After just under five months since the 2019/20 campaign was halted, the Scottish Premiership was back for a new season, which could prove to be a historic one with Celtic looking to claim an unprecedented 10th league title in a row. Steven Gerrard’s Rangers team will no doubt be feeling the pressure in the coming months as they faced arguably one of the toughest tests in this weekend’s opening round of fixtures with an away game against Aberdeen at an empty Pittodrie.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes came into the game without some of his key players including strikers Sam Cosgrove, who netted 11 times in the league last season, and Curtis Main. Aberdeen would look for young striker Bruce Anderson to provide a goal threat, whose pre-season form has been encouraging. The youthful forward would be looking to recreate the scenes of two years ago where he scored a last-minute equaliser in this fixture on the 2018/19 opening day.
Unsurprisingly, this intense rivalry produced a feisty game in which Rangers came out victorious with a narrow 1-0 victory. This tactical analysis will provide an in-depth analysis of both teams, as well as discussing the players that were crucial in gaining Rangers an important three points on the road. Further analysis will identify Aberdeen’s struggles and highlight how Steven Gerrard’s tactics were effective in stifling the home team’s direct style of play.
Aberdeen lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with long-serving goalkeeper Joe Lewis starting between the sticks. Stalwart Andrew Considine started at left-back while Ash Taylor and Scott McKenna started in the centre-back positions. There was a surprise at right-back, where Venezuela international Ronald Hernandez was given his first start for the club ahead of first-choice right-back Shay Logan, who was on the bench. Funso Ojo partnered Lewis Ferguson in centre midfield, while new signing Jonny Hayes began his second spell at the club on the right side of midfield, with Matty Kennedy starting on the left. Craig Bryson started in the attacking midfielder role behind Bruce Anderson, who replaced injured strikers Sam Cosgrove and Curtis Main.
Rangers set up in their familiar 4-3-3 formation with Alan McGregor starting in goal. Club captain James Tavernier started at right-back, while Croatia international Borna Barisic began the game at left-back. After some costly defensive errors towards the end of last season, Rangers have strengthened their centre-back options with the addition of Nigeria international and former Brighton and Wigan defender Leon Balogun, who after only six days at the club, was preferred ahead of Filip Helander and George Edmundson. He partnered Conor Goldson in the centre of the back four. Former Aberdeen man Ryan Jack started in the deep-lying midfielder role while ahead of him, in-form Joe Aribo lined up alongside Glen Kamara. Ryan Kent started on the left of a front three, while Ianis Hagi started on the right, playing his first game since signing permanently with the Ibrox outfit. Despite the recent transfer speculation, talisman Alfredo Morelos started as the lone striker.
Aberdeen struggling to play through
Rangers controlled the early part of the game and looked very comfortable in possession, moving the ball from side to side and inviting Aberdeen on to press. The same couldn’t be said for Aberdeen, who in the early stages found it very challenging to build any sort of possession.
The image above highlights the areas of the pitch that Aberdeen attacked from and it is clear that they struggled to play through Rangers, creating only two attacks from this area throughout the match. Interestingly, these attacks were their most dangerous in the match, as indicated by the 0.61 expected goals rate from this area of the pitch. Rangers had identified Aberdeen’s effectiveness in this part of the pitch, either playing through or over the opposition’s midfield units and the away team were successful in stifling this strength throughout the match.
This example, from the eighth minute of the game, shows how Rangers’ narrow press prevented the Aberdeen central defenders from playing into central midfield and forced them to play wide to the full-backs. In this instance, Rangers allow Aberdeen to play wide and then the wide midfielder, in this case, Aribo, aggressively presses the player in possession forcing him to play long up towards Anderson, who was unable to compete in the air against Balogun and Goldson.
As mentioned, Aberdeen were missing their two main strikers, both of whom offer a lot of physicality at the top of the pitch, allowing them to hold the ball up and bring midfielders into play. If either Cosgrove or Main was available for this game, these types of passes from the full-backs would allow Aberdeen to advance possession into the final third, however, Anderson struggled to establish himself against the Rangers centre-backs, which often led to possession being gifted back to the away team.
This example again illustrates the difficulties Aberdeen faced in possession. Central midfielder Ferguson receives the ball and immediately his forward passing options are blocked by the Rangers press, forcing him to play backwards to McKenna. Bryson’s position should be highlighted here, as throughout the game he was drawn towards the ball carrier, which often closed the space between the first two lines of the Rangers press, limiting the home team’s ability to play between the lines. Bryson traditionally plays in a deeper midfield role, which explains his desire to get on the ball in deep positions, however, had he operated behind the second line of the press, this may have allowed Aberdeen to create more space to play through Rangers’ lines and find players in advanced positions.
The same issue is apparent in this image, where each of the three Aberdeen central midfielders are positioned in front of the Rangers midfield. Again, the lack of a midfielder drifting between the lines of the Rangers defence and midfield makes it difficult for Aberdeen to play forward and link with the striker.
