Peter Houston was missing Sean Dillon through injury and replaced him at right-back with Keith Watson. He made two other changes from the 3-3 draw with St. Johnstone, replacing Barry Douglas and Stuart Armstrong with Scott Robertson and Danny Swanson. They lined up 4-3-3 with a very fluid central midfield three. Robertson moved from side-to-side across the pitch with Willo Flood and John Rankin taking turns to burst forward from midfield.
Ally McCoist was without Nikica Jelavic - the striker was injured whilst on international duty with Croatia - and Ross Perry was dropped to the bench which meant that Steven Whittaker and Juan Manuel Ortiz were restored to the starting line up, also in a 4-3-3 formation. Steven Naismith was deployed in a deeper central midfield role than usual with Maurice Edu patrolling in front of the back four. Edu actually had one of his better matches in a Rangers shirt, winning the ball well on several occasions and playing simple sideways passes.
The match took a while to settle in a very expansive first half. Rangers were more attacking than they have been in recent away matches but struggled to make the ball stick in attacking areas, while Dundee United looked threatening from set-pieces and shots from just outside the box.
Dundee United’s formation from middle to front was very fluid. The middle three have already been mentioned above and, added to this, Swanson would look to cut into the centre of the pitch as often as possible while Jonny Russell regularly moved towards the lone striker Lauri Dalla Valle to offer support. Dalla Valle himself would look to drop deep and link play.
Russell red card
Rangers were handed a man advantage when Russell stupidly aimed a headbutt towards Kirk Broadfoot. The ordering off saw Swanson moved over to the right and Rankin pushed out to the right in a 4-4-1 formation.
The consequence was that the Rangers midfield now had much more time on the ball and space to exploit as their Dundee United counterparts chose to now standoff, as opposed to pressurising, them. As well as this, Steven Naismith was pushed into a more advanced position, meaning the Rangers formation now resembled more of a 4-2-3-1.
Rangers almost capitalised when Edu scooped a delightful ball over the top for Naismith to run on to. He controlled well but failed to steer his strike on target.
Perhaps surprisingly, Dundee United finished the half the stronger of the sides, choosing to press their opponents more as the half came to a close, and should have taken the lead from another set-piece opportunity.
Peter Houston sent his side out in a 4-5-0, more precisely 4-3-2-0, at the start of the second half with the original central midfield three restored. Dalla Valle and Swanson were fielded wide but were given free rein to drift infield and across the attacking areas.
United now matched Rangers man-for-man in the centre of midfield once more and had wide men tracking back but, counterintuitively, conceded three chances in quick succession early in the second half, more than they had in the fifteen minutes they played with only two players in central midfield.
The home side had failed to create anything resembling a chance in this time and responded with another change in formation. A few minutes before Rangers took the lead, Houston moved Dalla Valle back into a striking role with Swanson just behind in a 4-3-1-1 formation. Swanson now looked to drop deep and collect the ball before launching attacks.
This left United vulnerable down the flanks, especially with the Rangers full-backs pushing on and it was no surprise that the Rangers goal came from a delivery from a wide area.
Gregg Wylde had stayed on the right side of the pitch following the breakdown of a corner and received the ball from Whittaker after he surged forward from the halfway line. The young winger cut onto his left foot and sent a wonderful inswinging cross from deep. Kyle Lafferty got in behind Watson before powering a header past the hapless Dusan Pernis.
It was the first, and only, good delivery Wylde managed in the entire match and must have persuaded his manager to at least consider deploying him on this side. On the left he has the pace to beat most full-backs he comes up against, however, at speed he seems to lack the composure to pick out a teammate in the box. Further, inswinging crosses seem to carry more of a threat when fired into the danger area.
Dundee United brought on the impressive Ryan Dow for Dalla Valle and pushed further up the pitch in an attempt to salvage something from the match. They came close late on when a low, bobbling effort from Rankin shaved the outside of the post but they left themselves exposed and, in truth, were lucky not to concede again, especially when Steven Davis saw his shot come back off both posts.
The match was pretty even until Russell inexplicably got himself ordered off. United then finished the half stronger but as soon as the second half was underway, it was pretty clear there was only going to be one winner.
Dundee United manager Peter Houston tinkered with his formation a few times after being reduced to ten men – he experimented, firstly, with a 4-4-1 before moving to a 4-3-2-0 at the start of the second half and finally with a 4-3-1-1 – but couldn’t prevent his side from conceding numerous chances.
Rangers were far more direct and attacking than they have been in their previous away matches this season, especially after going ahead. In the matches versus St. Johnstone and Inverness, the defending champions have resorted to a counter-attacking approach after taking the lead. Today, perhaps due to the fact their opponents were down to ten men, they continued to attack and were unlucky not to increase their margin of victory.