After my last match preview ahead of the first Aberdeen clash Rangers have not only gone unbeaten in the intervening four games but won them all - including two matches against the perceived second best team in the country and a fine defensive win on Wednesday against a Hibs outfit that we hadn't beaten for two years. In that preview I compared this period for the club to events in early 2009 and doubted this team could do what that squad did and go on a ten match unbeaten run to challenge Celtic and ultimately win the title. Reverse psychology aside, I still doubt the latter part is possible but we all have to be delighted to the team's response to recent defeats.
The biggest change in the period since my last preview wasn't the new manager everyone expected or some AGM news that would increase confidence in our board but a tactical alteration that I don't think anyone seen coming. I'd read calls for 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and other versions of our preferred generic 4-5-1 but as the game started against Aberdeen the other Wednesday, I think most people in the ground were puzzled. The Dons certainly were and they were 2-0 down before Derek McInnes and his players could get to grips with our new diamond formation. Time and time again, Holt and Jack were able to make the most of space in the channels whilst Ross McCrorie stopped Ryan Christie making his mark on the game - frustrating him enough to get him sent off.
In the next fixture at Pittodrie, the same formation allowed us to dominate the first half and despite us having to revert to a 4-4-1 after Ryan Jack was harshly sent off, we were comfortable enough to secure another three points. Another win followed at home to Ross County before a hard fought victory the other night in Edinburgh. However in these games, the diamond was less effective and only second half changes to a 4-4-1-1 against County and a 4-1-4-1 against Hibs helped us win the points in matches where we didn't play well at all. This Saturday we're back at home against St Johnstone and it will be fascinating to see how Graeme Murty approaches this game.
For one thing, Rangers have rarely impressed at Ibrox this season and invariably struggle to break down any team which sits in. Ironically, St Johnstone have also been poor at home and have had their best results away from Perth - drawing with Celtic at Parkhead earlier in the campaign whilst also beating Hibs last month 2-1 at Easter Road. With on loan Ranger Michael O'Halloran a key figure in their counter-attacking style they're capable of winning any game though have struggled for consistency this season. With O'Halloran unavailable doe to league rules and key midfielder Murray Davidson forced off with an injury in their midweek loss to Aberdeen they may be forced into further changes tomorrow.
In that sense, although Saints do play good football and break quickly, Rangers will be hoping to take advantage of their opponents stuttering form. However, once again our formation will be key and we'll also be forced into changes with injury to Kenny Miller meaning he may be unavailable until after the winter break. Despite this, and as much as the diamond hasn't been quite as effective in the last two games, I'd expect to see it deployed again tomorrow - especially with Ryan Jack available to shore up the right side of the system (though he will miss the Killie game next weekend for the final match of his suspension).
Before his red card against Aberdeen, Jack was doing really well in a slightly further forward role. Moreover, because he can also play right back, that enabled him and Tav to work well together - something that neither Candeias (who prefers to stay wide) or Barjonas (who prefers to stay central) looked quite as comfortable with when they play on the right side of the diamond, forcing us into tactical changes during the last two matches. Losing Jack meant we didn't quite have the same defensive platform to allow the Millers and Penas to do their job and with the latter due to return to the side tomorrow, we'll need his creativity and ability to find space to deliver the goals to secure another victory.
Other than Jack and Pena coming back into the XI, I don't foresee many other changes though Murty may take the chance to rest the excellent Ross McCrorie. The youngster almost missed the Hibs game due to a knock from Saturday so Barjonas might be preferred in front of what now appears to be our usual back four. With Lee Wallace also back in full training (and with Jack's afore-mentioned versatility) the club captain may also make the bench instead of Hodson, giving us some much needed options on the left side should a change in system be required. Niko Kranjcar is also available should Murty prefer more creativity and he might consider deploying the Croation in a deeper role to help avoid the longer balls that blighted our match against Ross County.
In attack, both Josh Windass and Alfredo Morelos did the business on Wednesday night and they are definitely our best forward options up against a Saints side who will be eager to reverse the defeat we inflicted upon them in October. All things considered though, Rangers have to be big favourites again tomorrow even if it's sure to be another tactical battle to ensure we get the three points. In that sense, as much as our particular diamond system may not be forever, we can but hope it plays its part again as Rangers aim to maintain pressure on Celtic ahead of our visit to the East End at the end of this month. We must keeping winning - it's as simple as that.
Possible team (4-4-2 diamond)
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