Rangers celebrated Craig Whyte’s recent takeover with a comfortable 4-0 win, opening up a four point gap over their closest rivals Celtic. Hearts started the match well but capitulated in a five minute period before half-time which ended the match as a contest.
Walter Smith stuck with the same starting eleven and formation for the third match in a row and named Lee McCulloch on the bench after a long absence due to injury. Hearts started the match with no recognised centre-backs with Andy Webster and Ismael Bouzid injured and Marius Zaliukas “unavailable”. This meant that Eggert Jonsson captained the team alongside Adrian Mrowiec in central defence. Stephen Elliott was dropped to the bench and David Obua was handed a rare start, Ryan McGowan also started.
Decent start from Hearts
For the first twenty minutes, Hearts were the slightly better side although they failed to test Allan McGregor during this period. Jim Jefferies reintroduced his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with Ryan Stevenson in attack. Obua started on the right of the ‘3’ but his starting position was relatively deep and he would often drift into the area in and around the centre circle and look to dictate play.
Hearts had two broad strategies in the first half. The first of these was for goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald to aim his distribution towards the head of Obua and the Ugandan international won the vast majority of his headers, which is unlike him. Despite his height he is usually poor in the air.
When the ball was in play, Hearts’ other strategy was to hit quick, diagonal passes into the feet of David Templeton. On a number of occasions the SPL young player of the year nominee took advantage of the poor positioning of Rangers right-back Steven Whittaker and gave the covering defender, Madjid Bougherra a torrid time when running at him. Unfortunately for Hearts, his final ball let him down and a cross-cum-shot that shaved the post was the closest Hearts came with any of the chances created through Templeton.
It seems that Rangers’ right-hand side had been identified as a possible weak point, not necessarily due to the personnel there but rather the position of the players. Here, as well as in the previous match versus Motherwell, Steven Naismith would often drift in from the right-hand side with Whittaker pushing on. This left them exposed on the right a number of times, however, Templeton slowly faded from the game towards the end of the half when Whittaker remained in position more often and Naismith’ performance became more disciplined.
Relatedly, Naismith struggled to get involved in the early stages of the match. When out of possession, the Hearts midfield sat very deep, perhaps due to the makeshift nature of their back four, and didn’t leave much space between them and the defence, the space in which Naismith (and whichever one of the front two drops off) likes to operate. Rangers were patient in their build-up but were reduced to attempting balls over the top of the Hearts defence when entering the final third.
Rangers take chances before half-time
Despite the good start by Hearts, Rangers had the points wrapped up before half-time. The first goal came courtesy of Nikica Jelavic on the twenty-third minute. Hearts had kept a deep defensive line for the opening stages of the match but were caught out with a poor execution of the offside trap. The Croatian international timed his run well, controlled brilliantly and finished from a tight angle after Steven Davis had sent a ball over the top of the Hearts defence. Davis put in another excellent performance, dropping deep to collect the ball and dictate as well as providing attacking impetus through his driving runs.
The five minutes that preceded the break saw Rangers increase their lead to 3-0. McGregor made a smart save from a long range Ian Black strike before quickly starting off a counter attack. Whittaker’s run culminated in a low cross from the right which was narrowly missed by Naismith at the near post. The ball was then cut back by Greg Wylde from the opposite side and Kyle Lafferty finished low to make it 2-0.
Minutes later another Wylde assist headed into the net by Davis. Mrowiec was caught ball-watching, leaving Jonsson two players to mark. Davis, not known for his heading ability, was left with the simple tasks of directing the ball goalwards from five yards. After a decent start to the match, Hearts found themselves 3-0 down going into the break with no way back.
The second half began with Rangers now focused on not conceding and allowing their opponents possession. Hearts were forced into a change when Templeton pulled up injured and he and Rudi Skacel, who was anonymous throughout, were replaced by Scott Robinson and Stephen Elliott. The pair were given no time to make an impression on the match as moments later Jonsson was ordered off for a foul on Jelavic. This meant that McGowan dropped into central defence and Hearts’ focus became damage-limitation rather than restoring pride.
Inevitably, Rangers completely dominated possession and it was surprising that they only managed to add one more goal – a Ryan Stevenson own goal – before the full-time whistle. Hearts were now lined up 4-4-1 with a very narrow midfield which allowed Rangers a lot of space in wide areas. Cross after cross was fired into the away box but the closest any Rangers player came to scoring was striking the woodwork, which they managed on two separate occasions.
Rangers introduced El-Hadji Diouf, David Healy and Lee McCulloch but these were designed more to rest players – as well as to give McCulloch some game time – rather than anything tactical.
The teams seemed pretty evenly matched for the majority of the first half but some woeful defending from Hearts allowed Rangers a comfortable victory, even though this will not go down as one of their better performances of the season.
David Templeton looked dangerous for about half an hour, taking advantage of the space afforded to him by the positioning of Naismith and Whittaker’s poor decision-making regarding when and when not to venture up-field. This was put right towards the end of the first half when Rangers began to double up on Templeton, a tactic used by many this season to quell the threat of the young winger.
Rangers won comfortably without having perform to the best of their ability. As mentioned, Whittaker struggled against Templeton and on the other side Sasa Papac struggled with the aerial ability of Obua, although only in areas where there was no immediate danger.
Steven Davis was excellent yet again for Rangers, he has had a tremendous second half to the season, and dictated play when Rangers were on top. The front two of Rangers also deserve a lot of credit. When there was little space to drop off into, they moved wide and worked the channels in order to bring others in to play. The two seem to have struck up a good understanding and Jelavic seems to bring the best out of Lafferty, who is only now beginning to justify the large amount of money Rangers paid for him three years ago.