LAST night gave us our first look at two of the sides expected to challenge for the Scottish Championship crown, as Rangers edged Hibs in an intriguing tactical battle.
Rangers trialled a 3-5-2 formation built around some of their summer additions. Marshalling the three centre backs was Lee McCulloch, with Darren McGregor and Marius Zaliukas on his right and left, respectively. At 36, McCulloch is getting on in years and stationing two quicker defenders either side protects against his diminishing physical qualities. All three are comfortable in passing the ball out from the back, a character trait not often seen at Ibrox last season.
Ahead of the trio sat Nicky Law, Ian Black and Lewis McLeod, with Lee Wallace and Ricky Foster patrolling the flanks. Wallace, in particular, has all the capabilities of a great wing-back, further justifying McCoist’s tinkering with his squad.
Long from Foster
McCoist prefers his teams to play direct football. It’s what worked for him as a player, and as an assistant to Walter Smith in previous years. Critics have cited a lack of imagination as the reason behind some of the poorer performances during his tenure as manager, but there’s little chance he’s going to wildly change his approach at this juncture.
Instead, he’s brought in a player who fits that style to a tee: Kris Boyd. Previously thought of as little more than a poacher, Boyd really silenced a lot of critics with his play at Kilmarnock last year. Much of his game centred on receiving high balls from teammates before embarrassing opposing defenders with his superior strength and perception. Working so well with a underpowered supporting cast (relatively speaking) it stands to reason that he’ll be a success in his second spell at Ibrox. Against Hibs, Rangers showed their intentions to utilise his strengths early.
Hundreds of punters hadn’t even made it to their seats when Ricky Foster cut onto his left foot and played a deep cross behind the defence for an onrushing Boyd, only for the attack to be halted by the linesman’s flag. In the third minute they went close again with the same approach. This time Foster found Wallace ghosting in from the left wing, but the Scotland international couldn’t do anything with his chance.
Hibs never really got to grips with the game in the opening 15 minutes. We’ll get onto their play soon enough, but they didn’t seem confident enough to make Alan Stubbs’s passing philosophy work in the circumstances. By the time the visitors started playing they were already a goal down.
Again it began with a diagonal ball from Foster. This time his left foot found McCulloch, who had stayed up after a free-kick. When Hibs couldn’t clear the ball it fell to Wallace, and his cross evaded everyone and dropped perfectly for MacLeod to drive the ball home.
MacLeod had found the space for his shot after three Hibs defenders converged on Kenny Miller when the cross came in. Considering his age – he’ll turn 35 in December – a few eyebrows were raised when Rangers brought Miller back to Ibrox. But based on last night’s performance he should be the perfect foil for Boyd and the way Rangers want to play.
Defying his ageing legs, Miller looked like the Scotland striker of old; the player that buzzes around everywhere and always seems to be in the picture. The problem was, he was the only player in blue seemingly willing to operate outside the traditions of his starting position.
It’s actually surprising that two of the starting midfield trio, MacLeod and Law, scored Rangers’ goals on the night, because for large periods there was a real hesitancy from the group to support the front two. Whether they were instructed to keep their shape by clogging the centre, or had to stay back to assist on the wings, who knows? But it did seem that the two wing-backs had greater attacking freedom, including one attack shortly into the second half where the only four players in or around the Rangers box were Miller, Boyd, Wallace and Foster.
Defensively, Rangers had a match-up problem against Hibs’ 4-2-3-1 formation. The 3-5-2 declined worldwide as one-up-front, two winger formations grew in popularity, allowing attacking sides to overload the flanks and cause three-man defences no end of problems.
Hibs’ first two chances of the game came after Lee Wallace was hesitant in closing down Alex Harris due to full-back David Gray making a run from deep.
With no Rangers player in a position to track the overlapping runner, Wallace watched on as Harris clipped in a great ball to the back post where Farid El Alagui almost got his head on it. From the resulting corner Liam Craig had a close-range chance cleared off the line.
Three minutes later there was another example of unfamiliarity on how to defend as a wing-back. This time it was Foster who refused to track the run of Harris, with Stevenson jogging up the wing 20 yards behind. The winger presumably thought he’d leave the attack to his centre backs, but they were caught flat-footed by Craig’s pass and Harris would have been in on goal but for a tight offside call.
