It's been an indifferent start to the season. Despite being 2nd, results have been average and performances have certainly not been up to the standard we've come to expect. We seem to go through a check-list of blame, the latest of which is that it's the formation that's wrong: it's broken, it doesn't work, the players don't fit in the system... it's just wrong; Change it. The one formation bandied about is the 4-4-2. This is understandable: it's comfortable, it's traditional; most sides of yesteryear played it, and of course Rangers have played it in the past to great success. But times have changed. Is it still an option? And is it the answer to our current woes?
We have played 4-3-3 since Mark Warburton arrived, and this formation has been implemented throughout the club, from academy to first-team. We have had success with it: winning the league; reaching the Scottish Cup Final; with some wonderful performances along the way. Many now believe that success was because we were playing at a lower level, and that now that we've reached the Premiership it no longer works. The main reason used is that the players don't fit in the system, despite having exactly the same squad apart from an extra few players (Barton's away, Kranjcar's out, Rositter's out; the only new additions that play somewhat regularly are Hill, Windass, Dodoo and Garner).
The main criticism, that the system is not working, implies that we are executing it the way it's supposed to be executed. But, I don't believe we are. We've shown glimpses if it working well over the season -- Kilmarnock being the prime example, but even in our defeat to Aberdeen, we played well -- but not consistently, and not to the same level as last season. Of course, teams get used to it and teams this season are clearly fitter, stronger, faster etc. I don't think we're executing it as well as we can; we've lost the knack: connections between players are non-existent, there are fewer options on the ball, our movement's not as good and the pace is generally slower. If you execute any formation poorly, you're going to struggle.
A change to 4-4-2 is held up as the answer, a return to a simpler way of playing. There are a number of teams in the top five leagues employing the 4-4-2, all to great success. My issue is that these teams share certain traits that don't apply to Rangers, or at least shouldn't; like resources, performance, tactical philosophy and objectives.
Atletico Madrid are perhaps the most well-known exponent of the 4-4-2. Simeone's side have achieved incredible things, winning La Liga -- breaking the Barca-Real duopoly -- and reaching two Champions League Finals. Atletico line up in a horizontally compact 4-4-2, and look to defend in a low block and counter with devastating speed. Simeone sets his side up in three lines stacked on top of each other, with two banks of four (four defenders with four midfielders sitting right on top of them). At first their 2 Centre-Forwards (CF) press opposing Centre-Backs (CB) before the whole team gradually drops off into that low block. They allow teams to have the ball and they just shift laterally to block the side of the pitch the opponent is trying to move the ball. The system is inherently reactive.
Atletico are organized, horizontally compact, ruthless on the counter, and generally impossible to break down. Against weaker opposition this is much more difficult because those teams won’t attack them in numbers and will allow them the ball. However, against Real Madrid, Barcelona, and other top sides in the Champions League, Simeone’s Atletico can be devastating.
Another successful side that adopts the 4-4-2 is Borussia Mönchengladbach (A German team). Lucian Favre -- who has since left as manager -- is considered a tactical genius and achieved remarkable success, taking Gladbach from the relegation zone to qualifying for the Champions League. Mönchengladbach were one of the most difficult teams to play against, using a compact 4-4-2 and a fast-paced counter-attacking style. The difference is that they pressed like demons in a limited form of Jurgen Klopp's Gegenpress. Gladbach’s system relies on the players shifting laterally across the field in order to limit the passing options for the opposition and force them into risky passes forward or safe backward passes. While all shift to one side (leaving a large space on the other), one ball-far side-midfielder (RM if the ball is at the other side) will shift out to mark the free space, leaving a gap in between the RM and RCM so they can better press when the ball is switched. This space could be a weakness, but their 2 CF's cover the space centrally. Again, it is inherently reactive football.
In attack they move the ball vertically at pace -- the defensive approach is used to destabilize the opponent and once the ball is won they hit with pace while their opponent is still trying to adjust. There are 3 basic counter-attacks: an aggressive long ball played forward behind the defense for a forward to run onto; fast direct running from wingers or center forwards; fast team movement forward combined with short passes.
The first approach is generally what English (and British) sides do, with Leicester being the prime example. The second approach is what Atletico do. The third is the Gladbach (and German) approach, where the entire team flows forward at pace while combining short passes to devastating effect. Leverkusen can also be included as a side that execute the 4-4-2 successfully, but are simply a more intense pressing side like Gladbach. Leicester too, but without the intense pressing.
All these teams are smaller teams in their respective leagues, all have a handicap in terms of resources. Atletico are a wealthy club, but compared to Real Madrid and Barcelona they earn relatively little. Monchengladback and Leverkusen are big names, but relatively poor. All are smaller sides punching above their weight. The tactical philosophy is inherently reactive, rather than proactive -- they defend and wait to counter, rather than go out to win the game. Their fans don't care too much about being entertained week-in week-out, but wish for their team to achieve a certain position at the end of the year.
All these things don't, or at least shouldn't apply to Rangers. We are the biggest in the league, with vastly superior resources. We have to be proactive; we have go out and win games against smaller sides that just want to frustrate. And, most importantly, we demand to be entertained. A 4-4-2 is not entirely appropriate for any of these things. Walter Smith's 4-4-2 was successful because we had better players and more resources than most, but the performances were some of the most boring.
The only team I can think off that play a 4-4-2 whilst also dominating their league is Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Being owned by Red Bull, their resources are vastly superior to anyone else in their League; they can afford to outbid everyone and assemble sides that are superior to anything else domestically.
RB Salzburg were managed by Roger Schmidt (who has since went on to manage Beyer Leverkusen, a team mentioned above for their intense press) at the time of their dominance with 4-4-2. To attack they would use an intense pressing game to force mistakes from their opponents then counter at pace. If teams allowed them the ball, they would play long balls, with a 4-2-4 overload in the final-third.
Salzburg's 4-4-2 required supreme athleticism, strength and incredibly quick players -- Sadio Mane, now at Liverpool, was a key player in the system -- to make it work. I'm not sure we have that. Our players are more slight, technical. And we certainly don't have RB Salzburg's resources to go out and assemble one.
Every manager has a philosophy, a certain style that they know best. It is very difficult for them to then coach their teams to play a different way. Simeone is strong defensively, with a speedy counter-attack; he couldn't then coach his team to play like Barcelona. Roger Schmidt's philosophy includes an intense pressing game, which he has reproduced at Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen; he can't then coach his sides to play a possession-based game. A 4-4-2 requires a shift in philosophy that's just not viable.
Warburton's philosophy is possession-based. He demands his teams play from the back, using short passes to move the ball forward into the final third. The 4-3-3 is the best base formation to implement that philosophy; it allows overloads and triangles in every area of the pitch. As much as it pains me to say, Brendan Rogers has a similar philosophy; a successfully executed 4-3-3 philosophy is there for us to see.
There's no denying our performances have been poor, with results not much better. But I don't think it follows that we need a drastic formation and style change. Quite frankly, it's not going to happen. Managers have their preferred philosophy. There is an example of a well-executed 4-3-3 in our league (albeit with a 2-1 midfield, rather than a 1-2); they just have better players and more resources at the moment. Moreover, our players are more suited to a 4-3-3 than any other formation. (Yes, Garner could use more support, but that can be done with a front-three.) I don't believe 4-4-2 is the answer. I don't believe our 4-3-3 needs to be changed. However, it does need to be executed much better than it has been thus far.
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.