Derek McInnes lost the tactical battle again
The weekend before last, Aberdeen lost at home to Motherwell after the visitors threw a curveball with their formation. Stephen Robinson went to a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, which seemed to bamboozle their hosts. Motherwell were easily the best team in the first half, where they took a 1-0 lead. They then changed their system for the second and scored again. McInnes would rearrange his players four times before the conclusion of the game, but couldn’t get the right mix to bring them back into it.
On Wednesday night, perhaps inspired by that Motherwell selection, Rangers opted for the same starting system. Having told Sky Sports before the game that he planned to use his typical 4-2-3-1 with Anthony O’Connor at the base, it’s possible McInnes got spooked by the surprise and altered his own team. Or maybe he planned to go 3-5-1-1 all along and was just bluffing. Regardless, it didn’t work.
Aberdeen were torched down the wings by Rangers in the build-up to both goals. Though both teams, technically, only had one player each stationed on the flanks, the movement from the hosts allowed them to overload and there always seemed to be someone breaking into space behind the wing-back. This led to goals both one and two. It was only after the second that McInnes decided to change and they began to look like a side who could at least compete with their opponents.
The narrow diamond might be the answer for Rangers
This season Rangers have typically used a flat 4-4-2 formation with two wingers. It gives them the use of four attacking players in the team, but has many flaws. It can leave them overrun in the middle, lacking defensive protection, and a little obvious in their approach as they always look to cross from the wide areas. Altering it slightly into a diamond could be a long-term solution to many of those problems.
Ross McCrorie at defensive midfield gave an extra layer of cover, allowing the full-backs to push up higher without being a hindrance to the defence. Ryan Jack and Jason Holt, meanwhile, are well suited to the system, as they’re dynamic workers and dependable passers, able to move seamlessly inside and out. Then there was the unpredictable play of the front two. Kenny Miller and Josh Windass would often split out and attack space on the wings, of which there was plenty while Aberdeen had the 3-5-2 in operation, leaving Carlos Pena at the tip of the diamond to make those late-breaking runs in the centre.
Rangers wanted it more
Tactics can only take you so far. The players have to do the rest and the home favourites, especially those in the midfield, worked, fought and hustled more for every loose ball than their visitors. It was a reaction nobody really saw coming after Friday’s defeat to Dundee amid the ongoing search for a new manager to replace Pedro Caixinha. Whatever Graeme Murty said to his players in the time between - and presumably not saying it like he was about to burst into tears - it certainly worked.
Fitness may still be an issue with Pena
The re-introduction of the Mexican was a gamble that paid off. Not only did he score, he actually contributed to the overall attack outside of the penalty area in a solid first half showing. Ok, so the system relied on him to do very little other than float in the hole, take a touch, find a team-mate with a pass and get into the penalty box. However, there’s no doubting he did it well, and almost notched an assist to go with his goal after sliding James Tavernier through.
However, after the break he reverted to type. He was caught in possession, loose with his passing, and eventually Murty had enough, hooking him for Daniel Candeias - which helped with the second goal as Rangers went to a 4-2-3-1 and got a two-on-one against Andy Considine on Aberdeen’s left, again.
Did Pena run out of steam? Is he still acclimatising? Is this just the way he’ll always be? The enigma rolls on.
Aberdeen didn’t get a rub of the game - but it’s almost incidental
Rangers deserved their penalty and Ryan Christie should have no complaints about his red card. However, twice in the first half the midfielder was impeded while on the counter-attack, with only one resulting in a foul and no yellow card. Then there was Gary Mackay-Steven’s penalty claim. James Tavernier may have been trying to get out of the way, but he’d already had a pull of his opponent’s shirt, and was clumsy in his approach as he accidentally clipped the winger. It’s a debatable call, but if Aberdeen get that one then it could have been a different game. At 2-1 the Ibrox crowd gets that little bit more edgy and these players, with fragile confidence as it is, may have stop performing.
Then again, even the Dons fans don’t seem to be dwelling on it. In a season full of them, it was another underwhelming performance from McInnes’ men. For all the talent they have in their squad, Aberdeen are yet to hit peak form, or anywhere near close to it. The fact that they’re still in second place should act as a warning to anyone with a hope of catching them. Because if it does click, they’ll undoubtedly grab the runners-up spot at the season’s end. They could even put in a challenge to Celtic... ha, just kidding.