactics. Saturday's performance shows just of what our squad and Manager is capable.
The mid-week draw at home to St Johnstone was disappointing, but many left feeling that there was an improvement. We saw under-performing players, like McKay and Waghorn, finally dropped and under-utilised players like Garner and O'Halloran finally get their chance. The latter have been the subject of much discussion on the forum; questions have been raised about their ability, whether the Manager rates them and, of course, their significant transfer fees.
The same core group of players retained their place in the team for the game against Kilmarnock -- the first time the Manager has named a relatively unchanged side. The only changes saw Hodson and Forrester dropping out for the return of Tavernier and Miller respectively; both are considered first-team starters, with Tavernier in particular having a good season and Miller continuing to defy time.
Kilmarnock lined-up in an unsurprising 4-5-1, but there were certainly questions around our formation. As the game got underway under a cloud of smoke from the gunners Miller had a particularly free role, drifting in and out of midfield and O'Halloran stayed high a wide, making the formation look a little different: almost 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-3-2 at times. I maintain that it was still the basic 4-3-3. The Manager hasn't deviated from that foundation and I don't expect he will -- other than more defensive central-midfielders, like Crooks, coming in to make it 4-2-3-1 in look.
Anyway, the formation doesn't matter too much; it's the roles of the players that make the difference. Two teams can play the same formation, but with different player roles the formation can look completely different.
Kilmarnock were content to allow us the ball in our own half, then pressed when we came near the half-way line. They pressed but it was disjointed. The lone forward pressed the ball-carrier (e.g. Hill), with Smith (CM) and Coulibaly (RM) supporting, with the aim of forcing Rangers back, long or wide where they could close the net. Fortunately for us, the other midfielders failed to close the space with a second, supporting press allowing Rangers to pass through into space when Windass or Holt came deep.
From the kick-off there were more players around the ball, giving options for the ball carrier -- as well as allowing us to pass through an ineffective press. Miller dropped into midfield time and time again to assist Windass, Holt and Halliday. This created a clear 4v3 overload in the middle allowing us to create triangles and pass our way through Kilmarnock with relative ease.
The first goal illustrates just this. Neat triangles allowed us to recycle the ball on the left, with Windass, Holt and Halliday rotating and Miller coming in to support. The overload meant that as Killie man-marked, Windass found himself free. Wallace's trademark overlap was found by Windass' perfectly waited through-ball. The Captain slotted the ball into the near corner. The goal was just reward for the excellent early play.
We also saw a very Guardiola-esque tactic. At Barcelona, one of Pep's sayings was "you have the ball on one side, to finish on the other." With more players around the ball and the overload in the middle, we were able to recycle the ball with neat triangles. But, what was impressive was that we dragged the Killie players over to the left-hand side, while O'Halloran stayed high and wide on the right-hand side. An early chance saw Windass ping a long cross-field ball to O'Halloran were he proceeded to rip the Kilmarnock Full-Back apart with his blistering pace. Eventually, the Killie LM comes across to double-up, but this gives us more space in the middle.
We've always known about O'Halloran's pace, but Rangers have never been able to utilise it properly. Generally, we think we can only use it on the counter, as he did against us to great affect last season. However, Rangers rarely get a counter situation. Subsequently, we see Rangers go straight for the wide ball into the Winger on the build-up, but this just gives the opponent time to get into position (usually 2 compact banks of Four) where there is little space to operate.
Miller and O'Halloran switched position now and again, with the penalty coming during this switch. Miller finds himself high on the right, with Holt making a darting run into space, splitting the defense. Miller threads in another through-ball to find the run. Holt might not be getting the ball, but he is clearly taken out, and Halliday makes it 2-0 from the spot.
There did seem to be more pace in our play, but I think this was a consequence of having more players around the ball-carrier: plenty of options so we could move the ball quicker. Our poorer performances have seen a sluggishness to our play, but I see this not as a lack of fitness or lack of pace per se, but a lack of options on the ball; players were isolated and therefore had no quick passes to make.
Another impressive consequence of more players around the ball was the counter-press. We pressed them high in bursts, but the counter-press was far more impressive and effective. The counter-press is best-known from Jurgen Klopp's sides. As soon as Klopp's teams lose the ball, they are instantly crowding around the ball to win it back. Rangers did this to great affect on Saturday, and having more players around allowed us to do it most effectively. As soon as a player lost the ball, Holt, Windass, Halliday, Miller, Tavernier, O'Halloran crowded round to win it back, or force Killie into punting the ball away. Kilmarnock were unable to hold the ball for any length of time. It also allowed us to win more second-balls -- a key criticism over the last few months.
We seemed to be more willing to take shots from distance. Our overload in the middle of the park allowed players (Windass in particular) space 20 yards from goal on several occasions. Instead of waiting to create the perfect chance, Windass was willing to take some strikes at goal. Holt also had an early strike narrowly miss the right-hand post.
Nothing much came from the majority these long shots, but at the very least it gives the opponent something else to think about. There can always be a fortuitous bounce that gives us a chance, and that's what happened for the 3rd goal. Windass, again finding himself in space, takes a long-range strike. He miss-kicks it but it finds it's way to Garner, who slots it past the 'keeper. Garner was a constant threat, throwing his body about, holding up the ball and laying it off; he was also good a relieving pressure by winning free-kicks.
Garner was one of many that had a fantastic game. It was a tough decision as to whom would get MotM. Tavernier covered every blade of grass; Holt was his normal darting, wiry self; Miller popped up everywhere, linking play and creating space; Windass was effective, inadvertently creating the 3rd goal; and O'Halloran absolutely ripped the Killie defense apart time after time.
Clint Hill deserves a special mention. He was hardly the most exciting summer acquisition, and early performances left a lot to be desired, but he has since put in some solid performances, organising the defense. Wilson and Kiernan are probably both followers, and need that old-head giving them direction. Kiernan has been decent alongside Hill, and Wilson had his best spells for us alongside Davie Weir.
On reflection O'Halloran rightly deserves MotM for his overall performance. However, as Warburton is always stressing, it was about the team performance. We can identify key individuals, but the team performed admirably, with pace, energy and desire. Sometimes you need that individual to make the difference, but on Saturday's performance the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts was clearly in evidence. For all our issues, this performance shows just what the team is capable of when we get it right. It was definitely plan A done better. Long may it continue.
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