'They broke at pace.' The phrase seems to be the precursor to any poor piece of play this season, usually ending in a goal or two conceded. Our team regularly dominates possession these days, so we have little need to defend deep. Of course, when any team pushes high, the inevitable weakness is the space in behind. As pleased as we have been thus far with our style-of-play, we are quick to criticise our defensive deficiencies. Previously we saw counter-attacks often, with hints of trouble, but none seemed to take advantage. St Johnstone changed everything.
Last Tuesday night Rangers suffered their first defeat of the season. Eleven wins, with regular scorelines of 3, 4, or 5-0, have done little to temper the pain of that first defeat. The inflated confidence we felt was well and truly burst. Michael O'Halloran was a very quick and direct runner, always peeling into the wide open spaces behind our two attacking full-backs, or wing-backs. The space in behind our full-backs is the obvious weakness, but we did the right things to defend the attacks, but made poor mistakes. Wilson drifted wide to challenge the wide runner, but didn't block the cross; then Wallace, backing up Wilson by slotting into the centre-back position, failed to block the cross also. It's never just one mistake when a goal is conceded, but a series of mistakes. We made those mistakes, but that general weakness in our play remains.
At the weekend we saw a slightly different take on exposing that same weakness. The 4-4-2 is the standard formation we face, but it reverts quickly to a 4-4-1-1 when we have the ball. When teams attack, that one striker drifts wide to exploit the space in behind the full-backs, with the deeper striker quickly charging up the centre from deep. However, on Sunday we saw a different approach: Morton, lining up with two strikers, often had them running away from each other, to expose both our flanks, stretching our centre-backs. As has mostly been the case this season, the opposition have not had the quality to take advantage.
The counter-attacking tactic is becoming more and more prominent in its use against us, and some, like Morton, are trying new things on the same variation. The common attitude from the Manager, Mark Warburton, is: "We respect the opposition, but it's all about how we play." Is it perhaps time to change our set-up somewhat?
The Spare-man Philosophy
Marcelo Bielsa, one of the most tactically inventive and unusual managers around, comes from an old-school era of coaches who want absolute control mixed with meticulous preparation for every possible outcome. His 'Mad Professor' tag is somewhat appropriate, as he often sits down before each game and plans for every eventuality, every potential substitution and even every injury. Bielsa has brought an expansive, exciting brand of football to several club-sides in Argentina, the Chilean National Team, Athletic Bilbao, and more recently Marseille, as well as being a main inspiration for Pep Guardiola.
Bielsa is an advocate of the spare-man philosophy in defence, meaning he always wants one centre-half free to sweep up any loose balls, and not be hindered by man-marking. He often switches between two and three central defenders on the pitch depending on how many strikers the opponent utilises, going from 4-2-1-3 when playing against one striker, to a 3-4-3 when facing two strikers.
On their run to the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final, Athletic Bilbao overcame PSG, Sporting Lisbon, Schalke, and famously, Manchester United, before eventually losing to Athletico Madrid. In the UEFA Europa League Semi-final, Sporting lined up with a 4-3-3, with one striker, and so Athletic Club lined up with two central defenders in a 4-3-3. However, Sporting threw on an extra attacker whilst chasing the game late on, moving to a 4-4-2. Within three minutes of the change, Bielsa had Borja Ekiza stripped and ready to come on as the third central defender, switching to a 3-4-3 in order to retain that spare man at the back.
Of course, comparing Rangers and Athletic Club is like comparing a Volkswagen and a Porsche. But is it perhaps an option for Rangers? We often dominate possession and press high, and are therefore always open to a counter-attack. Could we sacrifice a midfielder for another centre-back, so we can cover those counter-attacks more effectively? It would allow our wing-backs to play as out-and-out wingers, and our wingers to play as a more central front-three, whilst also providing cover at the back. The default defensive set-up for Scottish Clubs, and fans alike, has been the back four sitting deep. But to play an expansive style, we need the full-backs high and wide, leaving the two centre-backs exposed. Would it not be prudent to have an extra centre-back, shaking off this preoccupation with a back four?
Theoretically, we already have the personnel to play a 3-4-3. We have two exceptional wing-backs in Wallace and Tavernier. We would require 2 high-energy Centre-Midfielders, which Halliday and Law could provide; question Law's attitude all you like, he has the stamina and ability to play that role. And we have a few decent enough centre-backs.
Moreover, there is precedence of the 3-5-2 in Scotland, with that other side across Glasgow winning a few things with it in the early 00's. Is it really that much of a switch to play 3-4-3? We actually have the style-of-play to make it work.
We have already had many complaints that we are too exposed at the back with two centre-backs. We need the full-backs playing high and wide to stretch the pitch, giving our attacking three more space and more options. Perhaps our preoccupation with the back four is a little out-of-date, or just unsuitable, with the style we want to play? The Spare-man philosophy does not negate the need for communication and organisation in defence: whether we play with two or three centre-backs, those playing still need to defend well. Perhaps switching to a back-three when playing against two attackers, or more pertinently in our case, against good counter-attacking sides, may give us the cover at the back needed to keep those all-important clean-sheets, while allowing us to continue with our expansive style.
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