Saturday, 27 December 2014

Rangers' Problems Amplified After McCoist Departure

With the events of the last week, within which Ally McCoist was placed on gardening leave, it is Kenny McDowall who is now tasked with guiding this Rangers side through the remainder of a turbulent season.

If the Rangers supporters thought that an uninspiring appointment, albeit temporary, they would be just as underwhelmed when they saw the caretaker boss’s first team selection. McDowall was given the opportunity to put his own stamp on the current side. He could have changed the shape and introduced some players that found appearances difficult to come by under McCoist. Instead he picked exactly the same personnel in exactly the same archaic formation as has become the norm at Rangers this season.

Nicky Clark partnered Kenny Miller in the attack of a 4-4-2, which saw the centre of their midfield drowned by the 4-3-1-2 of Hibernian. With Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings taking turns to drop deep, this meant even more of a mismatch in the centre of midfield and the problem was highlighted early in the match when both Nicky Law and Ian Black were caught out up the pitch as Hibs countered.

The shape of the Hibernian midfield and the advanced nature of their full-backs meant that they contained sufficient width when attacking – evidenced by the performances of David Gray and Lewis Stevenson – and enough cover when defending.

Much of the positivity on the progression of Stubbs’s side has been focused on the performances of Scott Allan and today was no different. Due to Hibs' numerical advantage, he was free to dictate play for most of the match and was involved in all four goals. For the opener, Allan burst forward off the ball and dragged Stevie Smith into the centre to pick him up. This created space for David Gray to collect the ball and fire Hibs ahead after 8 minutes.

For the second goal, Smith was in position when Allan collected the ball but failed to get close enough to stop the cross. Allan’s ball found Craig, who volleyed back for Cummings to tap into an open goal. Allan then capped off a majestic performance with two clever assists in the second half to give Hibernian a 4-0 victory.

It should not be surprising to see Hibs dominate this match as Alan Stubbs has won the tactical battle in many of the big matches this season. He was dominating McCoist – changing his formation at the correct time – before Danny Handling was sent off  in the Petrofac Training Cup at the start of the season and, much like this match, he blitzed Rangers in the first half of the previous league meeting between the sides.

Furthermore, he more than matched Hearts for large parts of the opening Edinburgh Derby of the season and, but for an injury-time wonder strike, was seconds away from victory in the second at Easter Road.

Rangers, by contrast, have been found wanting in most of the big matches in the Championship this season. Even in the matches they have edged the initial tactical battle – the recent performance at Tynecastle, for instance – they have still gone on to lose the match. In four Championship matches versus Hearts and Hibs this season, Rangers have lost all four.

And there is nothing in the pre- or post-match interviews of McDowall, nor from the performance of the team, to suggest that he is the man to inject some modernity into the Rangers tactics. It is rather telling by his comments after the match, in which he revealed that he is being “told to carry on”, that he is either unwilling or unable to take charge of this Rangers side.

McCoist liked his team to knock the ball into the channels and work it down the wings, always looking for the overlap from the full-backs and that is exactly what we got from McDowall in this match. If further confirmation was needed that working the ball wide and crossing the ball as often as possible hasn't worked, you only have to look at the full-time statistics: Rangers had 7 attempts with 1 on target - Hibernian had the same amount of efforts but hit the target 5 times - and had 8 corners to Hibernian’s 0.

One of the reasons most of the Rangers play was focused down the wings was to avoid the congested central areas in which they were outnumbered. It appeared that McDowall had identified this when Kyle Hutton was stripped and ready to come on after 34 minutes. Unfortunately for Rangers, he hadn't and Hutton was nothing more than a like-for-like replacement for Ian Black before the former Hearts man collected a second yellow card. The change may have improved the Rangers performance for a short period, but the same issues remained.

Even the half-time substitution made little sense. Kris Boyd was introduced for Fraser Aird but instead of changing the shape of the side, Clark was moved to the right of midfield in the same formation that Rangers have played for about 37 years now.

It is perplexing that a qualified football coach, despite his lack of experience as a football manager, failed to notice or rectify the major tactical issue his side faced in the match. Rangers had two strikers on the pitch for the whole of the match, yet their manager failed to notice that having two strikers is useless if you cannot win the ball when out of possession or else supply them when in possession.

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