After dropping points for the first time in the Scottish Premiership this season against high-flying Hibernian last weekend, Rangers were looking to bounce back against Motherwell, who themselves would be keen to react positively after crashing out of the Europa League third qualifying round on Thursday night. Rangers’ excellent display in the same competition against Dutch side Willem II, where they ran out 4-0 winners, will delight Steven Gerrard whose side have conceded only three times in 11 games in all competitions this season.
After a poor start to the season, Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell side have won their previous two league games, with their latest victory seeing them put three past Aberdeen in a 3-0 away win at Pittodrie. Players from both sides have caught the eye this season, with Scotland U-21 international, Allan Campbell, putting in a string of impressive displays from central midfield in recent games for Motherwell, while Rangers’ Ryan Kent has arguably been the Premiership’s best player, notching four goals in nine games so far in the league. Rangers will also be boosted by the return to form of Alfredo Morelos, who after weeks of transfer speculation, has found the net three times in his last three games.
This match saw an incredibly dominant performance from Rangers at Fir Park, where a ruthless 5-1 victory ensured they would remain top of the Scottish Premiership. This tactical analysis will discuss how Rangers were able to dominate the match from start to finish and additionally, the report will also provide an analysis of how Motherwell’s tactics failed them on a day which saw their two-game unbeaten league run come to an abrupt end.
Motherwell continued in the 5-3-2 shape that has served them well in recent weeks and has seen them concede only twice in their last four games. Trevor Carson continued in goal, while Scotland international Declan Gallagher captained the side, starting to the right of fellow centre-backs Beavis Mugabi and Ricki Lamie. Stephen O’Donnell and Liam Grimshaw started in the wing-back positions while Mark O’Hara, Allan Campbell, and Liam Polworth started in a midfield which is still adapting to the loss of David Turnbull Celtic. Tony Watt, a former Celtic striker and UEFA Champions League hero at Parkhead, was accompanied in attack by Wigan loanee Callum Lang.
Rangers set up in their familiar 4-3-3 system, with Allan McGregor making his first league start since the opening day against Aberdeen. There was one change in the back four from the midweek Europa League qualifying tie against Willem II, with ex-Leicester youngster Calvin Bassey coming in for his first start in the league, replacing Borna Barisic at left-back. Tavernier, Goldson, and Helander all retained their places in the Rangers defence. Steven Davis started the game in the holding midfield role with Finland’s Glenn Kamara and in-form Scott Arfield playing either side of the former Southampton man. Rangers’ star man Ryan Kent started on the left of a front three which was spearheaded by Alfredo Morelos, while the inclusion of Northern Ireland international, Jordan Jones, was a surprise as the player was thought to be surplus to requirements at the Ibrox side until a substitute appearance midweek.
Rangers’ combination play
So far this season, in attack, Rangers’ use of inverted wingers has been successful, with Kent and either Hagi or Barker playing close to Morelos to get between the lines of the opposition. In addition, this tactic creates space for both Tavernier and Barisic to deliver crosses into the box. Notably, the Croatian left-back has the highest crossing accuracy in the league (50.72%) and the team itself rank highest in total crosses (21 crosses per 90 mins) and second highest in crossing accuracy (37.7%), behind Motherwell (40.6%).
However, against Motherwell whose use of wing-backs was likely to restrict the space that both Bassey and Tavernier had to operate in, Rangers utilised the narrow positions of Jones and Kent to play through the Motherwell midfield. In the example above, Morelos drops towards the ball, bringing Motherwell’s holding midfielder, O’Hara, with him. This then prompts Jones to spin around the back of Polworth, and the Colombian plays a first-time pass into his path.
The Northern Irishman is then able to drive at the Motherwell defence as the positions of Arfield and Kent are pinning Mugabi and Gallagher, meaning they are unable to press the Rangers winger. The ball is then played to the left side of the box, where Bassey’s cross strikes the arm of Mugabi, resulting in Rangers’ first goal of the game from the penalty spot.
This combination play was a theme throughout the game and was crucial in the lead up to Rangers’ second goal. Here, Morelos has again dropped towards the ball, bringing Mugabi with him, as can be seen from the image above, which creates a large amount of space between the Motherwell central defenders. Arfield plays a quick one-two with Morelos and then plays a throughball to Jones, whose pace is enough to get him away from Lamie and the winger’s excellent touch across the defender allows him to curl a finish past Carson in the Motherwell goal.
There is a clear structural problem for the home side here as Lamie, who is tight to Jones on the touchline, should have tucked in closer to Mugabi to close the space. Gallagher, who is highlighted on the right side of the image, is also out of position and should be closer to Mugabi. However, Kent is wide on the left side (out of the picture) and Gallagher is forced to cover him due to the poor positioning of the Motherwell right wing-back, O’Donnell.
Morelos’s ability to link with the Rangers midfielders also played a key role in the build-up to Rangers’ fourth goal of the game. Again, the Colombian combines with Arfield, which drags Mugabi away from his defensive partner Gallagher. As is seen in the second image, Itten’s run was tracked by left-back Lamie, however, the forward runs of both Tavernier and Jones capture the attention of Lamie and Gallagher, creating a 3 v 2 and providing Itten with enough space and time on the edge of the box to control the ball and fire home Rangers’ fourth goal of the game.
Motherwell struggling in the build-up
In addition to Rangers’ superiority in attack, they also made it very difficult for Motherwell to build possession throughout the game. To counter Motherwell’s ability to build up with a back three, Rangers adopted a narrow block which saw both midfield and forward lines attempt to stop Motherwell from playing either through the midfield or out to their wing-backs.
