Sunday, 24 July 2011

Rangers 1 Hearts 1

Rangers marked the unfurling of the league flag with a 1-1 at home to Hearts.  In his first competitive match in charge, Ally McCoist brought in Kirk Broadfoot for the suspended David Weir and new-signing Juan Manuel Ortiz for the injured Kyle Lafferty.  He lined up his side in a lopsided 4-4-1-1 formation, with Steven Davis tucking in from the right of midfield and Ortiz as an out-and-out winger on the opposite flank.  Steven Naismith played behind Nikica Jelavic in attack.

Hearts were without the injured duo of Kevin Kyle and Andy Driver and new-signing Jamie Hamill was suspended, meaning that Ryan McGowan came in a right-back.  Other new signings featured in the now familiar 4-2-3-1 preferred by manager Jim Jefferies.  Danny Grainger started at left back after Lee Wallace’s departure to Rangers, Mehdi Taouil began on the right of an attacking midfield three and John Sutton led the line.  After only eight minutes, probably because he set foot in Ibrox, Andy Webster left the field injured and was replaced by Adrian Mrowiec with Eggert Jonsson moving into central defence.


Left-sided battles

The first half can be summed up by two intriguing battles.  Rangers’ formation was such that with Davis tucking in, Steven Whittaker was afforded the space to get forward and support the Rangers attack.  Hearts’ strategy early on, whether pre-planned or else responsive to Whittaker’s forays up the pitch, was to move the ball to David Templeton, exploit the vacated space and get him running at the Rangers defence.  Even when Whittaker remained in position, Templeton often got the better of him, cutting inside the Scotland international time and time again.

Similarly, Rangers looked to get the ball out to Ortiz - with Naismith moving towards the left to link up - but the Spaniard’s runs were thwarted by the impressive McGowan.  Not only did McGowan manage to prevent Ortiz from cutting in on to his stronger foot, he stopped him from getting a cross in on all but one occasion, which came in the second half.

Hearts opened the scoring on sixteen minutes when Obua headed home a Grainger corner.  The big Ugandan started behind Sutton in attack and had perhaps his best game in a Hearts jersey.  He was the main playmaker in the Hearts side, was composed in possession and gave Lee McCulloch and Maurice Edu in the centre of Rangers’ midfield a torrid time.

The goal seemed to instil a sense of urgency in Rangers whose best attacking player up to that point had been Madjid Bougherra, who would look to play one-twos with his teammates and drive at the Hearts defence.  Davis was now coming inside to collect the ball and start off attacks but most of the time Rangers were reduced to hitting Jelavic early with long diagonal balls.

Hearts regained the momentum shortly afterwards and were the much better side in the first half.  One of the main reasons for this was how hard they worked off the ball.  When out of possession, Hearts were quick to get everyone (sometimes with the exception of Sutton) behind the ball and deny Rangers space.  Rangers didn’t get the same level of energy when tracking back from the likes of Naismith and Ortiz.

Second half

Rangers changed their shape at half-time, moving Davis into the centre and Naismith out to the right wing.  Their shape now resembled 4-3-3 and they instantly improved, creating three great chances within five minutes of the restart.

The change in shape gave Rangers the edge for a few reasons.  Firstly, they now matched Hearts 3v3 in the centre of the pitch, which at times was 3v2 to their advantage as Obua was positioned too high up the pitch.  Secondly, Davis was now in his more suited role in the centre of midfield and was able to dictate.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, with a player on each wing, Rangers were able to stretch the Hearts defence and take advantage of the space vacated.  A quick switch of play saw Ortiz cut inside McGowan and find Naismith in space but he shot over.

Even though Naismith was now positioned on the right, he retained from last season his tendency to drift into the centre and as a consequence he was involved in most of Rangers’ chances.  As well as missing the chance referred to above, he converted Papac’s cross to equalise on fifty-six minutes.

It was the first time Papac had got into an advanced position in the match and it brought about a goal.  The only other time he got forward, late in the match, he should have scored to secure all three points.

Rangers continued to dominate the second half.  The loss of Templeton early in the second half, due to a head knock sustained in the first half, meant that Hearts lost some of their attacking threat.  Stephen Elliott was brought on to replace him but lacks the drive and ability to take on opponents as effectively.  As a result Hearts struggled to keep possession as well as they had in the first half.  In saying that, Whittaker didn’t get forward much in the second period so it is unclear whether Templeton would have been as effective anyway.

Conclusion

In the end a draw was a fair result with each side dominating one half of the match.  Hearts could have headed into the break more than a goal up and Rangers could have easily converted one or two more of their second half chances.

The first half, dominated by Hearts, was marked by the battles between the respective left-wingers and right-backs.  Templeton took advantage of a poor display from Whittaker and McGowan nullified the threat of Ortiz.  However, a change in formation at half-time saw Rangers create several chances within minutes of the restart and their pressure led to the equaliser.

The most worrying thing from a Rangers point of view is the lack of depth in the squad.  Their bench mostly consisted of younger players and the only substitute used was Gregg Wylde, who came on for Ortiz.  The 20-year-old impressed but the lack of potential match winners in reserve must worry McCoist even at this stage.

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