Graeme Murty has been in charge for a while now, and over the course of his tenure we have seen him experiment with a number of different shapes; some have worked, but others have not. A fruitful trip to Florida last week has hinted at another change of shape, and a new tactical focus, which we may see more of when Rangers return to domestic duty in the coming week.
When he first took over, Murty quickly looked to go back to a 4-4-2, with two wingers and Miller roaming off Morelos. But, Rangers were too easily outnumbered and overrun in midfield. We also never had the number, or quality, of wide players to make this work -- Candeias being the only natural wide man we had, if you exclude youngsters. This approach was quickly discarded after several gutless performances.
Up next came the 4-4-2 diamond, which removed the need for wingers altogether. We already had a good variety of central-midfield players, so this approach fit the players at Murty's disposal. Rangers ground out some of their best performances with this set-up -- against Aberdeen and Hibernian, respectively -- and picked up some much-needed points against close rivals. McCrorie came into the holding role, and Windass was able to play in his favoured central position -- it's no surprise that these two players in particular have been in a rich vein of form recently.
A surprising couple of wins in Florida -- albeit against teams having their pre-season; and with hardly a strong-XI ourselves -- has seen another change. Murty used the trip to chop-and-change personnel, with youngsters and forgotten men getting their time in the sun. But one thing remained constant over the 2 games: the 4-2-3-1 formation employed.
Rangers scored 5 goals in the two games in the Florida Cup, with all except Morelos' first against Corinthians (which came from Goss' excellent set-piece delivery) coming from some form of wing-play. Not only did we set up with natural wingers hugging the touchline, but we also overloaded the half-spaces and flanks, with Full-backs and Central-midfielders drifting in to support.
Manchester City are running away with the English Premier League this season, chiefly down to their superb positional play, but also because of their productive wing-play. Guardiola employs a provisional 4-3-3, with Sane and Stirling playing wide and two No.8's just behind. City always try to get in-behind opponents by creating a 1-on-1 situations on the wings; and they do so in two main ways.
Firstly, they'll overload the wing and half-space. One of Stirling or Sane will hug the touchline, with their Full-back close to support. This in itself is nothing special, with most teams now pushing on their Full-backs. To overload more, though, not only will Guardiola ask Aguero to drift wide slightly, into the channel or half-space, but he also gives De Bryune a free role to drift right out onto the wing.
There are potentially up to 4 players overloading a flank, allowing City to pass around a low block; they are then looking to cross into the box, cut the ball back to on-rushing midfielders, or fashion a shooting chance. To deal with this, teams will naturally drift over to the ball, to try and stifle City.
The second way in which City employ wing-play is by switching the play. As they overload one side of the pitch, the winger on the other side stays wide. City are mainly trying create in that overloaded side, but by dragging teams into that congested space, they then open up the switch of play to a free winger on the other side. Sane and Stirling in particular have scored several goals from these types of situations.
It may be too early to tell, but there were examples of this first type of wing-play (overloading the wings) on show in Florida. In several game situations, Rangers would play into one half of the pitch; the winger would be wide or occupying the channel, the Full-back supporting, the No.10 playing in the channel, and a deeper midfielder an easy passing option just behind. There were as many as 5 players in the channel and flank.
Game situation from 2nd half against Corinthians
There were two variations in the way we played through our opponents. The first was with a pass, long and crisp, from Goss/Kranjcar (RDM) into the No.10 in the channel with a quick, first-time pass wide, or into the forward. The second is another long, through ball, but this time into the winger that takes up the space in the channel; again there is a quick, first-time pass into the forward or No.10. It seems to be about quick interchanges, and overloads on one side of the pitch; the aim being to get in-behind or create a shooting chance.
The new signings are more evidence of this new wing-play focus. Thus far Murphy has been the marquee signing, and it would be negligent to sign a crafty winger and not play him. Moreover, wide-players like Atekayi and Dalcio have come into the equation, alongside O'Halloran -- whether they will play a part of not, remains to be seen. More wingers are lined up (Kilmarnock's Jones), but even players like Cummings and Docherty have an energy and flexibility to be comfortable drifting into different spaces.
Another hint lies in the players used in the No.10 position. Considering the players used in Florida, Murty is perhaps not looking for an orthodox playmaker in the No.10 position. Murphy, and to a lesser extent Windass, have both been deployed there recently but neither are 'traditional' No.10's.
Several times against Corinthians, Murphy and Windass would come deep then spin in behind, sprinting into the channels, feeding off balls from the deeper players. Another tactic utilised a lot by Murphy and Windass was, when they received the ball in the channel, they would play a quick, first-time ball wide to the winger, then sprint to overlap. This movement by the No.10s, spinning wide and in behind, was a constant theme.
Even the players used in the deeper roles have tended to be more the creative, playmaker-types, rather than defensive. Kranjcar and Goss have been the main players deployed in the deeper position; neither are natural defenders, so it seems Murty will be looking for them to feed the ball into the front line, dictating play from deep -- both had the energy of Holt or Halliday for cover. Kranjcar may be past it, but he still possesses a delightful left foot; a real asset if we can utilise it properly. Goss also looks to have an impressive passing range and a pin-point delivery.
Most of our 'good' play under Caixinha came from the wing, but it was all too confined to Candeias on the right; there was no balance, and too often relied on an isolated moment of brilliance from a single player, which were few and far between. With the addition of more attack-minded players, we will hopefully see a more balanced and structured approach to our wing-play.
We're all on a bit of a high, with the latest Admin Day being such a big success: deals for Cummings and Martin agreed; an offer for Kilmarnock's Jordan Jones on the table; rumours of an offer for Hamilton's Docherty. Mark Allen and Graeme Murty are spearheading what is turning out to be a productive recruitment drive. Another cause for optimism may well be the new tactical approach. The signings that have come through the door -- and even potentially those lined up -- all point towards a new focus on overloading the wings and getting in behind.
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