Decoding Rangers’ gameplay – How Steven Gerrard sets up his side

Rangers look set to end their decade-long wait for the Scottish Premiership title as Steven Gerrard & co. sit atop the league standings, having opened up an eighteen-point gap over arch-rivals Celtic.

Having fallen well behind their bitter rivals, the Gers, ever since Gerrard took over in 2018, have been gradually closing the gap over the past couple of seasons. This time though, they have all but overthrown the reigning champions, ending Celtic’s hopes of creating any history by winning ten league titles in a row.

It has been a truly memorable campaign for the Light Blues which seems certain to end with silverware in the cabinet. So it only makes sense to take a closer look at how Gerrard has managed to lead the team to the brink of their first league title since 2010/11.

Steven Gerrard working wonders with Rangers

The formation and tactics

Steven Gerrard has been using a free-flowing 4-3-3 formation, although he has opted to switch to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1 setup if and when the situation has demanded it.

But for the majority of his spell at the Ibrox and for large parts of this season, the former Liverpool captain has stuck by his tried and tested 4-3-3 formation, which helps his team play a brand of fluid, attacking football.

Rangers have mostly used the 4-3-3 formation in the Premiership (Courtesy: WhoScored)

Given that most of the teams in the Premiership set up with a low-block and try to hit oppositions on the counter, it should not come as a major surprise that Rangers dominate the possession stats. Indeed, the Scottish giants have averaged 62.8% possession over 30 matches in the league this term.

But having possession counts for little if a team does not make the proper use of it. And Gerrard’s team know how to do that. If not, the Gers wouldn’t be posting an average of 16.3 shots per game nor would they have scored 73 goals in the league – the most by any team in the competition this season.

Full-backs or playmakers?

In a way, Gerrard’s team is modelled on his former club, Liverpool, in the sense that the Rangers boss likes his full-backs to play as the primary attacking outlets on the wings, with the central midfield unit providing control and security. Most of their attacks start out wide, as seen in the graphic below.

Rangers’ attack zones (Courtesy: WhoScored)

Indeed, if one takes a look at the numbers posted by James Tavernier and Borna Barisic this term, it gives an indicator of how big of an attacking influence the two full-backs are. Tavernier has been directly involved in 21 goals in the Premiership this term (11 goals, 10 assists), whereas Barisic has played a hand in 8 (1 goal and 7 assists).

The heat maps of the two players posted below show how much time they spend in the opposition half and the final third.

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Heatmaps of Borna Barisic (L) and James Tavernier (R) (Courtesy: SofaScore)

The Wide Players

Ianis Hagi and Ryan Kent have been the most regularly used players out wide in the attacking third. However, both players generally tend to drift inwards from their respective flanks and play in the inside channels or the half-spaces, creating central overloads, which allows the full-backs with space to bomb forward into.

Given that Hagi is a No. 10 playing in the wide role, he relishes getting into those spaces and creating chances. Naturally, he is the Gers’ second-highest assist-giver in the Premiership this term with nine.

Kent, who is a right-footed player, generally prefers to cut inside as well, allowing Barisic, as well as one of the central midfielders to attack into the spaces he vacates.

Heatmaps of Ianis Hagi (L) and Ryan Kent (R) in the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership

In Kemar Roofe and Alfredo Morelos, Gerrard has two strikers who are not only blessed with pace but also have the ability to link-up effectively with those around him. The fact that they are able to drop into slightly deeper positions, creates openings for the wingers to move into dangerous positions.

The Midfield

As mentioned previously, the central midfield is there to provide control, while allowing those around them to take care of the creative essence. Gerrard prefers to set up with three central midfielders, of who two are instructed to stay deeper to shield the defence against counters and break up the opposition.

The third midfielder, though, has the freedom to push upfield and add to the attacking numbers – a role mostly essayed by Joe Aribo this season.

Joe Aribo’s heatmap showing how active he is in the attacking half

Meanwhile, the remaining two midfielders, Steven Davis and Glen Kamara or Ryan Jack more often than not, don’t look to press forward as much. Instead, they provide cover to the defence and are often seen dropping into vacant spaces left by the full-backs to guard the goal in case of an opposition counter.

Heatmaps of Steven Davis (L) and Glen Kamara (R)

Gerrard deploys a high-pressing system that sees his players try and regain possession as high up the pitch as possible, with the centre-forward, Alfredo Morelos, leading the press from the front, while the wide players get tight to the opposition full-backs.

The Rangers full-backs, meanwhile, stay with the opposition wingers, with the centre-backs occupying the centre-forward, ensuring that there is a numerical superiority at the back even if the opponent resorts to long passes.

This image from Rangers vs Antwerp clearly depicts the Gers’ pressing system (UEFA Europa League)

Verdict

Gerrard’s methods and tactics have worked wonders for Rangers. And having long been under the shadows of their Old Firm rivals, the Gers are set to usurp them and become the new champions of Scotland, all the while playing some eye-catching football with style and panache.

Raghav Goudar

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Raghav Goudar