This image shows Jones regain possession and he does so by stepping into the passing lane between Mugabi and central midfielder, Polworth. Repeatedly, the Rangers front three stood off the Motherwell centre-backs to ensure that they were unable to play through the away side.
In this example, Mugabi’s pass to Gallagher acts as a trigger for Kent to press and by doing so, the Englishman prevents a pass from going to the right wing-back O’Donnell, leaving the Motherwell skipper with no option but to play back to Carson, who launches the ball up the pitch, turning possession over.
An example of Rangers’ efficiency in the press is also seen here, where Gallagher is once again forced to play a long pass forward, which is successfully contested by Tavernier. In this instance, Kent’s pressing shadow cuts off the option of playing around the Rangers shape, while the positions of both Kamara and Davis are stopping any passes from being played into the Motherwell midfielders or forwards.
This image shows one of the few situations where Motherwell were able to play through Rangers’ first line of pressure. O’Hara is able to receive the ball behind Morelos, however, he is immediately pressed by Arfield, causing him to play wide to Grimshaw, who is also pressed by Tavernier and forced to play long, conceding possession.
Rangers’ defensive organisation
A key part of Motherwell’s style of play is their box-to-box midfielders, and their ability to make forward runs, especially into the channels. Before his transfer to Celtic, David Turnbull did this excellently and more recently, Campbell and Maguire have caused problems for defences in recent games with these types of runs. The use of wing-backs creates opportunities to release players into the channel, as the opposition full-backs tend to be dragged out to defend against the wing-backs, leaving space between the full-back and central defenders.
However, as seen here, Rangers managed to contain this threat as Davis, Arfield, and Kamara remained focused on the Motherwell midfielders making runs from deep throughout the game. In this example, O’Donnell is in possession and Bassey has moved out wide to press the Scotland international. As predicted, Campbell makes a run from midfield into the channel, however, he is tracked by Davis, who is able to intercept the pass played down the side by O’Donnell.
A similar situation occurs here, and with O’Donnell in possession again, Bassey rightly goes out to press the wing-back, while Campbell makes a penetrating run in behind the Rangers left-back. It is Kamara this time who is alert to the intention of the Scotland U-21 international, and the Finnish midfielder manages to match Campbell’s run, forcing O’Donnell to attempt a cross from deep, which is easily intercepted by Rangers centre-back, Helander.
The next example highlights another situation where Motherwell’s central midfielder makes a run into the space between the Rangers full-back and centre-back. This time, on the Motherwell left, Tavernier moves wide to press Grimshaw, while substitute Maguire looks to take advantage of the space between Goldson and the Rangers captain. However, it is Arfield this time who manages to track the run of the Motherwell youngster, which leaves Grimshaw with little choice but to take Tavernier down the line and deliver a cross with his weaker left foot, which fails to beat the first man.
Rangers’ movement off the ball
Rangers have dropped points in the league on two occasions this season, against both Livingston and Hibs. In particular, against Livingston, Rangers found it difficult to break down the side’s low block, resulting in a disappointing draw. However, Steven Gerrard’s team did not encounter this problem against Motherwell. The home side did not pack themselves behind the ball like Livingston did earlier on in the season, although their 5-3-2 formation did make it difficult at times for Rangers to create space to play through the lines.
In this example, Davis sprays a ball wide to Tavernier and immediately, Kent makes a run in behind the Motherwell full-back, which allows Rangers to utilise the space in behind the Motherwell back four. Throughout the game, Rangers used runs in behind to stretch the Motherwell defensive and midfield units, which allowed them to create pockets of space between the lines and get Kent, Jones and Arfield on the ball in these positions. Also, as seen in this example, the runs in behind were key to Rangers getting in behind the home team.
In this second example, both Morelos and Tavernier make forward runs which cause both Mugabi and Lamie to retreat, thus creating space for Jones to dribble into. The Northern Irishman dribbles between Mugabi and Lamie and goes unchallenged thanks to the movement of Morelos and Tavernier, enabling him to move into the box and deliver a dangerous cut-back.
Rangers’ threat on the counterattack
As well as their effective combinations and movement in possession, Rangers also carried a threat on the counterattack, which was effective on numerous occasions thanks to the pace and dribbling skills of Kent and Jones.
Here, Morelos picks up the ball in a deep position after Kent managed to recover the ball in the Rangers half. Immediately, the former Liverpool man sprinted down the line, while Morelos played away from pressure, inside to Arfield. The second image shows that the Canadian international was able to carry the ball into the Motherwell half and played a pass to the left side, where both Jones and Kent had made runs. It was Jones who picked the ball up and drove 1 v 1 towards the covering Grimshaw and managed to get a shot off, which was unable to trouble Carson in the Motherwell net.
In the next example, Kent again starts the counterattack and manages to evade four Motherwell players and release Jones to break up the pitch. Immediately after playing the pass, Kent sprints to support the Rangers winger. The second image shows Jones, who carried the ball into the Motherwell half, able to pick out Kent, who had made a great run to support his teammate. From here, Kent manages to beat Gallagher 1 v 1, but Motherwell skipper opts to chop the Rangers man down to prevent him having an attempt at goal, conceding a free kick on the edge of the box.
Surprisingly, this was a comfortable victory for a Rangers side who will be pleased to have bounced back in such fashion after a disappointing performance against Hibs a week ago. On the other hand, after appearing to have turned a corner in recent weeks, Motherwell will be looking ahead to Friday’s away match against Kilmarnock as an opportunity to redeem themselves after an extremely disappointing display against the Ibrox side.