After 5 games, Rangers are unbeaten in the Scottish Premiership and despite a disappointing 0-0 draw with Livingston last weekend, Steven Gerrard’s men still sit top of the table, level on points with Hibernian. In what is a crucial season for the Ibrox side, they have so far produced a string of impressive performances in which they have dominated the game both in attack and defence. Currently, Rangers are the league’s top scorers with 9 goals in 5 games and perhaps more notably, the team have yet to concede a goal, highlighting their defensive solidity, boosted no doubt by the acquisition of Leon Balogun, who had impressed before a quad injury against St Johnstone ruled him out of the Livingston match last week. In contrast, Alex Dyer’s Kilmarnock side are yet to register a win in the league, with a 1-1 draw at home to UEFA Champions League group-stage chasing Celtic being the only real positive in their opening five league games. After a disappointing collapse last weekend, losing 2 goals in the last ten minutes in a 2-1 defeat to fellow slow-starters St Johnstone, Kilmarnock will look to bounce back at Ibrox against a Rangers side, who since Gerrard’s appointment, have only beaten Kilmarnock 4 times in eleven meetings.
It was Rangers who came away with the 3 points after an utterly dominant performance in which goals from new signing Kemar Roofe and Leeds United target Ryan Kent, were enough to secure a 2-0 win against a lacklustre Kilmarnock side. This tactical analysis will discuss the ways in which Rangers were able to breakdown a stubborn Kilmarnock team, with further analysis highlighting how Rangers’ attacking tactics enabled them to disorganise the Kilmarnock defence and create spaces for key players such as Roofe and Kent.
Rangers made 4 changes from the side who failed to score last weekend against Livingston, with the most notable change coming at the top end of the pitch, with new signing Kemar Roofe making his first start, replacing the in-demand Alfredo Morelos, who wasn’t even named among the substitutes. Veteran midfielder Steven Davis came in for Glen Kamara in central midfield, while Brandon Barker replaced the injured Joe Aribo and new signing Cedric Itten was preferred to Ianis Hagi. There appeared to be a slight tactical tweak with the home side starting in a 4-2-3-1 formation instead of their usual 4-3-3. Jon McLaughlin continued in goal ahead of the injured Allan McGregor and in front of him was a back-four of James Tavernier, Connor Goldson, Filip Helander and Borna Barisic. Steven Davis and Ryan Jack started as a midfield two behind Cedric Itten, who started on the right, Brandon Barker through the middle, and in-form Ryan Kent, operating on the left side. Kemar Roofe led the line as a lone striker.
Kilmarnock made 3 changes from the team that lost to St Johnstone, one of which was enforced, with Aaron McGowan coming in at right-back for the suspended Ross Millen, who was sent off last weekend. There was also a change on the left side of midfield, with Brian Haunstrup replacing Mitch Pinnock. Eammon Brophy also replaced Nicke Kabamba in the lone forward role. Lining up in their familiar 4-1-4-1 formation, Danny Rogers started in goal with a back-four made up of Aaron McGowan, Kirk Broadfoot, Stuart Findlay and Calum Waters playing ahead of him. Gary Dicker started in the holding midfielder role with Alan Power and Aaron Tshibola playing ahead of him in central midfield. In-form Chris Burke started on the right of midfield with Brian Haunstrup on the left. Eammon Brophy started on his own in attack.
Throughout the first half, Rangers found it difficult to break Kilmarnock down, with the away team opting to sit deep and absorb the Rangers pressure, leaving little space for the home team to exploit between the lines.
This example highlights exactly what Rangers had to contend with. In this instance, Kilmarnock have ten players behind the ball, leaving no space for Jack to play into any of the forward players. On this occasion, the midfielder is forced to play wide to Barisic, whose cross from deep is cleared by the Kilmarnock defence.
Kilmarnock tended to drop into a back-five in these moments, with left midfielder Haunstrup dropping into a left-back position to allow Waters to move inside and create a 3v2 centrally against the Rangers forwards between the lines. As seen here, this narrow shape once again prevents Rangers from entering the penalty box, forcing Davis to attempt a shot from distance, which fails to trouble Rogers in the Kilmarnock goal.
This theme was present throughout the first half, with the home team attempting several shots from outside the box. This time, despite having slightly more space to operate in in front of the Kilmarnock defence, Barker has a shot at goal, which is again gathered by Rogers.
This lack of patience and creativity played into the hands of Kilmarnock, who would have been pleased with their defensive performance in the first half.
Rangers opening up spaces from wide
Having encountered similar issues against Livingston a week ago, Rangers once again seemed to lack ideas in the final third, with these long-range efforts summing up the frustration and lack of patience of the forwards. However, as the game progressed, Gerrard’s men were able to exploit the small spaces left in the Kilmarnock block, thanks to the creativity and movement of the attacking players.
One way in which Rangers were able to trouble the Kilmarnock defence was through runs from deep into spaces between the Kilmarnock defenders.
Here, Rangers’ use of the bounce pass into their forward Itten causes Waters and Haunstrup to step out of the block, opening up space in behind the Kilmarnock left-back. Both Waters and Tshibola are attracted to Itten’s pass played to Tavernier, which leaves Jack free to make a penetrating run into the space highlighted, where he is found by the Rangers captain’s clever lofted pass. The Scotland central midfielder’s cutback cross is deflected out for a Rangers corner kick.