This was the first look at Hibs under new manager Alan Stubbs. The former Celtic player and Everton youth coach has promised to bring back passing football to Easter Road, with a number of first-team players saying as much in the time since he’s taken charge.
Last night Stubbs used an attacking midfield trio of Alex Harris, Sam Stanton and Danny Handling in behind lone striker Farid El Alagui. Scott Robertson and Liam Craig sat further back, attempting to dictate the play, while David Gray and Lewis Stevenson offered support from the full-back positions. Unlike their counterparts, there was a lot of freedom for these players to switch positions, hunt for space, and execute their pass-and-move style.
Handling and Craig were two players who continually managed to find time on the ball playing on either side of the Rangers midfield trio. Craig, in particular, was excellent on the night, performing as the deep-lying playmaker, a role he’d looked so out of sorts every time he featured there under Terry Butcher.
Further forward, Harris and Stanton weren’t so much ‘wingers’ as attacking midfielder with license to drift. That represented a major switch for Harris, who spent the second half of last season hugging the touchline and hiding from the play. Like Craig, he displayed a very proactive performance compared with the player who was so dismal three months ago.
As mentioned earlier, Hibs were looking to create two-on-ones against the Rangers wing-backs. Such was their dedication to the approach that even Robertson and El Alagui attacked the space in behind Wallace in the first half’s final few minutes.
After the interval Rangers received another warning of the threat and still refused to take notice. Hibs loaded up their attack on the right, dragging the opposing centre backs over and allowing space for Handling to get away a shot that just edged past the far post.
The equaliser arrived nine minutes later. Once more the threat came from the outside with Gray attacking from right back. His cross was not dealt with properly as Black and Zaliukas conspired to deflect it into the path of Handling who prodded home.
The game could have ended very differently had El Alagui had managed to put away one of the two gilt-edged opportunities that came his way in the minutes following Handling’s leveller. Under little pressure, Craig was able to scoop a pass over the Rangers back-line for El Alagui drifting in behind. The miscommunication of the three centre backs was another recurring problem for the home team, and on this occasion Zaliukas stayed while the rest stepped out, leaving El Alagui on his own.
The striker either didn’t know he had more time, or panicked because he had too much. Either way, he blazed his shot high over the bar. Seven minutes later he headed over from inside six yards.
By this stage Rangers had moved from three-at-the-back into a 4-4-2, with David Templeton’s replacing of Foster prompting a tactical reshuffle. The system still lacked anyone playing in the ‘holes’ between defence and midfield or midfield and attack, but they were about to receive a huge lift that set them the road to victory.
The Handling red card
Regardless of your opinion of Handling’s red card, there’s no denying that it brought the crowd back into the match, encouraged Rangers to play with more urgency, and dented Hibs’ confidence to the extent that they never recovered. Even with ten men they could have asked questions of their hosts. Instead they went into their shells.
Scott Allan was introduced for El Alagui six minutes into extra-time, though Hibs were in almost permanent defensive mode by that stage. It may not have been a deliberate ploy, but without two members of their spritely attack due to substitutions and tactical changes, they didn’t carry the same movement or threat, while Rangers were finally beginning to move up the gears.
In the 94th minute, Templeton took possession ten yards into the opposing half, held up the ball allowing Black and Wallace to head forward, and switched the play to Law who set up McLeod for a low cross narrowly missed by two Rangers players. It was arguably the best move of the night and featured the kind of football intuition that was largely missing from McCoist’s team.
The winning goal was another example of such dynamism bearing fruit, with Law going beyond the strikers and Templeton dropping back in the build up. There was a stroke of fortune with Scott Robertson’s injury preventing him from clearing properly, allowing Law to curl the ball into the far corner.
Hibs can deservedly think of themselves as unfortunate. Prior to the sending off they were undoubtedly the stronger side in the second half. They seemed to lose all belief with the red card and this could be evidence of an emotional hangover from the traumas of last season. However, Alan Stubbs’s promise of a passing approach does appear to be bearing fruit and, without even completing their summer transfer work, they already have a terrifically strong Championship side.
Rangers, despite emerging victorious, could learn a thing or two from their Championship rivals. Once they started to do some of the things that Hibs had done so well earlier in the match, they began to look like a side who could comfortably win the Championship. The concern is that it took the red card to prompt such a surge. They’ll need to show the same urgency from the beginning of this campaign, otherwise they’ll have a real fight on their hands.