Rangers playing through Aberdeen
The opposite can be said for Rangers, who throughout the game were able to play through Aberdeen which, as seen in the image above, was their most effective and dangerous way of attacking.
One of the reasons why Rangers were so successful in this area of the pitch was due to the rotations and movement of the front four. As seen by Rangers’ average shape, the full-backs Barisic and Tavernier were responsible for providing the width, which allowed Kent and Hagi to drift inside and play close to Morelos. Notably, throughout the game, Aribo tended to play more advanced of striker Morelos, which was effective in disorganising the Aberdeen defence.
In this example, Jack is able to break two lines and find Hagi in the final third. The space to play through is created partly due to the position of Kent, whose position is occupying Ferguson, who himself has left the defence unprotected. Aribo’s position has also created distance between the two Aberdeen central midfielders, as Ojo is attempting to block the passing lane to the Nigerian international, instead of sliding over to stay connected to Ferguson and stop the pass into Hagi.
The image above is another example of Rangers’ success when playing through the centre of the pitch. Jack plays into Aribo, who has again managed to create distance between the Aberdeen central midfielders Ojo and Ferguson. Moments earlier, Kent had stepped out of the Aberdeen block, which was a clever move as it allowed him to create space between the lines to penetrate. The former Liverpool youngster receives from Aribo and drives through the heart of the Aberdeen block into the space between Ferguson and Ojo and plays into the feet of Morelos, who is able to lay the ball off for Hagi. The Romanian’s strike from the edge of the box goes narrowly wide off Lewis’s goal.
On this occasion, Rangers were able to create an excellent opportunity to score, which came from a central pass from Hagi. The position of the new signing between the lines attracted pressure from McKenna who, by stepping out to press Hagi, created space in behind him for Morelos to move into.
Morelos’ link-up play
After weeks of speculation surrounding his future, many were unsure whether Morelos was going to start the game for Rangers, as well as speculating whether he could recreate the form he has shown over the last couple of seasons.
However, the Colombian international put in an excellent performance, which included an assist and as illustrated in this touch map, Morelos had different responsibilities than those he is used to in his usual attacking role, which is one that normally sees him playing on the shoulder of the opposition central defenders. His tendency in this game to drop deep and link with the Rangers midfielders was key in allowing the away team to advance into the final third, as well as disorganising the Aberdeen backline.
Here, Morelos drops deep to combine with Kamara while also dragging McKenna out, leaving space in behind the Scotland international. Hagi moves into this space and is tracked by Taylor, leaving Aribo 1 v 1 against the Aberdeen right-back Hernandez. Kamara is able to find the Nigerian, allowing Rangers to attack down a now unbalanced left flank.
A similar situation occurs here with the Colombian, this time receiving from Jack, he manages to lay the ball off to Kent, who has again moved outside of the block to enable himself to drive forward with the ball. Morelos once again pulls McKenna out of the Aberdeen defence, leaving space in behind him which on this occasion, Rangers are unable to exploit.
Aberdeen’s strong finish
Despite the aforementioned difficulties that they faced throughout the game, Aberdeen finished the game strongly and in the latter stages managed on several occasions to get into good attacking positions in the Rangers’ defensive third.
One way in which they were able to get into these positions was through inside-to-out movements from players between the lines. Here, Aberdeen have been forced wide, however, this time they have a player between the lines in the shape of Hayes, whose position causes Tavernier to show Kennedy down the line, which allows the Northern Irish winger to play into the space behind the Rangers right-back, which Hayes has moved into. From here, Hayes manages to deliver a dangerous cross into the box, which Anderson is unable to attack.
In this example, substitute Hedges has taken up a position between the lines, on the blind side of Kamara and once the ball goes wide to Hernandez, he makes a run in behind Barisic into a crossing position. Hedges manages to cut the ball back to fellow substitute McGinn, whose shot is blocked.
Edmondson a solution McInnes’s striker problem?
As well as their ability to cause problems from between the lines in the final stages of the game, Aberdeen were also able to establish possession higher up the pitch thanks to the hold-up play by substitute and Leeds loanee Ryan Edmondson.
Anderson had struggled throughout the game to hold the ball up, but as seen in the example above, Edmondson was an outlet for Aberdeen and he enabled them to exploit the spaces left by Rangers who were chasing a second goal. His performance in this game may well see him replace Anderson in the starting-eleven while Cosgrove and Main remain sidelined.
Gerrard will be delighted with three points in what is undoubtedly one of the toughest away trips of the season, however, he will be looking for his side to be more ruthless in the final third if they are going to have any chance of stopping the ten in-a-row. Considering the injuries that McInnes had to contend with, he will be fairly satisfied with an Aberdeen performance that improved considerably in the second half, especially after the introduction of the Edmondson, McGinn, and Hedges.