A similar situation occurs here, in the second half, this time with Jack playing a lofted pass into Barker, who has made a blind-side run from the edge of the box. Again, Rangers’ ability to draw pressure in the wide areas has enabled them to open up spaces in the Kilmarnock defence which they are able to exploit with one pass. The former Manchester City winger smartly flicks the ball into the path of Itten, forcing Broadfoot to clear for a Rangers corner.
This tactic led to Rangers’ first goal of the game and as seen here, in the build-up to the goal, Rangers have once again managed to open up space in the central area of the Kilmarnock block. On this occasion, Davis makes a move into the space created by Barker, who has drifted wide, taking Kilmarnock central midfielder Dicker with him. Jack’s wide position has also forced Tshibola to move out of the central area, meaning that once Tavernier plays into Davis, Waters and Power are forced to press, unbalancing the Kilmarnock defensive structure.
Another crucial part of Rangers’ success in this game was the role played by Ryan Kent, whose positioning and movement caused issues for the away team throughout the entire match.
As seen from the Englishman’s touch map, it was clear that Kent had been given licence to roam around the final third and create from deeper positions. Due to Kilmarnock’s deep block, there were to be no chances for the Rangers wide men to run in behind the defence, therefore they needed to get between the lines of the opposition to create goal-scoring opportunities. Kent did this excellently throughout the game, particularly on the left side.
Here, Kent manages to create shooting space for himself by coming out of the block and receiving in front of the pressure. This allowed him to turn and move forward with the ball which he was able to do here, and after chopping inside onto his right foot, his strike forced a fine save from Rogers to keep the score at 0-0.
A similar situation occurs here, this time on the right side of the pitch, where Kent has again moved out from between the lines of the Kilmarnock block. As seen from the example, the former Liverpool man attracts pressure from Haunstrup, which opens up space in behind the Kilmarnock left midfielder. Kent plays to Davis and immediately makes a move into the space behind Haunstrup, where he is then found by the ex-Southampton man and able to drive at the Kilmarnock defence.
Kent’s threat can be summed up in this image, where he provides the second assist for Rangers’ first goal of the game. Having again stepped away from pressure, Kent has time to take his first touch forward, after which he is immediately closed down by two Kilmarnock defenders who have left the box in anticipation of Kent’s effort on goal. However, this has now left Kilmarnock 3v2 in the middle of the penalty area and after receiving a pass from Kent, Barisic can pick out Roofe, whose excellent movement enabled him to slot home his first goal for his new side.
Kilmarnock managed just two shots on goal the entire game and in reality, created very little going forward. Having terrorised the Celtic defence a fortnight ago, it was surprising that Kabamba found himself on the bench for this game, especially considering the lack of possession Kilmarnock would have and therefore the requirement of the striker to hold the ball up and allow Kilmarnock to push up the pitch.
Instead, it was Brophy who was tasked with bringing the Kilmarnock midfielders into the game and holding the ball up, something that he struggled to do throughout the match, making it difficult for Kilmarnock to get out of their half.
Here, the Scotland international’s first touch prevents him from holding the ball in, however, having said that, had midfielders Dicker and Tshibola been higher and more proactive in supporting the striker, Brophy may have been able to bounce it first time and spin in behind the high Rangers line.
On this occasion, Rangers’ high line means that the midfield and defensive units are close enough to provide aggressive pressure from behind and in front of Brophy, leaving the striker with little chance of securing possession and bringing midfielders into play.
These examples illustrate the difficulties Kilmarnock faced when trying to build any sort of possession when transitioning from their deep block.
Rangers’ aggression without the ball
Rangers’ intensity out of possession in this game was remarkable and with a match PPDA of 3.2, it was no surprise that the visitors were unable to maintain possession for any length of time. Each of the examples above highlight their desire to regain possession and on both occasions, Davis is able to win back the ball and start another Rangers attack.
In the first image, Burke is in possession and is immediately pressed by Kent, which acts as a trigger for Davis to push up onto his man, which he does before darting in front of him and stealing possession.
The second example is similar, this time with Barisic pressing Burke and forcing the former Rangers man back to McGowan. Again, this pass acts as a trigger for Davis, who immediately rushes out to press the fullback, turning possession over and giving Rangers another opportunity to build possession and advance up the pitch.
Rangers’ threat in transition
Despite their possession, Rangers provided a substantial threat on the counter-attack, with the pace of the forward players causing issues for Kilmarnock in transition. In the example above, which led to the second Rangers goal, Jack was able to capitalise on Davis’s aggression in the middle of the pitch and after receiving from the Northern Irishman, he managed to quickly pick out Barker, who’s run in behind the fullback forced Broadfoot out wide. From here, Rangers advance in numbers, with Itten, Roofe, Kent and Tavernier making forward runs and eventually managing to create an overload on the edge of the Kilmarnock box, from which Kent expertly slots a right-footed shot past Rogers.
Similarly, on this occasion, in the latter stages, Hagi plays wide to substitute Patterson, who drives forward into the box. Itten, Stewart and Arfield also make forward runs into the box, giving the young right-back numerous options to play to. He cuts the ball back to Hagi who arrives late and Rogers makes the save, the ball then drops to Stewart who’s shot is cleared off the line by the Kilmarnock defender.
Gerrard will be delighted with another dominant performance from his Rangers side, who seemed to have learned lessons from their frustrating 0-0 draw with Livingston last week. It was no surprise that Kilmarnock looked to absorb the Rangers pressure and sit behind the ball, however, the quality from players such as Kent and Roofe proved too much for Alex Dyer’s team, who will be looking for a better result and performance next time out against Dundee United.